Exploring Sholem Aleichem’s double life as author and character

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevya,  by Jeremy Dauber. Shocken/Nextbook. 480 pages. $28.95.

Sholem Aleichem rose to prominence in his lifetime, but as biographer Jeremy Dauber is at great pains to demonstrate, he rose to even greater fame in the many decades that followed his death. This phenomenon was due in large part to the several serviceable collections of his stories in English translation, to the revivals of his plays, and, eventually, to the grand Broadway and cinematic renderings of the interplay among Tevye the milkman, his wife and (especially) his children. The success of “Fiddler on the Roof” eventually opened the door to serious assessments of Sholem Aleichem’s substantial, foundational achievements.  DauberSHOLEMALEICHEM

To underscore the theatrical – or is it the dramatic? – nature of Sholem Aleichem’s life and career, both during and after the writer’s lifetime, Dauber harnesses his colorful, fact-filled chapters into the structure of a five-act play. Not only is this teeming full-length exploration of Sholem Aleichem’s person-hood and achievement presented as both melodrama and tragicomedy, it is also framed by an “Overture: Setting the Scene” and a lengthy epilogue in 10 brief scenes that follow the posthumous life, or “afterlife,” of the subject’s works.

Dauber doesn’t miss a chance to extend his theatrical motif. Each chapter captures the phrasing of Victorian episodic fiction and perhaps a bit of silent movie placard writing. For example, Chapter 13 is headed “In Which Our Hero Reads the Newspapers in Yiddish and Becomes a Media Star (1899-1903).” All the other chapters also begin with “In Which Our Hero …”

Jeremy Dauber

Jeremy Dauber

These trappings, at once charming and humorous, are also thematic. Dauber is concerned with art and artifice, and he underscores the various ways in which Sholem Aleichem’s life and art interact. In the beginning, there was the self-creation: A man named Sholem Rabinovich (1859-1916) turned himself into an author-character named Sholem Aleichem. . . .

To see the full review, which is considerably longer than this excerpt, as posted November 8, 2013 in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem

This review is reprinted in the February 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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