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Literature

Sholem Aleichem – The Jewish Mark Twain
 
Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, better known under his pen name Sholem Aleichem, was born in 1859 to a prosperous Hasidic family in Pereyaslav, near Poltava, then Russian Empire (now Ukraine). His father, Menachem Rabinovich, was a rich merchant, but a single bad business decision ruined the family, forcing them to live in squalor, and when Solomon was 13, his mother Chaye-Esther died of cholera.
 
Solomon had a panic fear of the number 13 , so none of his works ever contained page 13, and the number was never used in the plot.
 
He started writing early in his life: aged only 15, he re-wrote Robinson Crusoe, which impressed him greatly, in Hebrew. Later, he adopted a pen name of  Sholem Aleichem, meaning "peace be with you" in Yiddish. After graduating from the local school, he began tutoring; he fell in love with one of his students, Golde Loev, the daughter of a wealthy land owner. Despite strong protests from the girl's father, who was against a socially unequal union, they married and had six children together.
 
One of their sons, Norman Raeben, later became a well known painter.  And their daughter, Lyalya Kaufman, became a Hebrew writer. Lyalya's daughter, Bel Kaufman, was a successful writer in her own right, having penned one of the best selling books in American history – Up The Down Staircase, an educator with a career that spans many decades, and world's oldest hired professor.
 
Having inherited a huge wealth when his father-in-law died, Solomon began promoting Yiddish literature, publishing newspapers, supporting young writers by publishing their works in a series of almanacs, and touring extensively with lectures on literature. Then disaster struck: Solomon repeated his father's mistake while trying to make money off stock market, and lost all of his wealth...
 
And all this time he never stopped writing, producing a series of novels and stories, including the now famous Tevye the milkman series, which would later serve as the basis for the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life. From 1883 on, he produced over forty (!) volumes in Yiddish, becoming the most noted writer in Yiddish literature by1890. 
 
His portrayal of his characters was characterized by their incredible naturalness and high spirits, no matter what the situation they found themselves in. He was even called the Jewish Mark Twain. Interestingly, when told about this comparison, Mark Twain noted it was not entirely correct, and that he was "an American Sholem Aleichem"!
 
After the tide of pogroms of 1905 in the Russian Empire, Solomon moved his family to Switzerland and then to New York. The move was a difficult one, because some of his family members contracted tuberculosis and therefore were inadmissible to the U.S. He himself contracted the deadly disease and had to spend two month in a hospital bed after collapsing on a train during a tour across Russia. 
 
Solomon ceased touring and returned to New York, where died from tuberculosis on 13 May 1916, aged only 57. At that time he was working on his last novel, Motl, Peysi the Cantor's Son. 
 
His funeral procession near Old Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens became the largest of that time, attracting at least 100,000 mourners. His figure was so prominent in his new homeland, that the New York Times even printed his will, and the latter was also entered into the Congressional Record of the United States.
 
Sources: 
"Aleichem" (biography), Jewish virtual library
Aleichem, Sholem (1985), From the Fair, Viking Penguin
"A Reading to Recall the Father of Tevye", Clyde Haberman, New York Times, May 17, 2010
 

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