In the latest entry in the publisher’s Jewish Encounters series, Dauber (Yiddish Literature/Columbia Univ.; In the Demon’s Bedroom: Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern, 2010, etc.) offers a brisk biography—and, at times, celebration—of the writer who created Tevye the Dairyman, the basis for what became Fiddler on the Roof.
The author, who has written about Jewish and Yiddish literature numerous times, brings to his new task a comprehensive knowledge not only of Sholem Aleichem’s life (1859–1916), but also of the contexts—historical and literary—in which he wrote and thrived. He begins with an explanation of his initial interest in Aleichem and then retreats, first to the writer’s funeral (as many as 200,000 turned out), then to a snapshot of his last year before returning to 1859, the year of his birth near Kiev. Dauber describes Aleichem’s early passion to write—his “graphomania”—his family relationships (his mother died early), his early schooling, his first publication (1881), marriage and his first use of his now-famous pen name in 1883. Dauber also shows how financial problems hounded Aleichem throughout his life. He was poor, then inherited a lot, lost it, and struggled off and on thereafter, even in the days of his greatest celebrity when he was touring and publishing just about anything he wanted to. (He did not, of course, live long enough to profit from Fiddler.) He met the actual dairyman Tevye in the summer of 1894 and used a fictional dairyman character frequently in stories thereafter. Dauber pauses occasionally to explore a story, novel or play in more detail, to paint the historical background (anti-Semitism, pogroms, immigration), and to describe his subject’s writing habits (he could write anywhere), his peripatetic later career and his devotion to his family.
Dauber’s prose is swift, clean and clear, and the portrait that emerges is sharply focused.