Interview

Sholem Aleichem’s Digital Turn

Madeleine Cohen and Diana Clarke

INTRODUCTION

Sholem Aleichem is known for writing polyglot Yiddish stories set on trains, and about people in transit. So somehow it’s fitting that, in 2016, he found a new home on the internet, the most transient of homes and the most easily translatable. Jeremy Dauber, Professor of Yiddish Literature at Columbia University’s Yiddish Studies program, has spent most of his career studying and promoting the work and life of the populist, self-proclaimed zhargonist, and last year he helped to launch SholemAleichem.org.

The collaborative website, created in part to commemorate Sholem Aleichem’s hundredth yahrzeit, offers resources for teachers, readers, film-watchers, and the simply curious. A feature we particularly like is the Call to Action, which suggests ways for Sholem Aleichem-lovers to bring his writing into their daily lives following the writer’s directive, as published in the New York Times after his death: “Read my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you.”

This year is sure to be a long, hard one; multinational, multilingual merriment may be a small, temporary respite. But one upside to 2017 is the growing presence of online Yiddish resources, including ongoing efforts by the Digital Yiddish Theater Project, the Historical Jewish Press, and the Yiddish Book Center’s replete collections of digitized books and audio recordings; and newer projects like online course offerings by the Paris Yiddish Center, YIVO, and the Workmen’s Circle. In geveb has also been compiling digital Yiddish resources including this series on digital and meta-scholarship by Zachary M. Baker, and an interview with Refoyl Finkel, the developer of Yiddish OCR. In that spirit, Madeleine Cohen talked with Dauber over email about the new website and Sholem Aleichem’s long legacy.

MC: Where did your interest in Sholem Aleichem come from and what keeps you interested in him and his work?

JD: My first recollection of reading Sholem Aleichem is of a small reading group for interns of the Yiddish Book Center (or National Yiddish Book Center, as it was then called) led by Aaron Lansky. The stories we read showed me an author who spoke to the narrower concerns that a college student, coming from a sheltered background, had in confronting a wider world that offered intellectual challenges to some of the narratives and ideas he had grown up with it: later teachers, most notably Ruth Wisse and the students with whom I’ve read these stories over two decades, showed something even more important: that he speaks to the essential and eternal questions of life, fate, family, and fortune that are the province of all great literature.

MC: What would you say are the goals of this website? What’s new in this approach to Sholem Aleichem, and what audiences is it trying to reach?

JD: I’d say that our hope is, first, to provide some kind of introduction, a central address, to the generally curious and the more deeply dedicated seekers for Sholem Aleichem information; and to do it in a way that’s both visually appealing and intellectually substantive. But the hope, of course, is that it’s a starting, and not an end, point.

MC: Sholem Aleichem is on a very short list of Yiddish writers who might actually be familiar to general audiences, though in my experience his name usually gets a blank stare until I say, “You know Fiddler on the Roof?” Do you think Sholem Aleichem does or can have a broader appeal for general audiences (read: outside of Jewish culture or Yiddish Studies) aside from Fiddler? Is there an aspect of his work that you would especially like to help introduce people to or that you think the website can help introduce people to?

JD: I agree that most people come to Sholem Aleichem, if they do at all, through Fiddler: which leads to a kind of corollary approach that identifies Sholem Aleichem with Tevye, and Yiddish-speaking Jews, authors, and indeed Yiddish culture with a kind of vision of the shtetl. (Not that Tevye himself was a shtetl dweller; he lived in a dorf, a village.) I do hope that by looking at some of the material—including the visuals—that the website offers, some visitors will go on a journey of discovery similar to mine: to discover that Yiddish culture is vastly more varied, subtle, and widespread than one could imagine from watching Fiddler. (And I say this as a fan of the show; it’s a very successful example of what it is—a mid-twentieth century American musical—which is no mean feat. And I think Sholem Aleichem would have liked it, too: he was involved in theatrical adaptations of Tevye himself, and so wasn’t necessarily precious about what we would now call platform.)

MC: The Website includes a “Call to Action,” inviting people to read Sholem Aleichem’s works aloud, as he asked for in his will. I made the “pilgrimage” to Mount Carmel to read “Ven ikh volt geven roytshild” (“If I Were Rothschild”) at his grave when I was a student! Have people taken up the call? What does his provision for this alternate Kaddish—which includes his daughters and grandchildren—mean to you?

JD: I think the jury is still out on how this part of the website will work and how much traction it will get; what is more definitive, though, is the success of Sholem Aleichem’s family at maintaining and cultivating a tradition of remembrance. All of us owe them a great debtalong with the author himself, of course, who provided for that possibility by suggesting that in an age where long-held religious traditions were failing to have the same meaning for some, other processes could take their powerful place.

MC: The site notes a similarity between Sholem Aleichem’s readers in the Yiddish press and readers of blogs today. What responsibility do you feel as a scholar toward more popularly-oriented projects like this website compared to your teaching or research? Do you take inspiration from Sholem Aleichem and other Yiddish writers when thinking about your role as an educator and scholar?

JD: This is a great question. I think that we—in Yiddish and Jewish studies—are blessed with communities of potential readers that take a lively interest in what we’re interested in writing about, and it’s wonderful if we can share what we’ve found with them. It’s also valuable, in that all of us—as people—have pictures of the past that may not actually be reflective of what the research indicates, and scholars can issue correctives that may have ramifications for the way that people think about how those pasts influence who they are and how they are in the world. That said, there are a couple of caveats: 1. Suggesting how those correctives should influence people is different from just correcting or rounding out the historical record. Those are two different kinds of public orientation, and one is more the province of opinion than scholarship (which is not to say that scholars can’t also be opinion writers, of course). 2. Not everyone in the field has the inclination to do this kind of public-facing work, and that’s more than fine - and those that do may do it in different ways (in scholarship, in teaching, in public speaking, etc.) 3. Not all research lends itself to this kind of project, and I think that scholars should let the topic/question/project determine the venue and the approach. I get very excited about fairly recondite structures of allusion in Enlightenment-oriented Yiddish drama; that kind of work is—and should be!—for the scholarly journals.

MC: Can you tell us about the partnerships involved in the site—with Citizen Film, the New Media in Jewish Studies Initiative, Columbia’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, and who else? It seems like a real model of collaboration between academic institutes and non-profit organizations.

JD: We’ve been very lucky to have a number of wonderful partners, including the Covenant Foundation and Sholem Aleichem’s family. I think a lot of it—and this works very well for me with regard to the digital sphere, where my technical skills leave a great deal to be desired—is to be very open to learning other people’s best practices, to try and make sure everyone’s voices are being heard, and to try to figure out who’s doing what, and trust great people to do great work.

MC: Yiddish Studies seems to be taking to the “Digital Humanities” turn with gusto, projects like the Digital Yiddish Theater Project, the Historical Jewish Press, the YBC’s online archives, YIVO’s Vilna Collections Project, and In geveb itself as a few examples. Do you find it surprising that a small field often accused of “dying” should be so cutting edge? Are we cutting edge? Are you more excited or wary about these innovations in the field?

JD: I’m not surprised at all—the people I know in the field are curious, vibrant, wide-ranging and intellectually ambitious to a one (as well as being so, so handsome! and having great table manners!), and so it doesn’t surprise me that many of them are interested in these kinds of projects. I suspect my concerns are similar to those of many of them—much of this takes a tremendous amount of work and costs a great deal of money to maintain, and today’s websites/archives, while state of the art, will be obsolete in [insert x number of years, in which x is a small number], and then they need to be overhauled. But this isn’t a Yiddish Studies problem; this is an everyone problem. In the meantime, we can exult in the amazing materials that the field is putting out!

MLA STYLE
Cohen, Madeleine, and Diana Clarke. “Sholem Aleichem's Digital Turn.” In geveb, January 2017: https://ingeveb.org/blog/sholem-aleichems-digital-turn.
CHICAGO STYLE
Cohen, Madeleine, and Diana Clarke. “Sholem Aleichem's Digital Turn.” In geveb (January 2017): Accessed Jun 25, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Madeleine Cohen

Madeleine Cohen received her PhD in Comparative Literature with a designated emphasis in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the Preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard. She is In geveb's Editor-in-Chief.

Diana Clarke

Diana Clarke is the blog editor and copy editor for In geveb.