Sholem Aleichem’s stories remain popular in our digital era. We’ve put together a playlist of YouTube videos—with over 91 million views to date—that reinterpret his work.
Featuring Stephen Colbert, Gwen Stefani and Lin-Manuel Miranda, amateur rappers, ukelele players and puppeteers, and stars of the stage from Broadway to Japan, these videos illustrate the universality of Sholem Aleichem’s themes, and their enduring relevance.
Explore the videos, curated by Sebastian Schulman of KlezKanada, below.
In 1901, the classic Yiddish writer Y.L. Perets wrote the now famous short story A gigl fun a nign (“The Migrations of a Melody”). The story traces the life of a Jewish tune as it is sung and played in all strata of society from the study hall to the street, taking on new meanings and layers in each iteration but remaining, at its core, the same simple string of notes. The works of Sholem Aleichem—and especially their American musical reimagining in Fiddler on the Roof—have been treated much the same way. In the almost 150 years since his writings were first published, Sholem Aleichem and his works have become boundlessly popular across the globe, infused with new qualities in every reinterpretation.
In the second half of the 20th century, the popularity of Sholem Aleichem’s works was most apparent in the countless theatre and film adaptions of the writer’s work from all over the world. Today, Sholem Aleichem remains just as ubiquitous and beloved thanks to the internet and other digital technologies. One need look no further than the video sharing site YouTube to find hundreds—if not thousands—of clips that testify to the ability of Sholem Aleichem’s life and work to inspire new audiences. As the playlist shows, the Yiddish writer and his oeuvre often act as a blank screen, a canvas onto which amateur performers, professional artists, and entire cultures can project their hopes, desires and concerns about themselves and the world writ large.
The clips collected here can be organized into two broad categories: videos made in the United States and those made abroad.
Drawing mostly from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the US-made clips range from professionally produced skits and music videos (with popular icons including Stephen Colbert, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Gwen Stefani) to lovingly crafted amateur spoofs, puppet shows, and local productions sourced from Sholem Aleichem enthusiasts. Whether serious drama, playful satire, or something in between, these YouTube clips show the durability of the writer’s works as a window into the immigrant story in America, the struggle of its working class, the place of the Jews in American life, and the collision between tradition and modernity.
The clips produced in other lands and languages reflect the universality of Sholem Aleichem’s themes, including the conflict of generations and the rise of romantic love. At the same time, since Sholem Aleichem post-Fiddler is so often understood as a product of American culture, foreign-made clips provide insight into how different societies view and perform Americanness. Just as Sholem Aleichem uses the figure of Teyve to show how the Jews of Eastern Europe feared and grappled with the changes brought before them from the outside world, so too do these videos shed light on the anxiety, ambivalence, and excitement that American culture brings as it has spread into foreign lands from Italy to Japan.
Of particular note are the Yiddish language clips, which, in their representation of the language’s most renowned writer and his works, wrestle with layers of nostalgia, authenticity, and representation. Media from Russia and East Europe, where Sholem Aleichem is very much a local figure, often explore the fate of the region’s Jews through the turmoil of the twentieth century, as well as issues of assimilation, religion, and violence.
– Curator Sebastian Schulman, KlezKanada