Sholem Aleichem

This article is about the writer. For the greeting, see Shalom aleichem. For the Jewish hymn, see Shalom Aleichem (liturgy). For the crater on Mercury, see Sholem Aleichem (crater).
Sholem Aleichem
Born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich
March 2 [O.S. February 18] 1859
Pereyaslav, Russian Empire (now Ukraine)
Died May 13, 1916(1916-05-13) (aged 57)
New York City, United States
Pen name Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish: שלום־עליכם)
Occupation Writer
Genre Novels, short stories, plays
Literary movement Yiddish revival
Sholem Aleichem statue in Netanya, Israel, sculpted by Lev Segal

Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, better known under his pen name Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish and Hebrew: שלום־עליכם, spelled שאלעם אלייכעם during the Soviet era; Russian and Ukrainian: Шоло́м-Але́йхем) (March 2 [O.S. February 18] 1859 – May 13, 1916), was a leading Yiddish author and playwright. The musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on his stories about Tevye the Dairyman, was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The Hebrew phrase Shalom aleichem literally means "Peace be upon you", and is a greeting in traditional Hebrew and Yiddish.


Solomon Naumovich (Sholom Nohumovich) Rabinovich (Russian: Соломо́н Нау́мович (Шо́лом Но́хумович) Рабино́вич) was born in 1859 in Pereyaslav and grew up in the nearby shtetl (small town with a large Jewish population) of Voronko, in the Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire (now in the Kiev Oblast of central Ukraine).[1] His father, Menachem-Nukhem Rabinovich, was a rich merchant at that time.[2] However, a failed business affair plunged the family into poverty and Solomon Rabinovich grew up in reduced circumstances.[2] When he was 13 years old, the family moved back to Pereyaslav, where his mother, Chaye-Esther, died in a cholera epidemic.[3]

Sholem Aleichem's first venture into writing was an alphabetic glossary of the epithets used by his stepmother. At the age of fifteen, inspired by Robinson Crusoe, he composed a Jewish version of the novel. He adopted the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem, a Yiddish variant of the Hebrew expression shalom aleichem, meaning "peace be with you" and typically used as a greeting. In 1876, after graduating from school in Pereyaslav, he spent three years tutoring a wealthy landowner's daughter, Olga (Hodel) Loev (1865 1942).[4] From 1880 to 1883 he served as crown rabbi in Lubny.[5] On May 12, 1883, he and Olga married, against the wishes of her father. A few years later, they inherited the estate of Olga's father. In 1890, Sholem Aleichem lost their entire fortune in a stock speculation and fled from his creditors. Solomon and Olga had their first child, a daughter named Ernestina (Tissa), in 1884.[6] Daughter Lyalya (Lili) was born in 1887. As Lyalya Kaufman, she became a Hebrew writer. (Lyalya's daughter Bel Kaufman, also a writer, was the author of Up the Down Staircase, which was also made into a successful film.) A third daughter, Emma, was born in 1888. In 1889, Olga finally gave birth to a son. They named him Elimelech, after Olga’s father, but at home they called him Misha. Daughter Marusi (who would one day publish "My Father, Sholom Aleichem" under her married name Marie Waife-Goldberg) was born in 1892. A final child, a son named Nochum (Numa) after Solomon’s father was born in 1901 (under the name Norman Raeben he became a painter and an influential art teacher).

After witnessing the pogroms that swept through southern Russia in 1905, Sholem Aleichem left Kiev and resettled to New York City, where he arrived in 1906. His family set up house in Geneva, Switzerland, but when he saw he could not afford to maintain two households, he joined them in Geneva in 1908. Despite his great popularity, he was forced to take up an exhausting schedule of lecturing to make ends meet. In July 1908, during a reading tour in Russia, Sholem Aleichem collapsed on a train going through Baranowicze. He was diagnosed with a relapse of acute hemorrhagic tuberculosis and spent two months convalescing in the town's hospital. He later described the incident as "meeting his majesty, the Angel of Death, face to face", and claimed it as the catalyst for writing his autobiography, Funem yarid [From the Fair].[1] He thus missed the first Conference for the Yiddish Language, held in 1908 in Czernovitz; his colleague and fellow Yiddish activist Nathan Birnbaum went in his place.[7] Sholem Aleichem spent the next four years living as a semi-invalid. During this period the family was largely supported by donations from friends and admirers.

Sholem Aleichem moved to New York City again with his family in 1914. The family lived in the Lower East Side, Manhattan. His son, Misha, ill with tuberculosis, was not permitted entry under United States immigration laws and remained in Switzerland with his sister Emma.

Sholem Aleichem died in New York in 1916.

Literary career

A volume of Sholem Aleichem stories in Yiddish, with the author's portrait and signature

Like his contemporaries Mendele Mocher Sforim and I.L. Peretz, Sholem Rabinovitch started writing in Hebrew, as well as in Russian. In 1883, when he was 24 years old, he published his first Yiddish story, Tsvey Shteyner ("Two Stones"), using for the first time the pseudonym Sholem Aleichem. By 1890 he was a central figure in Yiddish literature, the vernacular language of nearly all East European Jews, and produced over forty volumes in Yiddish. It was often derogatorily called "jargon", but Sholem Aleichem used this term in an entirely non-pejorative sense.

Apart from his own literary output, Sholem Aleichem used his personal fortune to encourage other Yiddish writers. In 1888–89, he put out two issues of an almanac, Di Yidishe Folksbibliotek ("The Yiddish Popular Library") which gave important exposure to young Yiddish writers. In 1890, after he lost his entire fortune, he could not afford to print the almanac's third issue, which had been edited but was subsequently never printed. Tevye the Dairyman was first published in 1894. Over the next few years, while continuing to write in Yiddish, he also wrote in Russian for an Odessa newspaper and for Voskhod, the leading Russian Jewish publication of the time, as well as in Hebrew for Ha-melitz, and for an anthology edited by YH Ravnitzky. It was during this period that Sholem Aleichem contracted tuberculosis.

In August 1904, Sholem Aleichem edited Hilf: a Zaml-Bukh fir Literatur un Kunst ("Help: An Anthology for Literature and Art"; Warsaw, 1904) and himself translated three stories submitted by Tolstoy (Esarhaddon, King of Assyria; Work, Death and Sickness; Three Questions) as well as contributions by other prominent Russian writers, including Chekhov, in aid of the victims of the Kishinev pogrom.

Critical reception

Sholem Aleichem's narratives were notable for the naturalness of his characters' speech and the accuracy of his descriptions of shtetl life. Early critics focused on the cheerfulness of the characters, interpreted as a way of coping with adversity. Later critics saw a tragic side in his writing.[8] He was often referred to as the "Jewish Mark Twain" because of the two authors' similar writing styles and use of pen names. Both authors wrote for both adults and children, and lectured extensively in Europe and the United States. When Twain heard of the writer called "the Jewish Mark Twain", he replied "please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem."[9]

Beliefs and activism

Sholem Aleichem was an impassioned advocate of Yiddish as a national Jewish language, which he felt should be accorded the same status and respect as other modern European languages. He did not stop with what came to be called "Yiddishism", but devoted himself to the cause of Zionism as well. Many of his writings[10] present the Zionist case. In 1888, he became a member of Hovevei Zion. In 1907, he served as an American delegate to the Eighth Zionist Congress held in The Hague.

Sholem Aleichem had a mortal fear of the number 13. His manuscripts never had a page 13; he numbered the thirteenth pages of his manuscripts as 12a.[11] Though it has been written that even his headstone carries the date of his death as "May 12a, 1916",[12] his headstone reads the dates of his birth and death in Hebrew, the 26th of Adar and the 10th of Iyar, respectively.


Sholem Aleichem's funeral on May 15, 1916

Sholem Aleichem died in New York on May 13, 1916 from tuberculosis and diabetes,[13] aged 57, while working on his last novel, Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son, and was buried at Old Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens.[14] At the time, his funeral was one of the largest in New York City history, with an estimated 100,000 mourners.[15][16] The next day, his will was printed in the New York Times and was read into the Congressional Record of the United States.

Commemoration and legacy

A 1959 Soviet Union postage stamp commemorating the centennial of Sholem Aleichem's birth

Sholem Aleichem's will contained detailed instructions to family and friends with regard to burial arrangements and marking his yahrtzeit. He told his friends and family to gather, "read my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you." "Let my name be recalled with laughter," he added, "or not at all." The celebrations continue to the present-day, and, in recent years, have been held at the Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park South in New York City, where they are open to the public.[17]

In 1997, a monument dedicated to Sholem Aleichem was erected in Kiev; another was erected in 2001 in Moscow.

The main street of Birobidzhan is named after Sholem Aleichem;[18] streets were named after him also in other cities in the Soviet Union, among them Kiev, Odessa, Vinnytsia, Lviv, Zhytomyr and Mykolaiv (although this last one is now named after Karl Liebknecht[19]). In New York City in 1996, East 33rd Street between Park and Madison Avenue was renamed "Sholem Aleichem Place". Many streets in Israel are named after him.

Postage stamps of Sholem Aleichem were issued by Israel (Scott #154, 1959); the Soviet Union (Scott #2164, 1959); Romania (Scott #1268, 1959); and Ukraine (Scott #758, 2009).

An impact crater on the planet Mercury also bears his name.[20]

On March 2, 2009 (150 years after his birth) the National Bank of Ukraine issued an anniversary coin celebrating Aleichem with his face depicted on it.[21]

Vilnius, Lithuania has a Jewish school named after him, in Melbourne, Australia a Yiddish school is named in his name.[22] Several Jewish schools in Argentina were also named after him.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil a library named BIBSA - Biblioteca Sholem Aleichem was founded in 1915 as a Zionist institution but some years later Jews of left-wing assumed the power by regular internal polls, and Sholem Aleichem started to mean Communism in Rio de Janeiro. BIBSA had a very active theatrical program in Yiddish for more than 50 years since its foundation and of course Sholem Aleichem scripts were a must. In 1947 BIBSA evolved in a more complete club named ASA - Associação Sholem Aleichem that exists nowadays in Botafogo neighborhood. Next year, in 1916 same group that created BIBSA, founded a Jewish school named Escola Sholem Aleichem that was closed in 1997. It was Zionist too, and became Communist like BIBSA, but after the 20th Communist Congress in 1956 school supporters and teachers split as a lot of Jews abandoned Communism and founded another school, Colégio Eliezer Steinbarg, still existing as one of the best Jewish schools in Brazil, named after the first director of Sholem Aleichem School, he himself, a Jewish writer born in Romania, that came to Brazil.[23][24]

In the Bronx, New York, a housing complex called The Shalom Aleichem Houses[25] was built by Yiddish speaking immigrants in the 1920s, and was recently restored by new owners to its original grandeur. The Shalom Alecheim Houses are part of a proposed historic district in the area.

On May 13, 2016 an official Sholem Aleichem website [26] was launched to mark the 100th anniversary of Sholem Aleichem's death.[27] The website is a partnership between Sholem Aleichem's family,[28] his biographer Professor Jeremy Dauber,[29] Citizen Film, Columbia University's Center for Israel and Jewish Studies,[30] The Covenant Foundation,[31] and The Yiddish Book Center. The website features interactive maps and timelines,[32] recommended readings,[33] as well as a list of centennial celebration events taking place worldwide.[34] The website also features resources for educators.[35][36][37]

Published works

Portrait bust of Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) sculpted by Mitchell Fields

English-language collections



Young adult literature




  1. 1 2 Potok, Chaim (July 14, 1985). "The Human Comedy Of Pereyaslav". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-16. Approaching his 50th birthday, the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem (born Sholom Rabinowitz in the Ukraine in 1859) collapsed in Russia while on a reading tour. He was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. As he put it later, 'I had the privilege of meeting his majesty, the Angel of Death, face to face.'
  2. 1 2 "Aleichem", Jewish virtual library (biography).
  3. Aleichem, Sholem (1985), "34. Cholera", From the Fair, Viking Penguin, pp. 100–4.
  4. Dates on base of Rabinowitz's gravestone.
  5. Kaplan Appel, Tamar (3 August 2010). "Crown Rabbi". The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300119039. OCLC 170203576. Archived from the original on 2015-03-27. Retrieved 2015-05-31.
  6. Huttner, Jan Lisa (September 18, 2014). Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter. New York City, NY: FF2 Media. ASIN B00NQDQCTG. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  7. First Yiddish Language Conference. Two roads to Yiddishism (Nathan Birnbaum and Sholem Aleichem) by Louis Fridhandler
  8. Critical reception: Sholom Aleichem
  9. Levy, Richard S. Antisemitism: a historical encyclopedia of prejudice and persecution, Volume 2. ABC-CLIO 2005 sv Twain; cites Kahn 1985 p 24
  10. Oyf vos badarfn Yidn a land, (Why Do the Jews Need a Land of Their Own?), translated by Joseph Leftwich and Mordecai S. Chertoff, Cornwall Books, 1984, ISBN 0-8453-4774-8
  11. "A Reading to Recall the Father of Tevye", Clyde Haberman, New York Times, May 17, 2010
  12. Hendrickson, Robert (1990). World Literary Anecdotes. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 7. ISBN 0-8160-2248-8.
  13. Donaldson, Norman and Betty (1980). How Did They Die?. Greenwich House. ISBN 0-517-40302-1.
  14. Mount Carmel cemetery
  15. "Vast Crowds Honor Sholem Aleichem; Funeral Cortege Of Yiddish Author Greeted By Throngs In Three Boroughs. Many Deliver Eulogies Services At Educational Alliance Include Reading Of Writer's Will And His Epitaph.". New York Times. May 16, 1916. Retrieved 2008-04-20. A hundred thousand people of the East Side, with sadness in their faces, lined the sidewalks yesterday when the funeral procession of Sholem Aleichem ("peace be with you"), the famous Yiddish humorist, whose real name was Solomon Rabinowitz, passed down Second Avenue and through East Houston. Eldridge, and Canal Streets, to the Educational Alliance, where services were held before the body was carried over the Williamsburg Bridge to ...
  16. "2,500 Jews Mourn Sholem Aleichem; "Plain People" Honor Memory Of "Jewish Mark Twain" In Carnegie Hall. Some Of His Stories Read Audience Laughs Through Tears, Just As The Author Had Said He Hoped Friends Would Do.". New York Times. May 18, 1916. Retrieved 2008-04-20. More than 2,500 Jews paid honor to the memory of Sholem Aleichem, the "Mark Twain, who depicted in a style almost epic" the spirit of his race, at a "mourning evening" in Carnegie Hall last night.
  17. Haberman, Clyde. A Reading to Recall the Father of Tevye. The New York Times. May 17, 2010.
  18. Back to Birobidjan. By Rebecca Raskin. Jerusalem Post
  20. MESSENGER: MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging
  21. Events by themes: To 150th years from the birthday of Sholom-Aleichem NBU issued an anniversary coin, UNIAN photo service (March 2, 2009)

Further reading

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