Biography of Sholem Aleichem

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Peace Be With You

Sholem Aleichem was the pen name of Solomon Rabinovich in Hebrew translation (1859-1916). Rabinovich was a most successful writer in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. The musical Fiddler on the Roof was based on his stories.

Rabinovich was not the only writer who used a so-called pen name to cover his true identity. Women writers before the 20th century had no choice but to use men’s names in order to get published. Jane Austen called herself “A Lady,” thereby concealing her name entirely, and the Brontë sisters called themselves Bell. Mary Evans, a most successful British writer, called herself George Elliott, and the most prominent French novelist of the 19th century, the so-called George Sand, was in fact Aurore Dudevant, the live-in woman friend of the composer Chopin.

Rabinovich was born in the Ukraine. When he was only 13 years old his mother died. He started his writing career when he was 15 years old, writing a novel which was a Jewish version of Robinson Crusoe. In 1876, he graduated from school and became the tutor of Olga Loew, whom he married in 1882. They had six children. One of his grandchildren was the author of Up the Down Staircase. Her name was Belle Kaufman.

In 1905, Rabinovich settled in New York City. He wrote mostly in Yiddish which has foolishly been called a “jargon” because it is based on German. One might likewise call English a jargon because half of its words come from the Latin (jargon is a French word meaning “idle chatter”).

At age 24, Rabinovich published his first Yiddish story, called Two Stones. By 1890 he was a leading author of literature, having produced over 40 volumes in Yiddish. He made a good deal of money and encouraged other Yiddish writers by founding The Yiddish Popular Library, giving exposure to young Yiddish writers. He lost all his money in 1890 and thereafter began to write in Russian as well as in Hebrew.

Seeking to help the Jews who  had been victimized by the so-called “Kishenev Pogrom,” Rabinovich edited a book called An Anthology For Literature and Art.

Rabinovich was a promoter of the Yiddish language. An ardent Zionist, he wanted Yiddish to become a language of Israel. He served as American delegate to the eighth Zionist Congress.

Sholem Aleichem died of tuberculosis on May 13, 1916. 100,000 mourners attended his funeral. The next day the Congressional Record of the United States recorded his name. In 1997 a monument to him was dedicated in Kiev and another one was erected in Moscow in 2001. Streets were named after him in Odessa and four other Russian cities. And in New York City, E. 33rd St. is called Sholem Aleichem Place. In Israel there are numerous monuments and streets erected in his honor. In Israel, Russia, Romania, and the Ukraine, postage stamps were issued showing his face. A number of Jewish schools all over the world are named after him, and in 2016 an official Sholem Aleichem website marked the 100th anniversary of his death.

Because the Yiddish language has few followers in America. his work has been translated into English. Included is The Best of Sholem Aleichem and a very large collection of numerous novels, stories, essays, and an autobiography. Sholem Aleichem also wrote a number of plays, including Tevye the Milkman, which is the basis for Fiddler on the Roof.

There have been other Jewish writers and scholars who have used pen names or have become known by their books while their names fell into disuse. One of these was Israel Kagan, who was generally known as The Chofetz Chaim, which is the title of his book Desiring Life.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Assault on Democracy (2017).

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