Despite the fact that he’s been dead for nearly a century and that the language in which he wrote his stories, Yiddish, is fading, it’s hard find a more relevant or entertaining writer than the fellow who dubbed himself, “Sholem Aleichem.”
The pen name for Solomon Rabinovich roughly translates into, “Hello, how are you?” His stories have the informality of a casual greeting, but they also reveal some of the unfortunate truths about human beings that the last hundred years haven’t been able to correct. His stories about would be entrepreneur Menachem Mendel are both celebrations of and warnings about capitalism.
Furthermore, because people often migrate from their homes in hopes of better work only to find new places that offer neither fortune nor safety, the fictional businessman’s frustrations are astonishingly universal. Just about any father would be able to identify with Tevye the Milkman and his confusion about how he should deal with his daughters’ maturity. It hasn’t gotten any easier.
Joseph Dorman’s new documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a remarkably thorough and fascinating look at Sholem Aleichem’s life and how his writing has continued to flourish. Essentially, Dorman provides a “just the facts, ma’am,” Ken Burns approach to the material, but that’s hardly a problem because the writer’s own story was as intriguing as the tales he’s written.
Because he wrote almost all of his adult life, there’s a surplus of material to discuss in the film, and Dorman chooses his samples wisely. He also has talented thespians like Peter Riegert, Rachel Dratch and Jason Kravitz reciting the stories and delivering them in roughly the same style people would have heard them when they were new. As the photographs that Dorman presents indicate, people would read the tales aloud at family or religious gatherings.
One of the joys of the doc is that Dorman continually finds archival photographs that vividly describe the dying shtetl life that informed Sholem Aleichem’s stories. He also arranges fragments of the tales in ways that beautifully illustrate how the stories fit into different ages. Early in the film, viewers get to hear Tevye’s “If I were a Rothschild” longings. Later, the film includes the only known audio recording of Sholem Aleichem, where he recites the same passage. Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick later explains how he adapted the same passage into the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from the stage play and movie Fiddler on the Roof. Thanks to the popularity of that musical adaptation of his Tevye stories, Sholem Aleichem’s stories will probably be with us a good deal longer.
As Dorman explains, the author’s work might have disappeared. When he came to America for the first time, two of Sholem Aleichem’s plays debuted in New York on the same night to hostile reviews. Because his stories were written in Yiddish, they were initially considered beneath the literary and liturgical value of Hebrew literature. Conversely, because they were written in Yiddish, his stories could be enjoyed from Odessa to Paris to New York.
Dorman includes testimony from both academics who can put Sholem Aleichem’s work in context and from the author’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman, who’s a formidable writer, too. She’s best known for writing Up the Down Staircase. As a result the movie is scholarly but also personal. Kaufman recalls how her grandfather was known as a writer of working class stories (the early Soviets who came to power after he died in 1916 loved him), but he was fond of the nice things that money can buy.
That said, Sholem Aleichem’s work has still proven to be world class and can be applicable to just about any culture imaginable. Dorman has crafted a tribute that is reverent and guaranteed to make others share his own fascination.