Movie review: 'Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness'

Sholem Aleichem's posthumous reputation is a double paradox. Yiddish's greatest writer, he's best known today for an English-language theatrical version of his work. More than that, some of the people who revere him the most understand him the least. Were he alive to see it all, the man himself would surely be amused.

"Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" is a beautifully made documentary that sets the record straight in a thoughtful, incisive way. Director Joseph Dorman has successfully combined artfully chosen archival material and perceptive interviews with some of the best thinkers in the Yiddish world, including academics Dan Miron, David Roskies and Ruth Wisse; translator Hillel Halkin; the National Yiddish Book Center's Aaron Lansky; and author Bel Kaufman, Sholem Aleichem's 100-year-old granddaughter.

The result is more than an examination of the contradictory life of the celebrated humorist and storyteller, it's a compelling cinematic look at the complex world of Eastern European Jews. Those who remember Dorman's last film, the excellent "Arguing the World," an examination of such midcentury New York Jewish thinkers as Daniel Bell and Irving Howe, will not be surprised.

As the director has said, numerous contemporary Jews have copies of the writer's Tevye the Dairyman stories on their bookshelves in part because they inspired the hugely popular "Fiddler on the Roof." But as "Laughing in the Darkness" takes pains to point out, Sholem Aleichem could be at times a much darker, more profound writer than the naive sentimentalist the Broadway musical may have conditioned people to expect.

A man who said "to make people laugh is almost a sickness with me," Sholem Aleichem was also a key chronicler of the 19th century's time of vast upheaval for Eastern European Jews, a change not so much from one generation to the next as from one epoch to another.

As they wrestled with the challenges of modernity and the lures of assimilation, socialism, Zionism and more, European Jews took refuge in the everyday language of Yiddish. It was, the film's experts agree, the insider language of a people on the outs, a "portable homeland" where its speakers felt safe.

Sholem Aleichem, born Sholem Rabinovich in 1859, not only wrote about those exciting times, but he also lived them, experiencing the ups and downs of fortune numerous times in his highly melodramatic life. In fact, it was the death of his mother and the arrival of a disliked stepmother that provoked his first Yiddish composition: a dictionary of his stepmother's curses, arranged alphabetically.

Writing in Yiddish was a radical idea for the adult Rabinovich — "it was a meshugas, a craziness," says Miron — especially for a man who spoke only Russian at home. But he couldn't resist what Miron calls "the wild energy" of the language and its ability to reach the widest possible Jewish audience.

When Rabinovich began writing in Yiddish as Sholem Aleichem, a traditional Jewish phrase of greeting, he was creating a persona as much as taking a pen name, positioning himself as a kind of middleman between his characters and his audience.

Though "Laughing in the Darkness" deals with Sholem Aleichem's entire output, including such books as "The Adventures of Menahem-Mendl" and "Mottel the Cantor's Son," it is the Tevye stories that understandably get pride of place.

Written over two decades, these recounting of Tevye's responses to his daughters' wrenching romantic relationships are terribly moving as well as funny. As Halkin notes, the author "never uses humor to escape from what's terrible. He creates a perspective from which the most terrible things are funny too. He believed that the highest form of faith was not to accept but to argue with God."

One reason Sholem Aleichem hasn't always gotten his due is that his highly idiomatic use of Yiddish is difficult to translate into English in a way that captures the irresistible humor of his style. His readers, however, who loved him because he validated their lives, understood perfectly.

When Sholem Aleichem died in New York in 1916, some 200,000 people turned out, the city's largest public funeral to date, an event that announced the existence of the Jewish American community in the same way Rudolph Valentino's funeral a decade later placed movie fandom on the cultural map. This film helps us understand the writer's importance and his gifts, where they come from and, more important, what they mean for us today.

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