Books & Writers

Sholem Aleichem is perhaps best known as one of the founders of modern Yiddish literature. What is less well know are the deep connections between Sholem Aleichem and other world literatures. Many are surprised to discover that Sholem’s letters to his family were written in Russian or that much of his education was firmly Russian. That is not to say Sholem Aleichem was assimilated or Russified; he never ignored the gulf of understanding and experience between him and Russian writers, who “knew Jews, I’m afraid to say, the way I know Martians.”

Nevertheless, Sholem Aleichem was steeped in Russian literature. His work was often compared to Nikolia Gogol, whose portrait hung in Sholem Aleichem’s study.  He corresponded with Chekov, Tolstoy and Turganev, all of whom contributed to Help: An Anthology for Literature and Art, an anthology Sholem edited and published to support the victims of the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom.

It was Leo Tolstoy’s contribution to the anthology that most touched Sholem. Tolstoy wrote to Sholem Aleichem that  “the terrible abomination which has occurred in Kishinev has sickened and shocked me… I will be very happy to contribute to your anthology and will strive to write something fitting to the circumstances.” He came through with three original stories, a publishing bonanza. Sholem Aleichem’s gratitude to Tolstoy would be everlasting; after the Russian author’s death, he wrote that unlike so many of his compatriots, Tolstoy had spoken out against the persecution of the Jews: “ the greatest injustice, the terrifying cruelty, that has been committed in his country.”