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Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

An intelligent, revealing if conventional bio-doc of the famed Yiddish writer.

Joseph Dorman’s intelligent if conventional bio-doc of Sholem Aleichem proves particularly revealing, since the famed, dandyish Yiddish writer led a life as full of colorful ironies as the motormouth schlemiels that populate his stories. Featuring impassioned scholars and illustrated by striking images of the shtetl and its denizens, images usually reserved for pre-Holocaust works, pic evokes the dispersal of Eastern European Jewry in the 1800s from a lively, peculiarly folkloric perspective. Obvious Jewish-themed fest fare, “Aleichem” would play equally well in culture-targeted PBS venues.

Dorman’s approach to the biography of Aleichem, born Solomon Rabinowitz in 1859, follows several parallel strands, switching among the historical, literary and anecdotal. It seems that when Rabinowitz’s father remarried, he had already sired 12 children, a fact he kept from his new bride. He sent his brood away after the wedding but steadily reincorporated them, one by one, into the fold. Thus, Rabinowitz’s first literary opus was an alphabetically arranged collection of curses pronounced by his shrewish stepmother on those occasions.

This early dip into common vernacular influenced his seminal decision to write in lowly Yiddish, the “portable homeland,” as opposed to Russian, the language of Tolstoy and Turgenev, or Hebrew, that of the Jewish literati. Shortly thereafter came the creation of his pseudonymous persona, Sholem Aleichem (translated by one of the film’s more dynamic talking heads, Hillel Halkin, as “Hello again!”), an itinerant listener who faithfully transcribes recounted tales. He published these Dickensian stories in local newspapers, syndicated worldwide, triggering a renaissance in Yiddish literature; ironically, his own children, whom he raised speaking Russian in Kiev, could not read a word of their father’s output.

Aleichem painted vivid portraits of shtetl life at precisely the moment it began to disappear — economically undermined by the Industrial Revolution that rendered traditional artisanal crafts obsolete, decimated by a sharp upsurge in pogroms and culturally fragmented by the Jewish Enlightenment, which opened the door to a more cosmopolitan worldview. (Rabinowitz himself was educated at a secular school.)

Actors, performing readings over archival photographs, interpret the roles in Aleichem’s yarns, especially those epistolary stories featuring Menakhem Mendl, an eternal optimist whose endless get-rich-quick schemes are ever doomed to failure, and his practical, shtetl-bound wife, Shayne Sheyndl, who responds with a litany of imprecations and lamentations. Rabinowitz’s own adventures were more upwardly mobile, even bordering on novelistic cliche when, as a penniless young tutor, he eloped with his rich boss’ daughter, eventually inheriting the estate. But his good fortune was foredoomed when his overconfident speculation in the stock market led to Menakhem-like financial fiasco.

His other peasant standby, Tevye the Dairyman, attained fame Stateside as the hero of the fantastically popular Broadway show and Hollywood hit “Fiddler on the Roof.” Aleichem himself, initially hailed as a “Jewish Mark Twain,” fared less successfully. His first two Yiddish plays, opening simultaneously, were mercilessly lambasted by New York critics, and he left the U.S., highly disillusioned, after one year. He only returned in 1916 when gravely ill, the Jewish situation in Europe having become dire. Ironically, his death politically united a Jewish community hitherto too divided to wield much power, and his Gotham funeral was attended by a staggering 200,000 people.

Tech credits are fine, with oft-reprised but crisply clear archival footage.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

  • Production: A Riverside Films production. Produced, directed, written by Joseph Dorman.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), Edward Marritz; editors, Aaron Kuhn, Kenneth Levis, Amanda Zinoman; music, John Zorn; sound, Mark Mandler; sound designer, Evan Benjamin. Reviewed on DVD, New York, Feb. 9, 2011. Running time: 93 MIN.
  • With: With: Dan Miron, Hillel Halkin, Bel Kaufman, David Roskies, Ruth Wisse. Narrator: Alan Rosenberg. Voices: Peter Riegert, Rachel Dratch, Jason Kravits, Daniel Lerman.