CAPSULE: The life of the Yiddish story-writer Sholem Aleichem mirrors the changing, often tragic, world of Eastern European Jewry in the late 19th and early 20th century. Writer/Producer/Director Joseph Dorman lovingly crafts a biographical documentary of the often beautiful, often tragic life in shtetl communities. As the title suggests this is a portrait of a people living in constant hardship and keeping themselves sane with a bit of humor. The telling is as sweet as honey cake and as bitter as horseradish. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10 Full disclosure: I believe I am descended from the sort of shtetl Jews depicted in this film. I might have a little bias.
My Chinese officemate once borrowed from me the film FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. While he had it his father watched the movie and said it was a very Chinese story. Sholem Aleichem (often spelled "Sholom" or "Shalom") had crafted the characters of his stories with wit and authenticity enough that his readers (and film viewers) could see themselves and people they knew in the stories. He gave us portraits of people who are at once very Jewish but with whom anyone can identify. In Tevye's ideal world he would do little but study the Holy Books in the Jewish way. But along the way he might want to be a rich man like a Rothschild. And who would not?
Sholem Aleichem's pictures of Eastern European Jewish life can honestly be called "beloved" but also nostalgic as that world was dying even as the wrote about it. These days most Americans who have heard of Sholem Aleichem know him predominately for writing the "Tevye" stories on which the 1971 film FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was based. But Americans may not know that Sholem Aleichem was largely responsible for founding a rich literature in Yiddish and he was considered the greatest writer of that literature. It was a vibrant literature that nearly died out and only in recent years is returning to life.
The phrase "Sholem Aleichem" is a greeting meaning "peace be upon you." (For that reason it is hard to refer to him as just "Aleichem".) It was chosen as the penname of Sholem Rabinovich (1852-1916). SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHING IN THE DARKNESSS is the story of the author, the language, and the fate of the once thriving culture of Eastern European Jewry. As one interviewee points out, Sholem Aleichem did not use humor as an escape from the harsh realities of Jewish life but to put even the pain in perspective. By writing about poor people and making them seem important, at least for the length of the story, it made them feel a little more important themselves. He wrote in his stories the joys, foibles, and fears that Eastern European Jews faced. His "Tevye" stories are the best remembered, but they are only a small part of his writing. Equally memorable is the fast-talking wheeler-dealer Menahem-Mendl and the super-optimist, Motl, the Cantor's son, who has a sense of wonder about everything.
When Sholem Aleichem wrote about character he was in large part writing about himself and his world. Tevye, we learn in the film, was always the same age as Sholom Aleichem. If the author did not write a "Tevye" story for five years when he picked up his pen Tevye was five years older than in the last story. When Tevye was angry that his first daughter chose a husband for herself, it was because Tevye feared the independence that the changing world had brought to the young. When he wrote about Tevye's second daughter's marriage social upheaval had disturbed the author's life. Tevye had seen inter-religious marriage and assimilation in his own world and he was writing about his fears. He recorded the lives of the Jews who lived in towns and the smaller, mostly Jewish villages called "shtetls." Most of his stories were set in the fictional Shtetl Kasrilevke (changed to Anatevka in "Fiddler on the Roof") in the Russian Pale of Settlement. Even today his stories are the best records of the flavor of life in the shtetls.
Sholem Aleichem wrote his earliest works in the formal Hebrew language, but for his stories to reach the people he soon began writing in the day-to-day language of the Jewish people, Yiddish. He wrote with wit and profundity. Yiddish was more than just the common language, it was, as the film points out, a sort of "portable homeland of the Jew." Sholem Aleichem solicited and collected stories by others written in Yiddish and did much of the founding of Yiddish-language literature. The Jews responded to his writing and it became a common tradition among the shtetl Jews to read a Sholem Aleichem story after weekly Sabbath dinner on Friday nights.
With archive footage and interviews with literature experts, Aaron Lansky (founder of the National Yiddish Book Center), Bel Kaufmann (granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem who brought his style wit wedded to serious issues with her book UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE.) Colorful selections of Sholem Aleichem's prose are very well read to spice the narrative.
For me this was a beautiful film--a small gem. Spiced with the wit of Sholem Aleichem, it sweetens the heartbreaking accounts of pogroms and helps to make the sadness a little more bearable. I rate SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHING IN THE DARKNESS a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHING IN THE DARKNESS will be released to theaters on July 8, 2011.
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Mark R. Leeper email@example.com Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper