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SHOLEM ALEICHEM: LAUGHING IN THE DARKNESS (director/writer: Joseph Dorman; cinematographer: Edward Marritz; editors: Aaron Kuhn/Kenneth Levis/Amanda Zinoman; cast: Alan Rosenberg (Narrator), Hillel Halkin, Aaron Lansky, Ruth Wisse, David Roskies, Bel Kauffmann, Dan Miron; Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joseph Dorman; International Film Circuitand Riverside Films; 2011)
“Poignant first-rate documentary on the prolific Yiddish literary figure who went by the pen name of Sholem Aleichem.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Joseph Dorman (“Arguing the World”) directs this poignant first-rate documentary on the prolific Yiddish literary figure Solomon Rabinovich(1859–1916) who went by the pen name of Sholem Aleichem and whose ongoing popular stories appeared in the Jewish papers. He told in real-time, for over twenty years, the life of ordinary Russian country dairyman Tevye. These stories became the basis of Fiddler on the Roof–the long-running Broadway musical which opened in 1964 and later in 1971 became the popular film.

The film chronicles the writer’s birth in a shetl in the Russian Pale of Settlement in 1859 to his marriage when he was poor to a rich girl he tutored to his colorful up and down life in Kiev as a writer and player on the stock market to his two visits to America culminating in his death in 1916. His funeral rallied the entire Jewish population of NYC and was attended by some 200,000 people–the largest funeral in the city, to date.It signaled that the writerwas responsible for forging a new modern Jewish identity, and he was the figure who best related to the different segments of the Jewish population and though considered a bourgeois could still rally even the non-religious radicals because of his sincere concerns for the little guy.

Through photographs, rare archive footage, film clips, readings from his timeless stories and wisdom imparted about Sholem Aleichem’s quest from a number of stimulating scholarly talking heads, that include his author grand-daughter Bel Kauffmann, we see what preoccupied Sholem Aleichem in his writings and that his lifetime concern was in how to be a Jew in the modern world and not lose continuity with the past. For the traditionalist but sophisticated author, also a cosmopolitan intellectual, he realizes that he could live only as a Jew and felt even if accepted into another country’s society he would lose even if he won because that would mean he couldn’t be the kind of Jew he was meant to be.

Sholem Aleichem’s writing in Yiddish, the first author to do so, took place at a time of great change for Jews, who in the early 1900s migrated en masse to the United States, Palestine and Western Europe during the Russian pogroms as their long-time anti-Semitic practices enforced many hardships (such as the Jews couldn’t own land). Aleichem’s greatest popularity was reached after his death, when especially his Tevye stories were subjected to new interpretations.

Sholem Aleichem used humor to show that even in the darkest times there’s something to laugh at, as he recognized the evolving nature of the Jewish community in the New World and realized new answers would have to be given to some of the old questions. The profound lesson he leaves the Jewish community, still in need of being reviewed, is that how you negotiate the answer is probably just as important as the answer.

For the right viewer, this is a real treat.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”