Local fiddler helps create new Sholem Aleichem website

One hundred  years after his death, the great Yiddish humorist and literary master Sholem Aleichem is finally getting his own website.

Call it Tevye 3.0.

The creation of Sholemaleichem.org has been a massive team effort, with local filmmaker Sam Ball playing a significant role.

Ball is the founder of the S.F.-based multimedia nonprofit Citizen Film, which joined with the Institute of Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University on the project. The descendants of Sholem Aleichem also have been involved, along with a number of other entities.

Simply put, the site is devoted to the work, life and legacy of Sholem Aleichem. It’s packed with biographical information, interactive maps of the author’s travels during his lifetime, the route mourners followed in his funeral procession (the largest in New York history) and links to audio of Sholem Aleichem stories read by the late actor Howard Da Silva and others.

There are even snippets of Sholem Aleichem himself, from a 1915 recording in which he reads his own words in a strong, confident voice.

The project was a labor of love for Ball, who remembers as a child reading a volume of Sholem Aleichem stories he found on his grandmother’s bookshelf. Decades later, he read those same stories with his son.

“He’s this great window into the whole Jewish world,” Ball says of the writer, who was born Sholem Rabinovich. His legacy includes “issues that should be of concern to Jews today: deciding what to keep of Jewish identity, what to jettison, how to be Jewish, how to be a human being. It seemed right that at this time there should be for the first time a definite Sholem Aleichem website.”

Ball oversaw much of the website’s look and content, while Columbia University professor Jeremy Dauber, who recently published a biography of Sholem Aleichem, provided the scholarship.

“Jeremy and I sat down with a descendant of Sholem Aleichem,” Ball recalls of the early days in designing the website. “He and his cousins are stewards of keeping his legacy alive.”

Dauber also enlisted the help of his Columbia graduate students, who wrote much of the website’s content.

Though scholars put the site together, the aim was to make it accessible to all: Jews and non-Jews, longtime fans and those who may have seen “Fiddler on the Roof” for the first time and want to know more.

Dauber added a web page that lists “The 10 Works You Should Read,” most of them short stories, some of which feature an audio recording of the complete text.

One of those stories, “Chava,” is what Dauber calls “the finest of the Tevye stories,” referring to Sholem Aleichem’s fictional dairyman who became the inspiration for the Broadway musical.

Naturally, the website has an entire section devoted to “Fiddler on the Roof.” Included are original cast photos and video clips of various revivals. But perhaps the most eye-popping section is a gallery of photos from Tevye adaptations down through the years, from Yiddish theater productions in the early 1900s to  a Yiddish-language film shot in Long Island, New York, and released in 1939.

As Ball notes, Tevye was enormously popular long before “Fiddler” made it to Broadway in 1964 and then onto big screens in theaters across America in 1971.

“Sholem Aleichem was the most popular Jewish writer of his generation,” Ball says. “He had a global audience, with millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews who read his work. The rise of his readership paralleled the sudden emergence of the mass Jewish press. You publish a story on Friday and hundreds and thousands of people would eagerly await it.”

The site also features a “Call to Action” section; it follows the wishes of Sholem Aleichem, who, in his ethical will, asked admirers to read aloud one of his stories (“a really joyous one”) on his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death on May 13, 1916. The section also includes a list of relevant events across the United States, such as performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a musical tribute to Sholem Aleichem this month at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

As admired as he was for his humor and storytelling, Sholem Aleichem was, perhaps more than any other person, responsible for elevating Yiddish to a literary language. The Yiddish revival that came so many years after his death owes a lot to the shtetl-born writer.

“There’s a desire to reconnect with the spoken language of most of the world’s Jews for hundreds of years,” Ball says. “Sholem Aleichem is important to that heritage, in that he himself was a bridge between the shtetl and modernity. If you look at the religious and secular worlds he straddled, the political ideas Jews adopted, you find an intersection of the very same ideals and a sense of longing that inspires people today to reconnect with Yiddish.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.