Shalom Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovich) - biography
Sholem Aleichem (Yiddish: שלום־עליכם, Russian and Ukrainian: Шолом Алейхем) (March 2, 1859 - May 13, 1916) was the pen name of Salomon Naumovich Rabinovich, a leading Yiddish author and playwright. The musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on his stories about Tevye the Milkman, was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Salomon Naumovich Rabinovich (Salomon Nochem Vevik) was born in 1859 into a Hasidic family in the shtetl of Voronko, Kiev Governorate, Imperial Russia. His father, Menachem-Nukhem Rabinovich, was a rich merchant at that time. However, a failed business affair plunged the family into poverty and Sholem Aleichem subsequently grew up in reduced circumstances. When he was 13-years old, the family moved to Pereiaslav, where his mother, Chaye-Esther, died in a cholera epidemic. His 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 (lit. "peace be with you" or "hello"). In 1876, after graduating from school in Pereyaslav, he spent three years tutoring a wealthy landowner's daughter, Olga (Golde) Loev. On May 12, 1883, they married, against the wishes of her father. They had six children. Their son, Norman Raeben, became a painter and their daughter Lyalya (Lili) Kaufman, became a Yiddish writer. Lyalya's daughter Bel Kaufman, also a writer, was the author of Up the Down Staircase, which was made into a successful film.
At first, Sholem Aleichem wrote in Russian and Hebrew. From 1883 on, he produced over forty volumes in Yiddish, thereby becoming a central figure in Yiddish literature by 1890. Most writing for Russian Jews at the time was in Hebrew, the liturgical language used largely by learned Jews. Yiddish, however, was the vernacular language of nearly all literate East European Jews. It was often derogatorily called "jargon", but Sholem Aleichem used this term in an entirely non-pejorative sense.
Besides his prodigious output of Yiddish literature, Sholem Aleichem also used his personal fortune to encourage other Yiddish writers. In 1888-1889, he put out two issues of an almanac, Di Yidishe Folksbibliotek ("The Yiddish Popular Library") which gave important exposure to many young Yiddish writers. In 1890, Sholem Aleichem lost his entire fortune in a stock speculation, and could not afford to print the almanac's third issue, which had been edited but was subsequently never printed. 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 Y.H. Ravnitzky. It was during this period that Sholem Aleichem first contracted tuberculosis.
After 1891, Sholem Aleichem lived in Odessa, and later Kiev. 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. In 1905, he left Russia with some reluctance, forced by waves of pogroms that swept through southern Russia. He resettled in New York City but failed to establish himself in the Yiddish theatre there. His family, meanwhile, set up house in Geneva, Switzerland. Sholem Aleichem soon discovered that his income was far too limited to sustain two households, and he left for Geneva. Despite his great popularity, many of his works had not generated much revenue, and he was forced to take up an exhausting schedule of lecturing in order to make money to support his family.
In July, 1908, while on 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]. During Sholem Aleichem's recovery, he 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. Sholem Aleichem spent the next four years living as a semi-invalid; only eventually becoming healthy enough to return to a regular writing schedule. During this period the family was largely supported by donations from friends and admirers.
In 1914, most of Sholem Aleichem's family emigrated to the United States, where they made their home in the Lower East Side, Manhattan. Sholem Aleichem's son Misha was ill with tuberculosis at the time and therefore inadmissible under United States immigration laws. Misha remained in Switzerland with his sister Emma, and died in 1915, an event which put Sholem Aleichem into a profound depression.
Sholem Aleichem died in New York in 1916, aged 57, while still working on his last novel, Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son, and was laid to rest at Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens. At the time, his funeral was one of the largest in New York City history, with an estimated 100,000 mourners. The next day, his will was printed in the New York Times and was read into the Congressional Record of the United States.