Title: Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Directed By: Joseph Dorman

Written By: Joseph Dorman

Cast: Sholem Aleichem

Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 6/21/11

Opens: July 8, 2011

Sholem Aleichem, whose real name was Solomon Rabinovitz, is a character who is better known to Jews than to Christians, though one wonders whether now, with the Yiddish language dying an increasingly rapid death, there are many young Jews around who consider him a household word. Taking the name Sholem Aleichem, which is the only Hebrew that most people know “Peace be with you” was Rabinovitz’s way of signaling the importance of being read by ordinary people as opposed to folks who might want to be familiar only with high Russian literature by Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy and others.

Joseph Dorman’s documentary features a number of talking heads speaking in fairly long monologues. The most fascinating part of these monologues is not so much what the people are saying –we can get that in books and on the ‘net—but hearing the Yiddish language. All the Jewish folks that I know use Yiddish intermittently if at all: such expressions as “oy vey,” “schlep,” “schmeggeggy,” “schlemiel,” “schmuck” are the most popular, so much so that some might wonder whether that’s it, that’s Yiddish, rather than a complete, recognized language which includes a mixture of German and Hebrew.

Aside from the talking heads, Dorman lets us in on some fascinating archival footage, almost all in black-and-white stills and movies dating before the First World War, involving life in the shetl, or Jewish neighborhoods found mostly in Russia where Sholem was born and raised. The shtetls as shown in this movie were full of life. Everyone is outdoors, everyone seems to have a stand to sell textiles, pickles, whatever. In fact in this Russian Pale of Settlement five million Jews resided, sometimes in peace with Gentile neighbors with whom they had little or no contact, sometimes interrupted with vicious pogroms committed by marauding Russian Gentiles from the Cossacks, sometimes from de facto armed groups that traveled from shetl to shtetl on murderous rampages. Graphic shots show Jewish bodies lined up neatly in the dirt, disfigured by killers who scapegoated the Jewish population when things went wrong in Russia. World War I? Fault of the Jews. Assassination of Czar Alexander II? Who else? The pogroms ultimately would lead to a mass exodus of Jews to Palestine, Europe and the U.S. at a time that America’s doors appeared to be open without the need of passports.

Sholem Aleichem was poor, he was rich, and he was poor again, but whatever his condition and whatever the condition of Jews in the shtetl, he wrote stories for the Yiddish press and later novels and plays that made light of tragedy, something like the way the movie “The Producers,” which featured a song “Springtime for Hitler,” found acceptance by Jews as decades had passed since the Holocaust. His stories would evoke graphic images of life in the shtetl and would probably find an audience far more among Jews than Gentiles.

However what ultimately gave Sholem recognition after his death at the age of 57 in New York (his funeral was attended by 100,000 to 200,000 people, the largest such gathering in the Big Apple’s history), was the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on his stories of Tevya the Milkman. There really was a Tevya that was a friend of Sholem, a slight man with whom he conversed regularly, but “Fiddler,” based on the Tevya stories, is largely autobiographical. A key theme is intermarriage: when Chava, the third and most independent-minded daughter of the dairymen, ran off with a Russian Gentile (who introduced her to Gogol and other non-Jewish authors for the first time), Tevya is crushed, thinking this is the beginning of the end of Jewish culture. Some critics have noted, however, that since Jews are universalist and liberal for the most part, they should not be opposed to such marriages, yet many are. Therein lies the contradiction between ideology and reality.

Whether this documentary will cross over and be seen by many Gentiles is debatable; in fact one wonders just how many young Jews today, largely secular, will find much to interest them. But who knows? “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” could be part of a renaissance of involvement in Jewish history and culture, and if so, we have Joseph Dorman to thank.

Unrated. 93 minutes. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Story: B+

Acting: A-

Technical: B+

Overall: B+

Sholem Aleichem Laughing in the Darkness

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