Born in the Jewish village of Pereyaslav, Poltava province, in the Ukraine, Sholem Aleichem was educated at nearby Voronkov, whose inhabitants were the models for the characters of the fictional community Kasrilevke, the setting of many of his stories. His childhood was a troubled one: both his mother and stepmother died and his father had to struggle with debts. He served as a government rabbi in Lubin for several years, eventually marrying and moving to Kiev when he inherited money from an uncle. Here he briefly edited a literary annual, Die Yiddishe Folksbibliothek (1888–89), but he was generous to a fault in paying the contributors and always unlucky in commercial matters, a failing also of the disastrously impractical hero of his epistolary novel, Menakhem Mendl (1895). Bankrupt, he moved to Odessa in 1890. By this time he was well known to readers of Yiddish but his financial affairs did not improve. He continued to write his popular humorous sketches and despite unremitting money problems he travelled widely. He moved to New York at the start of World War I and died there.
More than any other writer, Sholem Aleichem (his pseudonym, adopted in 1883, is the traditional Jewish greeting, ‘Peace be with you’) taught his fellow Jews the value of humour in adversity. When his own affairs were at their lowest point, he published a collection of sketches that embody the saving grace of humour, Tovye der Milkhiger (1894; translated as Tovye Stories, 1965), about the impoverished driver of a milkwagon who endures hardship and maintains his love of life. (The musical Fiddler on the Roof was based on these stories.) Among his other works are Stempenyu (1889), Yosele Solovey (1890), and Mottel Peyse dem Khazns (1907–16; translated as Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son, 1953), about a spirited character who refuses to come to terms with the world of adults.