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A new website celebrates the “Jewish Mark Twain” on the centennial of his death

By Cindy Mindell

One hundred years after his death, Sholem Aleichem is being celebrated in the launch of a new interactive website.

Produced by San Francisco-based multimedia documentary company Citizen Film, in collaboration with Columbia University professor Jeremy Dauber and a group of his students, sholemaleichem.org is designed to be the definitive online resource for one of the most acclaimed authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Replete with video, audio, and digital humanities materials created by documentarians and Columbia students, the website provides resources to the general public, book lovers, and teachers of literature and of Jewish Studies. Also included are recommended reading lists from Dauber; an extensive bibliography; and suggested student activities for educators.

Born Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich on March 2, 1859 in Pereyaslav (in the Pale of Settlement of Russia), began writing at age 15, when he adopted the pen-name that means “hello” or “how do you do?” in Yiddish and Hebrew. He moved to New York City in 1906 for two years, returning with his wife and three of their five children in 1914.

The novelist, essayist, and playwright created rich characters that stand out because of their humanity and their universal appeal. He was read and admired by Tolstoy and Chekhov, and by more than 500,000 people who pored over his weekly installments in newspapers. Sholem Aleichem wrote primarily about Eastern European Jews, and is perhaps best known for “Tevye the Dairyman,” the central character-narrator of a series of short stories, upon which the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof is based.

In his day, Sholem Aleichem was often referred to as “the Jewish Mark Twain.”

(Twain reportedly introduced himself as “the American Sholem Aleichem” when the two met in 1906.) Like Twain, Sholem Aleichem was skilled at writing folksy dialogue in many different voices. His Motl, Menakhem-Mendl, Sheyne-Sheyndel, Tevye, and a panoply of other characters still speak to modern readers as the lovable, fallible people running headlong toward the brink of modernity.

More than 100,000 people attended Sholem Aleichem’s funeral in New York City in 1916 – the largest public funeral in the city to date at that time. The author’s ethical will had one main request: that his work be “read aloud in whatever language that you speak.” The new website features an interactive interpretation of the will, published in the New York Times at the time of Sholem Aleichem’s death, and a call to action to record oneself or friends reading from the author’s work. Readers will be able to contribute to a gallery of crowd-sourced resources.

A collaboration between Citizen Film, Columbia University, Riverside Film, and the Yiddish Book Center, sholemaleichem.org was made possible by Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, the Covenant Foundation, the Sholem Aleichem Network, and the New Media in Jewish Studies Collaborative, an initiative of Citizen Film and Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.

The project is part of a larger Citizen Film initiative, New Media in Jewish Studies, a collaboration with Jewish Studies scholars and their students to translate Jewish studies scholarship into accessible and engaging digital forms.

Sam Ball, the director-producer of sholemaleichem.org, is the producer and director of multimedia/transmedia and traditional documentaries for Citizen Film, which he co-founded in 2001. Citizen Film specializes in collaborating with civic and cultural institutions to create documentary media, and counts many Jewish organizations among its collaborators, including the Jewish Museum in New York and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Jeremy Dauber is a professor in the department of Germanic Studies at Columbia University, specializing in Yiddish literature, and is the director of Columbia’s Institute of Israel and Jewish Studies. Raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish community in New Jersey, he attended Harvard University, where he got hooked on Jewish authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he wrote about Hebrew and Yiddish literature, then returned to the U.S. to teach at Columbia. In 2013, Dauber published The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye, the first comprehensive biography of the beloved author.

Ball and Dauber spoke with the Ledger hours after the launch of sholemaleichem.org on the World Wide Web.


Jewish Ledger (JL): In his will, which the New York Times described as “a fine example of the traditional ethical will left in all ages by the great men of Israel,” Sholem Aleichem requested that his work be read aloud every year on his yahrzeit. Has this been happening since 1916?

Sam Bell (SB): The Sholem Aleichem Network was established by Sholem Aleichem’s descendants. Robert Waile is president and has been a fantastic collaborator in terms of providing archival resources that only the family could have access to. The other yahrzeit event organizer is Ken Kaufman. They’ve kept this ethical will tradition alive and we set up our online community to model the real-life community that they’ve established and built over these many years. That’s a big event every year at the Brotherhood Synagogue in Manhattan. We’ve replicated a similar event in Berkeley where we had a full house at the JCC. We showed some digital interactive content and then had a real-life interactive moment where people from the crowd got up and read Sholem Aleichem out loud. We recorded that and will be posting those clips to social media and to the website, and that’s really directly the legacy of the Sholem Aleichem Network.

I think we lose sight in the digital age how important it can be to get together in person and in community. Often, the role of these digital tools is to amplify the impact of our being together in community and reading together in community. I don’t see the digital work that we throw ourselves into as replacing that at all. It’s a way to amplify and translate some of the processes that began generations ago.


Q: How did the idea for the website coalesce?

SB: A number of things came together synergistically. One is that Jeremy [Dauber] wrote this great biography of Sholem Aleichem. The other is that Jeremy and I and Citizen Film and the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University have been working together for some time to think of ways that Jewish scholarship in general can engage more with not just the internet, but with some of the more prevalent digital storytelling and digital-communications platforms of today. With a focus on what quality storytelling looks like on the internet and using digital tools and digital multimedia, this is an opportunity for scholars and their students to expand the way Jewish studies is done: to include some of the more prevalent digital humanities techniques and some of the more exciting digital storytelling techniques that have become easy to do and available on a wide scale.

There’s a real opportunity because of the size of Jewish studies as a field. There’s an opportunity to spearhead the idea of Jewish studies professors collaborating with digital storytellers and instructional technologists to expand the way Jewish studies is communicated. One of the goals of that is to open up a conversation with the public. That’s been a very unique role that Jewish studies has played – bridging the academy and the community – and there’s an opportunity to take that historic mission and amplify it through some of the digital tools of today. One of the key pieces of this collaboration is bringing together digital storytellers and professors, and coaching students at the intersection of digital storytelling and Jewish studies scholarship; then partnering with cultural institutions to take that work and create a conversation with the wider community. In this case, the Yiddish Book Center has been a great partner, and the Sholem Aleichem Network has been a great partner; the family started the organization to bring together Sholem Aleichem fans and people who teach Sholem Aleichem.

The Sholem Aleichem project is one of several that we have catalyzed to build that bridge between the field of Jewish Studies and audiences and, in the process, train the next generation of Jewish studies scholars to be outward-facing. Jeremy’s students played a big role in the creation of this website. It’s really different to write an essay where you know that probably just your professor will read it, and to write a “digital essay” combining images, digital storytelling, and text, where your end-user is somebody who happens to be interested in Sholem Aleichem.

Unlike Mark Twain, where you can Google and find resources that appeal to every level of reader, the Sholem Aleichem resources that were out there before the website were limited. There’s a really great YIVO entry but it’s pitched a little bit high, and then there’s a Wikipedia. With this site, there is now a definitive place where you can go — whether you’re an educator or a casual reader or somebody who’s seen Fiddler and wants to know more about the man behind it – there’s a destination to go and learn more and dive in and also connect with other people who are interested in this great author.


Q: Whom would Sholem Aleichem be comparable to today?

Jeremy Dauber (JD): In terms of Sholem Aleichem as a figure, I would say that one of the closest people is Jon Stewart. There was a whole wide group of people, before Jon Stewart left The Daily Show, who would say, “I know what’s going on in the world and I want to look to a figure whose comic sensibilities and understanding and deep humanism I trust in order to help me make sense of it and present it back to me for my pleasure and edification and perspective.” I think Sholem Aleichem did that. Obviously, television didn’t exist then, but within the stream of newspapers and magazines that Sholem Aleichem wrote for, you were able to take and you were able to look at what Sholem Aleichem’s take was on the vicissitudes of Jewish history and modernity and you would be able to learn more, think more, and laugh.

SB: I love that analogy. One of the pleasures of working on this project is that there are a lot of parallels between the way Sholem Aleichem approached his craft and his audience and the way that these digital tools at our disposal are changing how artists can communicate with audiences. For example, the Yiddish press in his time was a fairly new thing. On Fridays, thousands and thousands of readers eagerly awaited the next installment of a Sholem Aleichem piece, much in the same way that bloggers today can command an audience, where you’re waiting for the next installment to come out. He was very much an artist adapting to a shifting opportunity to engage with an audience and I think there are some parallels with some of the things that contemporary writers and artists grapple with.


Q: What are some of your favorite Sholem Aleichem works?

JD: For the website, I recommended a bunch of works to read. One is the short story, “Londons,” the first time we meet another one of Sholem Aleichem’s great characters, Menakhem-Mendl, who is an optimistic but very bad businessman. I think the letters between him and his wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl, are a remarkable kind of comedy about economics that have some real resonance or familiarity with our own times – about the stock-market bubble and things like that. Another, in a very different vein, is A Tale of 1001 Nights, a novella about the life-and-death adventures of someone who is trying to escape the vicissitudes of the Jewish community’s assault from both directions under the Great War, which we call World War I. It is sobering, terrifying, and ironically savage reading, very different from the Menakhem-Mendl stories. Those are just two examples but there are others on the website that I recommended.

SB: With someone as prolific as Sholem Aleichem, it’s hard to know where to start. When we started this project, just for fun, I read the letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl out loud, back and forth with my 11-year-old son and it’s amazing how well these stories translate; they are just very funny.

There are often these shaggy-dog tales, and he establishes a pattern of optimism and failure, where there’s a pleasure because you know that the pattern is going to repeat itself. What’s brilliant about these stories is that they’re very accessible to people of all ages, depending on the story. These read very well for an elementary-school boy, and yet there are layers there that you appreciate as an adult, that he might not have the same read on. For example, living through the recent recession. He’s extremely fun, in a good translation, to read out loud.


Q: How did the Columbia University students contribute to the website?

SB: Part of the objective of this project is to create a cadre of young scholars who will carry the torch forward for Sholem Aleichem. There’s something that Jeremy has access to, as someone who was raised Orthodox: the way that Sholem Aleichem plays, for example, with Talmudic quotations. It’s one of those things in Tevye where it’s funny and I can appreciate him but I’m missing a layer of knowledge, not having been raised with a strong religious background. One of Jeremy’s students is creating a digital project where she is analyzing these Talmudic quotations and helping to interpret them for readers who don’t have that background. It’s a tremendous service to people who want to read Sholem Aleichem more deeply and it makes fantastic use of digital tools to explain things that would have been very difficult to communicate on paper, in the pre-digital age, where you could get lost in a tangle of footnotes. It’s a really fun challenge to take digital tools to simplify the translation process for the reader, and I don’t just mean the literal translation, but to unpack the deeper layers of punning and meaning in works that are very fun and light on the surface, to help the reader appreciate the complexity of the work that much more.

Jeremy’s students are learning digital tools as they’re digging deeper into Sholem Aleichem and learning how to communicate with an audience. On the “Life & Times” page on the site, you’ll see some really interesting digital humanities work, where it’s a way to read and unpack Sholem Aleichem – sometimes using maps, sometimes using an interactive timeline that includes video and really beautiful archival images. For example, one way to read Sholem Aleichem is just by understanding his own movements and travels, and how those dovetail with the geopolitics of his time and with his work. There’s a map project that explores that and we’ll be rolling out more student projects over the course of the next few months. In addition to the students doing the activities that Jeremy’s students developed with us and the Columbia Center for New Media, I hope that Sholem Aleichem’s fans will take up some of these tools and add to our archives.


Q: What are some of the more modern iterations of Sholem Aleichem’s legacy that are included on the website?

SB: Sholem Aleichem had a really interesting afterlife that says something about his role in the Jewish community of his time. That role continued posthumously, where these adaptations of his works reflect the times. For example, you can watch an excerpt from a production in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, with a largely Latino and African-American cast, taking on some of the issues in Fiddler at a time when there was tremendous tension between a largely Jewish teachers’ union and the local community’s desire for more control. That showcase of Tevye had a healing effect at the time. There’s a pretty amazing Gwen Stefani cover of one of the songs from Fiddler, produced by Dr. Dre, so you’re able to visit the site and make your own remix and curate your own collection of Sholem Aleichem’s afterlife with sources that can be as eclectic as Zero Mostel and Dr. Dre.

Unlike a book, a website is a breathing, living organism and we invite contributions from people. This site will expand in the months and years to come, we hope, by contributions from scholars, fans, and we hope we can keep the partnerships going so that we’ll be continually adding to the site. For example, Jeremy mentioned 10 books that he feels are good starting points for people who are to discover Sholem Aleichem, and we hope to add to that list over time so that people can check back on the site periodically.


Sholem Aleichem and the Yiddish Book Center

The Yiddish Book Center, located on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst , Massachusetts, is one of four organizations to collaborate on the new Sholem Aleichem website. Recently, the Ledger spoke with the Center’s academic director, Josh Lambert, about his organization’s involvement in this innovative project:


Q: What was the genesis for the Yiddish Book Center’s involvement in the launch of sholemaleichem.org?

A: Sam Ball of Citizen Film and Jeremy Dauber of Columbia University, who are leading the project, both have long relationships with the Yiddish Book Center. Jeremy was an intern at the Center many years ago, and has served on our board for years. Sam made the “Bridge of Books” film that describes the Center’s mission and is screened regularly for visitors. And, of course, Sholem Aleichem, as one of the most beloved Yiddish authors, is ubiquitous in the work that we do at the Center. So we’ve been delighted to help and  support this project from the beginning.


Q: In what way has the Center been involved in the creation of the site, and will its involvement continue?

A: The main way we’re contributing is by providing a rich range of resources from our collections. We’ve shared material from our digital collections—which contain dozens of scanned Sholem Aleichem books in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, audio recordings of his books from the Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books, articles from Pakn Treger, a resource kit from our new website with educational resources, teachgreatjewishbooks.org, materials from courses we’ve onsite and online courses we’ve offered, and so on.

We also plan to connect our students this summer with the website and the efforts to celebrate Sholem Aleichem that will be taking place. We teach Sholem Aleichem’s work in virtually every educational program we run, and I’ll personally be teaching bits of Sholem Aleichem in our Tent: Creative Writing program and our Great Jewish Books Teacher Workshop this summer. We’ll be working with Sam’s team to share those educational moments as much as possible, on social media and elsewhere, this summer, so as to connect our students and participants to the worldwide celebration of Sholem Aleichem’s legacy.

Of course, the Center will direct its members and visitors to the new Sholem Aleichem website, and we expect that we’ll have plenty of impromptu and informal Sholem Aleichem-related moments to share over the next few months.


Q: Why is this important?

A: It would be pretty difficult to overstate how wonderful and necessary a writer Sholem Aleichem is. He wrote genuine masterpieces of modern literature with more insight into the lives and challenges facing the Jews of his time than any other writer or thinker. Part of what’s exciting about this project, and this moment, is that marking the anniversary of Sholem Aleichem’s death gives us a chance to connect with people all over the world, who might have been reading Sholem Aleichem for almost a century or who might just be discovering him right now. And we’re delighted to be able to spread the word about the truly useful and appealing website that Sam’s team has created.

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