Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (documentary)

When my rabbi speaks on anything involving Yiddish literature, I'm sure to listen, because before she went to rabbinical school, she worked at the National Yiddish Book Center, and she is an expert.  And she said this documentary was a must-see, so yesterday I went to see it.  I agree with her.  "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," a documentary film by Joseph Dorman, is definitely a must-see.

For those who aren't clued in, Sholem Aleichem was the pen-name of Sholem Rabinowitz, a Jewish writer born in the Pale of Settlement on the western edge of the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century.  Although he wrote his first few works in Hebrew, the literary language for educated Jews, he soon decided to do some pioneering and write and publish stories in Yiddish, the lingua franca of the common Jews of Eastern Europe in his time.  Prior to Sholem Aleichem, there was little in the way of published Yiddish literature.  The success of his work helped to spawn a substantial body of literature over the period of about a century.

Sholem Aleichem was himself an interesting character who led a life full of incident, much travel, successes and failures, and a sad end in America.  He was definitely a man of the Pale of Settlement, most at home there.  His first trip to America was a disaster.  Coming several years prior to World War I, he attempted to establish himself quickly as a playwright, with two Yiddish language plays opening simultaneously amidst the bustling Yiddish theater scene on the lower East Side of Manhattan.  Unfortunately, critical reaction was harsh, both plays flopped, and he went back to Europe, his tail between his legs.  The emigrees in New York, it seems, were not so very interested in dramatic depictions of life in the old country; being forward-looking, they sought dramas depicting their struggles in the New World, a subject with which Sholem Aleichem was not yet familiar.  To make ends meet back in Eastern Europe, he went on extensive tours, reading from his Yiddish fiction on the stage, his every appearance in the small towns of the Pale a local cultural event.  After the outbreak of World War I and massive dislocations for the Jews of eastern Europe, he came back to America, old and sick, and died in New York, impoverished, after writing an autobiography.

Sholem Aleichem's funeral was reportedly one of the most significant events in signalling the size and potential cultural and political significance of the Jewish community in New York, with thousands lining the streets as his coffin was born processionally through all the Jewish neighborhoods to its resting place, with eulogies delivered along the way.  Despite his lack of commercial success in New York, he was widely revered as a cultural icon, and the crowds came out.

After his death, his work enjoyed periodic revivals in the Soviet Union, Palestine, and the U.S., and eventually his major works were published in English translations and began to catch on here.  Interest really took off in the 1970s when Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick presented the hit Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, based on characters from some of Sholem Aleichem's short stories.  My recollection was that the show was more successful as a stage musical than a movie.  I saw a recent Broadway revival with Harvey Fierstein playing the leading role of Tevye;  I enjoyed his characterization, but at the same time wished for a Tevye with a better singing voice…. How I regret that the original production, with Zero Mostel as Tevye, was before my time as a Broadway theater-goer!

This film does a marvelous job of recreating the world of the Pale of Settlement in which Sholem Aleichem grew up and established himself as a writer.  Through a skillful blend of archival photographs, stock film footage of Jewish scenes in early 20th century Eastern Europe and New York, and interviews with a selection of experts and the author's granddaughter, author Bel Kaufman, as well as a very clear and informative narration, the film provides an in-depth exposure to Sholem Aleichem and his world, exploring the cultural significance of his work and the life it took on after his death. One thing I always notice is the soundtrack – in this case, there is terrific music in the klezmer style. 

In one fascinating sequence, Harnick explains how he took phrases and ideas directly out of Sholem Aleichem's writings to construct lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof, and Bel Kaufman (now a centenarian) provides some personal memories of her grandfather, whom she knew as a little girl.  The soundtrack even includes an old acoustic recording of Sholem Aleichem reading some of his work in Yiddish.

Anyone interested in that period will find this incredibly fascinating, and I suspect even those very familiar with the period and the work of Sholem Aleichem will learn new things about him, his life and his work from this film.  It has a lively pace, lasts a swift 90 or so minutes, and is entertaining as well as informative.  I echo my rabbi's endorsement!

2 thoughts on “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (documentary)

  1. Yes, we don’t consider 57 old. But at the time and given his decrepit physical condition during his last years, I’m sure he and everyone around him considered him old.

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