Raised in a 19th-century shtetl near Kiev, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (né Solomon Rabinovich) died in New York among a deeply divided Jewish Diaspora while the Great War that tolled the final death knell for pre-modern European Jewry raged across his home continent. Thus Aleichem’s life can be said to have spanned the great transitional period in Hebraic culture, as industrialization sped the dissipation of the traditional artisan-based existence of the ghetto; as Jews turned their attention to larger movements such as Zionism and revolutionary socialism; and as many were eventually forced to flee the old country as world-historical events led to scapegoating and subsequently brutal pogroms.
In Joseph Dorman’s incisive documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, the filmmaker not only sets up the writer’s life as representative of the transitions of early modern Jewish life, but posits his oeuvre as an ongoing chronicle of the shift from a vibrant, unified Yiddish culture to a fractured world-in-exile, a body of work chiefly concerned with, as one of the film’s scholarly talking heads puts it, “how to be Jewish in the modern world.” Life and art synch up neatly in Dorman’s film, particularly given the director’s strategy of having a narrator read an appropriate passage from one of Aleichem’s stories to supplement a piece of biographical data, enthusiastically drawling in a perhaps excessively Semitic voice. But the equation of biography and literary output never feels overly schematic, thanks to the range of intelligent voices on hand to explain the richness and deeper significance of Aleichem’s deceptively simple tales and push beyond simple life/work equivalencies.
As much a work of literary criticism as it is of biography, the film finds scholars ranging from Columbia’s Dan Miron to National Yiddish Book Center founder Aaron Lansky weighing in on everything from Aleichem’s importance as the creator of a modern Yiddish culture (in a literary world that favored Hebrew or Russian as the language of choice), to the writer’s use of a very Jewish brand of humor in order to gain a larger perspective on tragedy, to the afterlife of his stories, particularly his most famous creation, Tevye the Dairyman, who appeared not only in Fiddler on the Roof, but in a celebrated 1939 silver-screen cheapie. Occasionally offering close readings of Aleichem’s texts, which they often translate themselves from the original Yiddish, the film’s scholars dig deep in order to suss out the nuances of a particular turn of phrase or a mode of narration. Occasionally, they draw the biographical parallels a little too strongly, as when several subjects insist on Tevye as representative of his creator’s efforts to come to terms with his modern-minded children. Still, given the levels of insight they offer into not only the writer’s works, but into that great mass of Jewish life that existed from 1859 to 1916 and that Aleichem so ably chronicled, this reductionism can only register as a forgivably minor offense.