Sholem Aleichem was born in Pereyaslav, Ukraine (1859). He is one of the world’s most prolific and widely read Yiddish-language writers. He was the son of a lumber merchant. His given name was Solomon Rabinowitz, but he adopted a pen name because many of his friends and relatives disapproved of his decision to write in Yiddish, the colloquial language of Eastern European Jews, rather than in Hebrew, the language of intellectuals and liturgy. So he chose the name Sholem Aleichem, which comes from a Hebrew greeting meaning “peace be with you.”
His family members were fairly successful merchants, but their fortunes took a turn for the worse, and his parents opened up an inn to make some money. Young Sholem Aleichem loved hanging around the inn, and he found a great wealth of material in the characters and situations there.
He got married, and he and his wife moved to Kiev. He tried his hand at the stock market and started a Yiddish literary journal. But both ventures failed, and he went bankrupt and fled the country. One of his most famous characters is an itinerant stockbroker. Another is Tevye the milkman. Sholem Aleichem wrote many stories about Tevye, and they were the inspiration for the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof.
He and his wife had six children, and he had to write constantly in order to make ends meet for his family. He toured all over Europe and America giving lectures. He lived in Germany, in Denmark, and finally in the United States. He died at the age of 57, in New York City. One hundred thousand mourners lined the streets on the day of his funeral.
He said, “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” And, “No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you.”