Folk memory has it that whenever Jews gathered together to read aloud the latest Sholom Aleichem column in the Yiddish press, everyone laughed, reveling in the pungent immediacy of his prose. The genius of Sholom Aleichem, or rather the man behind that nom de plume, Sholom Rabinovitch (1859-1916), rests in the fact that each listener was laughing at something different.
Fortunately for readers of English who want to explore for themselves his zany plots, ironic perceptions, and tragi-comic conclusions, Sholom Aleichem's work has been a favorite among translators. The trend seems to be continuing and now includes his never-completed autobiography, "From the Fair: The Autobiography of Sholom Aleichem," edited and rendered into clear if occasionally lusterless English by Curt Leviant.
First serialized in the New York Yiddish daily Der Tog during 1915-16, these memoirs cover the first 21 years of the author's life. He had planned to follow the three existing sections with several others but succumbed instead to the tuberculosis, which had plagued him since 1908.
In his introduction, Leviant talks about the "sunny atmosphere and good humor of the autobiography," and marvels that Sholom Aleichem could have produced such a creation when he was in fact so ill. Yet, while it is true that there are many amusing episodes, and a couple of hilarious ones, this is only one way to read the work. Underneath the veneer of ready wit and quick chatter lies a much more somber mood, suffused with memories of insecurity, loss and misery.
By the time he is 13, young Sholom finds three gratifying and intensely involving friendships suddenly severed, experiences the murder of his beloved dog, moves to a new town, fails to produce his best effort for a saintly teacher, only to have the latter die, and--in an abrupt twist of fortune--loses his young mother in a cholera epidemic. The subsequent seven years continue the pattern of abandonment and dislocation, as Sholom is first shunted between one home and the next, then catapulted into a series of abortive engagements as a tutor.
The boy does not take these events lightly. Instead, he learns to expect that love will be thwarted, that happiness must end in suffering. As the narrator muses, reflecting on the innocent harmony he had enjoyed with his ill-fated pet:
"A quiet love reigned between dog and master. The latter couldn't imagine what would happen if Sirko were gone. What do you mean, gone? . . . But still--still the day came, that dark and gloomy day when dear, devoted Sirko went away forever. . . ."
Amid the constant abrasions of harsh reality, there were internal gifts: unusual intelligence, a friendly nature, and, above all, fantasy. Sholom dreams of presenting his father with a long-hidden treasure, hoping thereby to assuage the agony of his mother's death. Starving and uncomfortable, he conjures feasts and palaces from which he dispenses charity to all who are hungry. Clearly, Sholom Aleichem's beginnings as an artist are to be found in this early, healthy defense mechanism.
Still, the burden of humor and cleverness may have become difficult to shoulder in the end, as the desperately sick man sought to make peace with his existence. As he puts it: "You can recover from a beating, but a disappointment leaves a scar in the soul forever."
Perhaps Sholom Aleichem wanted, through his autobiography, to finally reveal the sadness of a life that had been marred by uprootedness, dashed hopes, and financial disaster, outward respectability and success notwithstanding. Even here, however, Sholom Aleichem cannot allow himself complete permission to let down his guard. He distances himself, writes in the third person: "I, Sholom Aleichem the writer, will tell the true story of Sholom Aleichem the man. . . ." It is a tribute to his subtlety and immense sensitivity that, despite this separating device, his voice rings out so that every reader, young or old, sophisticated or simple, will experience the warm, unforgettable touch of his presence.