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Documentary on Sholem Aleichem ‘laughs in darkness’

Sholem Aleichem“No matter how bad things get you got to go on living, even if it kills you” — Sholem Aleichem

I HAVE never read the works of the Yiddish master Sholem Aleichem. “What, do you come from a shtetl at the bottom of the ocean?” I guess so — and if you only had the time to listen I have such a sad story to tell you! But enough of that . . .

A few nights ago, I sat on my proverbial couch and watched the DVD “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” a documentary worthy of the rave reviews sweeping across the country. This superior film traces the life of Solomon Rabinovich, born in 1859 near Kiev — and a Jewish community teetering on upheaval, exile and extinction.

(The pseudonym Sholem Aleichem literally means, “peace be with you” in Hebrew, but Yiddish boils down formality into a colloquial “hello there.”)

Producer-director-writer Joseph Dorman juxtaposes archival photographs of Aleichem with early film footage of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement to capture the man and his era. A klezmer score hits the high and low notes of the Jews’ tragicomic communal existence.

Like guideposts illuminating an obscured nocturnal journey, scholars and experts demystify the legend behind the copious literary legacy — Aleichem’s granddaughter and author Bel Kaufman, Aaron Lansky, David Roskies, Mendy Cahan, David Miron, Hillel Halkin, Ruth Wisse. (Roskies and Wisse are siblings, by the way.)

The first thing I want to know about Sholem Aleichem is incredibly superficial. What did he look like? Actually he is quite handsome, and a bit of a dandy (despite the owl-framed spectacles). I like his face, an odd mix of artistic arrogance and profound human compassion.

For Aleichem, humor is a conscious choice. Only 13 when his mother dies, Aleichem’s father remarries a shrewish woman. Instead of running away or finding solace in a bottle, Aleichem compiles a glossary of his stepmother’s Yiddish curses — and there were plenty, let me tell you.

Defying Jewish religious authorities and the Russian establishment, he decides to write in Yiddish. Considered a colorful, common and even vulgar language, Yiddish was the one constant Ashkenazi Jews carried with them “like a portable homeland” to their new surroundings.

He falls in love with Olga Loyeff, a wealthy young girl who is totally beneath his station. Her parents throw him out.

A few years later, when he has a more respectable job, he and Olga reunite, marry, and have several  children. Yet none of them learn how to read or speak Yiddish — a sad story for another time.

Like his characters Menachem-Mendl and Tevye the Dairyman, Aleichem has grandiose dreams of financial success all his life. He routinely speculates in stocks until he loses everything in the crash of 1890.

His mother-in-law, now a widow, opens her home to Aleichem and his young family and pays all his debts. But she never speaks to her son-in-law again (undoubtedly a great relief).

Bel Kaufman describes her grandfather’s unique writing process: up at 5 a.m. “when G-d Himself was still asleep,” standing in his bathrobe at a special lectern, quill in hand.

Until he becomes a self-supporting author, he divides his time between business and “the wee hours of the morning,” when he can fully embrace the persona of Sholem Aleichem.

By the 1880s, Aleichem’s inventive use of the Yiddish press, which serializes his stories, earns him cultural icon status. Every Friday night like a new Shabbos ritual, Jews spread out the newspaper after the evening meal, devour the latest installment and amass unforgettable quotes.

“I’ll see the Messiah before I see my money again.”

“I never turn down a drink. Among friends it’s always appropriate. A man is only a man as they say, but brandy is still brandy. You’ll find that in the Talmud too.”

“I’d get more sympathy if I were a corpse.”

“If somebody tells you you have ears like a donkey, pay no attention. But if two people tell you, buy yourself a saddle.”

On and on . . .

For 25 years, Aleichem produces one, sometimes two stories every week. Such motivation! Such mishagaas!

Like nearly every American Jew who could afford a ticket, I saw the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1971.

Forty years later, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” introduces me to the real Tevye sans music or choreography. He may have been an actual acquaintance of Aleichem’s or simply an amalgam of personalities. No one knows for certain.

Tevye the Dairyman does not dwell in Kasrilevke, where the majority of Aleichem’s stories are set. Eking out his existence in the countryside, he is a “do-it-yourself” Jew as one commentator says.

The humble laborer who yearns for wealth expresses Aleichem’s personal challenges — incessant poverty, intermarriage, assimilation — through a parental perspective. The author “invented Tevye to explore his own conflicts and the changing world,” says one scholar.

Pogroms, long a bitter staple of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia, intensify in the late 1800s. The documentary includes rare photos of torn bodies to emphasize the nightmare fate of Jews in Russia. Try to assimilate and we’ll kill you. Don’t assimilate and we’ll kill you.

In 1906, 46-year-old Sholem Aleichem, his wife and youngest son book passage for America. He lands in New York City, where the press hails him as “the Jewish Mark Twain.” He’d rather be America’s greatest Yiddish playwright.

Unfortunately, the public condemns his efforts. A critic describes one play as  “a stillborn monster.” Crushed, Aleichem returns to Russia a year later.

Forced to wander in search of a sufficient income, he travels through Eastern Europe giving readings. The people love him, because he loves them.

NOMADIC life devastates Aleichem’s health. One night, as word spreads that he is coughing up blood, young people cover the cobblestones beneath his window with straw so he can rest undisturbed.

Although he will live 10 more years, Aleichem suffers from numerous physical problems. The theme of homelessness permeates his work, mirroring his own condition and that of Eastern European Jews.

In one story called “Lekh-Lekho,” Tevye equates inevitable Jewish exile with the patriarch Abraham, who had a much easier time of it:

“When G-d came to . . . Father Abraham and told him, ‘Get thee out of thy land,’ did Abraham ask Him where to go? G-d told him exactly where to go, el ha’orets asher arekko — which means in plain language, hit the road . . . We’ll go where other Jews go — that is, where our two feet take us.”

When WW I breaks out in 1914, two million Eastern European Jews hit the road. Sholem Aleichem is right behind them. He travels to Germany, Copenhagen and finally, America (not exactly his dream choice considering his last reception there). He writes “Tales of One Thousand and One Nights,” a haunting, pre-Holocaust piece, during the ocean crossing.

Sholem Aleichem dies in 1916 in New York City. So what happens next? Jewish New York throws the largest funeral in the city’s history to date for the man they rejected a mere 10 years earlier.

Over 200,000 Jews, including the cream of Yiddish literati, turn out in force. The funeral procession stops in every Jewish neighborhood, where a different speaker delivers yet another eulogy.

After Aleichem’s death, the Jewish renaissance he planted with his words takes root in America, Israel and Russia. Today, after decades of sleep, it is stirring again.

I can hear you now. “After all her endless talking, she’s going to insist that I absolutely must watch this film! So what’s left to see?”

Trust me. A wondrous land beckons just beyond the horizon.



Denverites can view “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” at the Landmark Theater, Oct. 14. It also will be shown at the JAAMM Fest, Sunday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m., at the Denver Film Center. A discussion with producer-director Joseph Dorman follows this screening.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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