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Flicks - Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness 12/02/09 3:06
Flicks - Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
A documentary about the giant of Yiddish literature explores the life and work of Sholem Aleichem, and the vanished world of east European Jewry from which he came. When a documentary presents the life of a literary giant, one may have reason to be apprehensive. Too often such films try to smooth over the complexities of a person in order to celebrate his greatness. But Joseph Dorman's portrait of the great Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem, entitled Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is an extremely artful and well-constructed film that not only conveys a detailed sense of the author's life and work, but constitutes a kind of mini-history of Eastern European Jewry itself in the painful transition to modernity of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Sholem Aleichem was born Sholem (or Solomon) Rabinovich, in 1859 in a small village, or shtetl, in the Ukraine. The Russian state restricted the rights of Jews, and whenever there was social unrest, they were scapegoated and attacked in murderous rampages known as pogroms. Rabinovich experienced poverty, which influenced his stories throughout his life, and although he briefly became rich through speculation and moved to the nearby big city of Kiev, he eventually went bankrupt and had to start all over. This was reflected in one of his great characters, Menachim Mendel, always with a foolish get-rich-quick-scheme, and always brought down to earth by his practical, abrasive, small-town wife.
The decision to write stories in Yiddish, and not in the traditional literary language of Hebrew, was a momentous one, inspiring an explosion of Yiddish literature in eastern Europe and around the world. He wrote under the name Sholem Aleichem, a Yiddish variant of the traditional Jewish greeting "God be with you," and he churned out stories for years at an astonishing rate of one or two a week, for the popular Yiddish press. The stories reflected the realities of everyday Jewish life confronted with the rapid changes of industrialization, economic and political upheaval, and the resulting mass emigrations to America and elsewhere.
Through interviews with quite a few very intelligent and perceptive scholars of Yiddish literature, along with Sholem Aleichem's granddaughter Bel Kaufman, a distinguished author in her own right, we learn about the difficult and often tragic changes that eastern European Jews endured, and how Sholem Aleichem dealt with these changes in his fiction. His most popular character, of course, was Tevye the milkman, whom we remember now as the hero of Fiddler on the Roof, the popular musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem's work. The Tevye stories explore many vital issues, including the relationship with one's children and intermarriage with Gentiles. The humor of the stories, as we see, was not an escape from reality, but a very frank and honest engagement with it. The questions he posed, and his answers, were not always simple or reassuring.
The film features a very rich tapestry of photographs from Sholem Aleichem's life and family, but also from eastern European Jewish life in general. There are also amazing glimpses of the vanished world of the shtetl in early motion pictures. When Sholem Aleichem died in 1916, after having emigrated to New York, 200 thousand people paid their respects at his funeral. This documentary makes you understand why.