Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Straightforward yet surprising, <i>Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness</i> lives up to its subject&#8217;s formidable output.

For those best—or solely—acquainted with writer Sholem Aleichem via Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph Dorman’s documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a revelation. Did you know “Sholem Aleichem” was a pseudonym? Did you know the writer became a secular Jew? Did you know he was a stockbroker at the same time he was creating his greatest works? If these questions intrigue you and you have an interest in either Jewish culture or clever storytelling, then this film is for you.

Dorman (Arguing the World) employs traditional documentary techniques to tell Aleichem’s story. Born in Russia in 1859, Solomon Rabinowitz was deemed déclassé as part of a religion and class that had money but suddenly became impoverished. The grown Rabinowitz took on several jobs to make money, finally finding a temporary niche in stock-market speculation, all the while supporting his wife and many children. But Rabinowitz expressed his creative side after hours, specifically as the author of humorous Jewish folk tales.

Published in inexpensive journals, the newly named Sholem Aleichem (translated as “Hello Again!”) gained success within his community and beyond (as the “The Jewish Mark Twain”). Sadly, Rabinowitz fell back into poverty during his final years of ill health and never learned of how widely celebrated his work would become. His most famous work, the serialized adventures of Tevye, the patriarchal country farmer, became the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof, though the Broadway show was produced five decades after his death in 1916.

The narrators of the biography include modern-day talking-head writers and scholars, including Dan Miron, Ruth Wisse, David Roskies, Hillel Halkin, Aaron Lansky and, most memorably and dramatically, Rabinowitz’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman. Dorman accompanies the lively words with archival photos (some so crisply “cleaned up” by computer experts, they appear like stereopticon images) and a few select shots from Yiddish feature films (and, of course, the Fiddler on the Roof movie).

The most notable comments about Sholem Aleichem concern his position as a transitional, contradictory Jewish figure—concerned about the pogroms and other attacks against Jews but also yearning to assimilate and break through to the modern, less separatist world; Sholem Aleichem’s seemingly gently humor became the key to his balance of the two extremes. Also, the film does not ignore the fact that the writer’s final years were very troubled and his work become dark, uncertain and often bleak. These are the facts that Laughing in the Darkness illuminates in a clear, matter-of-fact way without excessively elevating or outright canonizing its subject.

The drawback to Dorman’s very fine film is that the English-language translations fail to do justice to the cadences of the works or Sholem Aleichem’s specialty at word play. This becomes evident when we hear a rare audio recording of the author reading one of his stories in Yiddish (but subtitled in English). Another entertaining passage—about the 1939 Yiddish film version of Tevye and the 1971 film of Fiddler and how they differ from the original text—should have come earlier in the documentary; the sequence would have immediately connected with less informed viewers and driven home Dorman’s main points at the same time. Had Dorman wanted to further illustrate the wide appeal of Aleichem, he could have shown a clip from The World of Sholem Alecheim, a 1959 TV special showcasing a Who's Who of mainstream Jewish stars. One final quibble is the lack of perspective from non-Jewish writers or scholars.

In any case, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness avoids smarmy clichés and emerges as a solid, well-crafted feature.