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Sholem Aleichem Turns 150

February 7, 2009 |  6:00 am

By Jonathan Kirsch

1940_0305_tevya The writer known as Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovich, 1859-1916) was a towering figure in the Yiddish-speaking world, praised in his own lifetime as "the Jewish Mark Twain." The critic Irving Howe later singled him out as "the one absolute Yiddish genius." When Aleichem died, some 100,000 mourners crowded the New York neighborhood in which he spent the last years of his life.

Today, however, he has been almost totally eclipsed by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobelist whose work appeared first in Yiddish in the Jewish Daily Forward and then in the New Yorker. Compared with Singer, the comic tales of Aleichem strike critics as old-fashioned and sentimental. Indeed, if Aleichem is remembered at all nowadays, it is because his stories of Tevye and his daughters were the basis for "Fiddler on the Roof."

To introduce Aleichem to a new readership -- and to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth -- Viking is publishing a new edition of "Tevye the Dairyman" and "Motl the Cantor's Son," the books that made him famous, and a long out-of-print novel, "Wandering Stars," all freshly and lucidly translated by Aliza Shevrin.

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