Yesterday was the 99th anniversary of the death of the great Yiddish writer on whose stories the musical Fiddler on the Roof was based. Jeremy Dauber explains why Sholem Aleichem’s work remains relevant by suggesting three ways it can be read (2014):
The first [way]—and in some ways the most direct, but in other ways the most limited—is to read Sholem Aleichem as a Jew. . . . To see if his theses—the importance of cherishing your own history and culture; the delights of Jewish language (Yiddish primarily, but Sholem Aleichem was also a great lover of Hebrew, and some of his earliest work was in that language); and the importance of the Jewish home, both in Yiddishland and in Zion—can illuminate your own ways of living in the world as a Jewish person today.
The second, wider way of reading Sholem Aleichem is as a reader. Many of Sholem Aleichem’s critics, after his death, accused him of being little more than a stenographer or tape recorder; they said his uncanny re-creations of the voices of a whole tapestry of East European Jewish life were little more than a ventriloquism act. Even a cursory reading of the stories shows just how unfair this is—in fact, the stories are a bonanza for anyone interested in monologue, in literary game-playing with persona and personality, with narrative and closure, and with the careful and clever use of allusion. . . .
But, ultimately, the third way to read Sholem Aleichem is, I think, the most important. And that is to read him, quite simply, as a human being.