Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), a central figure in modern Yiddish literature, was born Sholom Rabinowitz in Voronko, Russia. Often called the “Jewish Mark Twain,” he published more than 40 volumes of work.
His merchant father’s business failed when Sholom was still a child, impoverishing the family. In the 1860s, Sholom attended a traditional cheder. Later, he attended the Russian district school in Pereyaslav, but wrote that the literature of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment movement, was the main source of his education. At 15, he wrote a novel inspired by his reading of Robinson Crusoe and adopted the popular Hebrew/Yiddish greeting meaning “How do you do,” or “Peace be with you” as his pseudonym.
After graduating from high school in 1876, he spent three years tutoring Olga (Golde) Loyev, a girl from a wealthy family. They married, against parental wishes in 1883, and had six children.
Sholom Aleichem was influenced by Haskala author Mendele Mocher Seforim, a founding father of modern Yiddish and modern Hebrew literature. Initially, Aleichem shunned Yiddish until he realized that his work in Hebrew and Russian would be understood only by the intellectual elite. In 1883, he switched to Yiddish. Characters from his short-lived Hebrew period were overshadowed by Tevye the Dairyman, luftmentch Menachem Mendl, and the chatty population of Kasrilevke.
After 1905, when major pogroms spread across Russia, Aleichem settled his family in Geneva, Switzerland and pursued a strenuous international schedule of lectures to supplement his writing income. The family moved to the lower east side of Manhattan in 1914. When he died two years later, his funeral attracted 150,000 mourners, then one of the largest crowds in New York City’s history.
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