|A 1907 image of Sholem Aleichem, the subject of “Laughing in the Darkness.’’ (Sholem Aleichem House)|
Documentary tells the tale of ‘the Jewish Mark Twain’
Sholem Aleichem was the pen name of Solomon Rabinovich, who was born in 1859 in what is now Ukraine. He took his pseudonym from the Yiddish equivalent of the Hebrew greeting “shalom aleichem.’’ As a teenager, he undertook his first literary endeavor, an alphabetical glossary of his stepmother’s Yiddish curses. He could hardly have come up with a better precis for the vast body of work to come: glinting humor extracted from hard and unhappy circumstance - and, crucially, written in Yiddish. That language had previously been considered unworthy of literary attention. In the stories, novels, and plays that followed, Sholem Aleichem became its first and greatest master.
The wide world knows Sholem Aleichem best for providing the source material for what would become “Fiddler on the Roof.’’ But remembering Sholem Aleichem for “Fiddler’’ would be like remembering Shakespeare for “West Side Story.’’
Author photos are never on oath. Masters of fiction on the page can also be masters of fiction on the face. But Joseph Dorman’s excellent documentary “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness’’ offers such an abundance of photographic portraits of its subject that a reliable composite image emerges.
The wide-set eyes betray keenness and merriment. The man dresses well and has a touch of the dandy, thanks to his longish wavy hair and the droopy mustache of his Van Dyke beard. He also evinces an air of slight melancholy, as of someone who knows how often we laugh in lieu of sighing. It’s easy to understand why Sholem Aleichem was referred to as “the Jewish Mark Twain.’’ This is a person you’d enjoy spending time with and learning from. That’s certainly the case with Dorman’s film.
In a way, the documentary is a kind of prequel to Dorman’s previous one, “Arguing the World’’ (1998). The New York intellectual milieu that he chronicled there can be traced back to the Eastern European shtetls Sholem Aleichem made his subject matter. What Dorman presents, really, is a portrait of the world as well as the man who so famously recorded it.
“His genius was he saw where Jews were going, but he also knew where they came from,’’ says Aaron Lansky, of the National Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst. “He gave us the literature which could bridge a gap at exactly that moment in history where we were shifting not from one generation to the next but one epoch to the next.’’
Lansky is one of several notably articulate talking heads in the film. Others include Harvard professor Ruth R. Wisse, “Fiddler’’ lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and the novelist Bel Kaufman, Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter.
There are clips from several films based on the writer’s work, including “Fiddler’’ (which, it must be said, looks pretty ghastly), as well as period photographs and vintage footage of life in the shtetl and on the Lower East Side. Sholem Aleichem spent a year in New York before World War I and returned after hostilities broke out. He died there, in 1916. Two hundred thousand people attended his funeral.
For most of its existence, Yiddish was primarily a spoken rather than written language. So it’s fitting that the soundtrack is crucial to the documentary. Dorman includes generous excerpts from Sholem Aleichem’s writings (among the readers are Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch). John Zorn’s delicately textured, elegantly propulsive score, arranged for harp, accordion, violin, cello, and bass, is a marvel. Unseen voices are heard throughout speaking Yiddish and Russian. We even get to listen to a recording of Sholem Aleichem’s voice. Welcome as that is, it’s not necessary. The man’s own writing has already let us hear it.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.