Today in Literary History – May 13 (or May 12a), 1916 – Sholom Aleichem dies

Sholom Aleichem, the Yiddish author and playwright died in New York on May 13, 1916, at the age of fifty-seven. Aleichem, who was born Sholom Rabinowitz in what is now Ukraine, wrote humorous stories, novels and plays about life in the Jewish shtetls like the one he himself grew up in.

One of his best loved characters is Tevye the Dairyman and the play Fiddler on the Roof  is based on Aleichem’s stories.

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It is ironic that Aleichem died on the 13th of the month since he suffered from triskaidekaphobia, the superstitious fear of the number thirteen. He never used the number 13 in his manuscripts, using 12a instead. Fans of his writing began a tradition of referring to the date of his death as May 12a, 1916.

There is a popular rumour that his date of death is recorded that way on his headstone, but if fact his headstone is engraved in Hebrew and his dates are given according to the Hebrew calander, making it the 10th of Iyar. His funeral was attended by over 100,000 mourners and was the largest funeral in New York up to that time.

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Aleichem began his writing career in Hebrew but soon switched to Yiddish, which was the common language that Jews across Europe and in immigrant communities in America used at home. It was often looked down on by Hebrew literary purists, but a strong tradition of Yiddish theatre took hold, and became extremely popular in New York where Jewish immigrants from different European backgrounds could share the language. Aleichem is credited as one of the most important proponents of Yiddish as a literary language.

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Aleichem’s funeral, May 15, 1916

His adopted pen name is a play on the traditional Hebrew greeting “shalom aleichem” meaning “peace be with you.” Because of their shared use of pseudonyms and the humorous content of their writing Aleichem was often called “The Yiddish Mark Twain.” When he heard of it Twain reportedly said, “Tell him I’m the American Sholom Aleichem.”

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