Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness–Chronicle of Popular Jewish Writer

Joseph Dorman’s fascinating documentary, aptly titled “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” offers a vividly colorful portrait of one of the most popular and significant Jewish voices.

With this riveting non-fictional work, Dorman who previously directed the equally interesting “Arguing the World,” establishes himself as a major chronicler of Jewish life.

Intelligent, absorbing and informative, this biographical feature illuminates what was special about Aleichem as a distinctly Jewish writer by placing him and his rich work in the broader contexts of Eastern European Jewish history and politics.

Most people know him as the writer whose character Tevye and Milkman and stories became the basis of the long-running Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was made into a wonderful 1973 musical movie by Norman Jewison (starring the Israeli actor Topol).

Sholem Aleichem’s biography is nothing short of absorbing.  At the center is a rebellious genius, who created an entirely new literature and folklore that captured the essence of shtetl with brilliant humor and amazing detail life better than any other writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer (“Yentl”) included.

Dorfman shows that Sholem Aleichem was not just a witness to the creation of a new modern Jewish identity, but one of the very forces that forever shaped and defined it.  That identity was forged during tumultuous historical times of change and anti-Semitic violence (pogroms, as they were called) in 19th century Eastern Europe.  Yiddish literature (manifest in books, songs, letters, plays, and later movies) was the best witness to this Jewish transformation.

Aware of the conflicting pressures on Jewish identity at the turn of the century, Sholem Aleichem’s work explored, as the critic Dan Miron observed. “How to adopt to modernity and yet not lose the continuity of a civilization that was Jewish. Clearly the answers given by Sholem Aleichem 100 years ago cannot be the answers given today. But what you can learn from him is how to negotiate an answer. Or even how to ask the question.”

The filmmaker also debates and clarifies some misconceptions about the noted author. Far from the light, folksy writer many took him to be, Aleichem was a subtle chronicler and a sophisticated artist, the Jewish equal of such seminal Russian figures as Chekhov or Gogol.

Using rarely seen photographs and archive footage, poignant narration by actors Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch, and interviews with leading experts and the author’s own granddaughter, author Bel Kauffmann, the film depicts in great detail the life and times of Sholem Aleichem.

His work left lasting legacies in Israel and the Soviet Union, as well as in the U.S., where he died in 1916. Reportedly, his funeral, attended by some 200,000 people, was the largest public event of its kind in the history of New York City.  After his death, Sholem Aleichem’s work, especially his Teyve stories, were adapted for the stage in various countries, especially Israel, and then for the screen in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Adding a major panel to the growing body of cinematic work on Jewish life, past and present, “Sholem Aleichem” should become required viewing in courses on modern Jewish history and literature.