Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Jewish Hall of Fame: Sholem Aleichem

This week’s inductee into the Hall of Fame is the acclaimed author whose beloved character ‘Tevye the Dairyman’ would become the foundation for the most popular Jewish musical ever created

By: Zak Edwards

Published: January 22nd, 2014 in News » World

Since the dawn of time, or at least since it’s been recorded on paper, Jewish men, women and children have contributed to various industries and fields, from sports to entertainment to politics to porn.

With our Breakthrough Jew feature, we recognize those men and women who are up and comers in these various industries, identifying those great innovators and leaders in the contemporary world who are making a mark on society that will last a lifetime.

But what of those who have already made a significant contribution to the world as we know it? Those Jewish men and women who have greatly influenced the way we live today, but have never received proper accreditation?

Welcome to the Jewish Hall of Fame.

Shalom Life’s newest weekly feature, the Jewish Hall of Fame is a way to recognize the remarkable advancements these members of our community have made on today’s society. These are people who have truly changed the world, and have earned the respect and praise of the members of today’s younger generation, many of whom are unaware that they even exist, let alone that they are Jewish.

As such, Shalom Life’s Jewish Hall of Fame is our ongoing tribute to the greatest Jews who have ever lived; be sure to catch us weekly with our latest inductees, and tweet us @ShalomLife with your suggestions.


Hall of Fame Member: Sholem Aleichem

Born: March 2, 1859, Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine

Died: May 13, 1916, New York City, New York, United States

Famous For: Tevye the Milkman, and, consequently, Fiddler on the Roof

Sholem Aleichem is always a split and largely misunderstood character, a man who wrote with a sincerity and generosity, but also, an undercurrent of biting satire. He was both romantic about Jewish life and fiercely aware of the struggles of his people. His commitment to writing in Yiddish was matched only by his love of Russian writers like Chekhov and Gogol, whom he emulated in his Russian stories.

Aleichem saw hope for his people and for the world, participating in failed revolutions, but also ended up moving to New York and eventually Switzerland to escape pogroms. Aleichem, like all great writers, ended up living on posthumously through his many wonderful stories; the most famous of those is a man he claimed to encounter eight times throughout his life.

These stories would relate the adventures of his friend as they happened to meet on the road. That man was a dairyman named Tevye.

Born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich in the Russian Empire in 1859, the young Jew who would become one of the world’s most important Yiddish writers grew up in the poor shtetl of Voronko. His father, once a wealthy merchant, lost most of his wealth in a bad business affair and his family grew up in relative poverty. At 13, his mother died in a cholera epidemic and his father quickly remarried. Growing up, the young Solomon was exposed to his father’s interest in the Russian Haskalah whilst adhering to Hasidic traditions. The young man woul develop a keen sense of modern Jewish thinking as a result, and by the end of his life was considered one of the foremost great Jewish writers and thinkers.


Sholem Aleichem’s poor upbringing in a largely Jewish community is deeply embedded in all of his writings. He grew up in a time of great upheaval, when the Jewish community faced numerous threats from both within and all around; in turn, his writing captured both the threats and moments of beauty that came with the shtetl.

As Aleichem biographer and Yiddish scholar Jeremy Dauber points out, “Many of Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrilevke stories, for example — his tales from an Everyshtetl — while often held up as examples of a sentimentalized shtetl, are, when you look at them closely, also satires of the way his community’s propensity for argument, mockery, and cynical or ironic resignation can get in the way of positive or progressive action.”

By 15, the young Solomon was experimenting with writing and composed a Jewish version of Robinson Crusoe. He quickly took his pen name, a Yiddish greeting that literally means “peace be upon you,” mostly to avoid his father, whom he thought would be upset at his son’s writing in Yiddish. At 17, he began tutoring the daughter of a wealthy landowner, the woman who became the love of his life, and married the young Olga Loev six years later, against her father’s wishes.

At that time, nearly all Jewish writing was in Hebrew despite Yiddish being the primary language of almost every literate Jew. Much like Latin for much of Europe, Yiddish was considered the jargon, the everyday language while Hebrew was the serious language of thought and artistry. At 24, he published his first story in Yiddish called Tsvey Shteyner.

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