Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) began writing his autobiography when he was 49 and was still working on it when he died at age 57. He considered From the Fair his greatest achievement, a book that combined the story of his life and a cultural and spiritual history of his times. Aleichem called it “my book of books, the Song of Songs of my soul.”
In 1908, a Russian newspaper in Kiev asked for an autobiographical sketch, and Sholom decided to use a third-person narrative voice for what became a memoir. From the Fair was published in short installments, serialized for newspaper readers. It takes us from the author’s childhood in a Pale of Settlement shtetl to his first love and his early attempts at writing fiction and drama.
“I, Sholom Aleichem the writer, will tell the true story of Sholom Aleichem the man,” he writes, “informally and without adornments and embellishments, as if an absolute stranger were talking, yet one who accompanied him everywhere, even to the seven divisions of hell.”
The result is essential background for Aleichem’s works of fiction.
Curt Leviant is a prizewinning novelist, author of The Yemenite Girl and Passion in the Desert. His short stories and novellas have been published in many magazines and have been included in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories and other anthologies. He has won the Wallant Prize, an O. Henry Award, and is a Fellow in Literature of the National Endowment for the Arts. A frequent lecturer on Yiddish and Hebrew literature, he has also translated three other Sholom Aleichem collections.
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About the Author
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.