Joseph Dorman’s documentary follows the groundbreaking literary career of Sholem Aleichem, the first Yiddish-language writer to make a significant impact on world literature. For those who’ve never read Sholem Aleichem’s work or who only know him through the adaptation of his stories into the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the film offers invaluable insight into the creative artist and his environment.

Born Sholem Rabinowitz in 1859 in today’s Ukraine, Sholem Aleichem lived a tumultuous adventure that seesawed between great wealth and near-destitution. His literary talents were focused into writing and publishing Yiddish literature, which created a major departure from his 19th century contemporaries who preferred to focus on writing in either Hebrew or Russian. His work became extremely popular throughout the Yiddish-speaking populations of Europe, who embraced his warm yet thorny tales of precarious Jewish life in a hostile Tsarist Russia.

Sholem Aleichem managed to elude the violent anti-Semitism of the late 19th and early 20th century period – his family survived a Kiev pogrom by hiding in a luxury hotel and having their Christian housekeeper protect their home. Yet in his final years, he faced challenges to his popularity (most notably in a failed attempt to secure success in New York’s Yiddish-language theater) and his health (a 1908 reading tour of Eastern Europe ended with a tuberculosis diagnosis). His posthumous popularity extended throughout the U.S. via “Fiddler on the Roof” (which took some significant liberties with his source material) and the U.S.S.R. (which originally embraced him a folk hero until Stalinist anti-Semitism spun out of control). Ironically, his work has been much less popular in Israel, where efforts to stamp out Yiddish in favor of Hebrew served to limit the audience of his non-translated work.

Dorman’s documentary brings together an extraordinary wealth of rare photographs, including astonishing shots of the writer’s 1916 funeral in New York – a crowd of 200,000 showed up, making it the city’s largest funeral attendance. There is also a very rare audio recording of the writer from his ill-fated 1908 reading tour. Interviews with various Yiddish scholars and the writer’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman (herself a famous writer, best known for “Up the Down Staircase”) help to place Sholem Aleichem’s work into proper historic context. Also included are readings of numerous passages of Sholem Aleichem’s writing, which are set against photographs and newsreels of the now-vanished Jewish villages of the Tsarist empire.

“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” is an invigorating and fascinating biographical documentary that should be required viewing for anyone with a love for the written word.

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  1. rokhl says:

    First, but hopefully not the last! 😉

  2. Phil Hall says:

    This has been corrected – my bad! But at least something good came of this: possibly the first time that Sholem Aleichem and Meat Loaf were mentioned in the same sentence! 🙂

  3. rokhl says:

    Thanks for covering this movie. Just one note: It’s incorrect to refer to Sholem Aleichem as Mr. Aleichem or ‘Aleichem.’ Aleichem was not his last name and did not function as a last name in Yiddish. ‘Sholem Aleichem’ is a Yiddish phrase (it’s a greeting) and when he’s referred to as ‘Aleichem’ it’s as incongruous as the singer Meat Loaf being referred to as ‘Mr. Loaf’ in the New York Times.

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