BOOTLEG FILES 313: “The World of Sholom Aleichem” (1959 TV drama based on Arnold Perl’s Off-Broadway play).
LAST SEEN: At a special screening at New York’s Paley Center for the Media on January 14, 2010.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unavailable for commercial release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oy, that would be nice!
Many people are familiar with the name of the Russian-born, Yiddish-language writer Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), but today he is primarily recognized as the literary source that inspired the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” However, not too many people have actually read his stories, which detail the trials and tribulations of the Jewish communities in Czarist Russia.
In 1953, American playwright Arnold Perl sought to capture the spirit of Sholom Aleichem by creating an Off-Broadway play. “The World of Sholem Aleichem” was actually a bit of a cheat, since only one of its three acts was directly based on an Aleichem story. Nonetheless, the work offered a vibrant celebration of the author’s spirit.
In 1959, producer David Susskind arranged for Perl to adapt his work for broadcast on the weekly television series “Play of the Week.” This production of “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was remarkable at several levels, and by contemporary standards it remains a landmark of sorts.
“The World of Sholom Aleichem” uses the figure of a bookseller peddling his wares from a pushcart as the narrator who links the three one-act plays together. Played by veteran stage actor Sam Levene, the bookseller offers the briefest of biographies on Aleichem, noting that he was considered to be the Yiddish-language Mark Twain of his day – although Twain jokingly called himself the English-language Sholom Aleichem.
The first play, “A Tale of Chelm,” provides a lighthearted overview of the residents of a shtetl that was celebrated for its population of good natured fools. Chelm stories were not unique to Aleichem – many Yiddish-language writers collected them – yet they provide a loving warmth that served as the foundation of contemporary Jewish humor. Much of the joy from this episode derives from the broad physical comedy of Zero Mostel as the befuddled religious teacher, Nancy Walker as his exasperated wife and Morris Carnovsky as a rabbi of seriously dubious knowledge.
The second play, “Bontsche Schweig,” is actually based on a story by Y.L. Peretz, a contemporary of Aleichem. The bookseller/narrator notes that this story has been passed down among generations of Eastern European Jews, noting that it was read aloud in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II – and this may have been the first time that the Warsaw Ghetto was ever mentioned on U.S. television. The story is set in Heaven, where the soul of the newly-departed “Bontsche the Silent” arrives to receive judgment. A mini-trial takes place with Bontsche (played by a bedraggled Jack Gilford) looks on in confusion and amazement while a firebrand angel (a young Lee Grant) argues his case. Her points are tragic, recalling Bontsche’s life of endless turmoil and the horrid abuse that was directed at him from childhood to his dying day. When a sympathetic heavenly court agrees to welcome Bontsche and to offer him anything from the treasures of paradise, he finally speaks and makes a request of extraordinary modesty (no spoilers here, sorry) that leaves the angels in stunned silence.
The third play is an adaptation of Aleichem’s story “The High School.” It focuses on a Jewish merchant (Carnovsky) who is cajoled by his loving but somewhat pushy wife (Gertrude Berg) to help prepare their teenage son for high school. However, in Czarist Russia the schools have severe quotas designed to prevent Jews from attending – some schools will only accept one or two, others flatly refuse any admission. The father bribes the principal of a school to accept his son, only to have the principal renege on the deal. The family then moves from city to city in hopes of finding a school that will give the boy the education he desires.
In its day, “The World of Sholom Aleichem” provided for very unusual television viewing. This was one of the first productions to recreate the world of the Eastern European Jewish ghettos, offering a glimpse of both the love within the communities and the vicious anti-Semitism that the gentile world visited on its Jewish neighbors. At a time when American television consisted of bland, suburban, non-ethnic culture, “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was more than a little exotic.
The production also offered something of a crown jewel for the anthology series “Play of the Week.” This series was notable both as something of a last hurrah (anthology drama was falling out of favor as a broadcast staple) and as the start of showing the power of original syndicated programming. “Play of the Week” was sold to independent television stations around the U.S., offering them a prestige program that they could put up against the major networks during the evening’s prime time schedule. Since the series was on film and not broadcast live, it could run at any time in any market. “The World of Sholom Aleichem” debuted on the now-defunct WNTA-TV in New York on December 14, 1959, and for the next two years it popped up on independent stations in cities around the country. When the 1964 Broadway premiere of “Fiddler on the Roof” revived interest in Aleichem’s work, this production was dusted off for another spin on the local channels.
As a syndicated program, “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was able to take a bold step that network television was not quite ready to pursue. Four members of the cast – Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Morris Carnovsky and Lee Grant – were blacklisted since the early 1950s. In casting “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” Susskind openly challenged the blacklist and provided the actors with high visibility parts that the major networks refused to consider. This provided a first and solid step in kicking down the Hollywood blacklist, and the actors would be able to go forward and resume their careers without further interruption.
(Ironically, the original Off-Broadway production cast African-American actress Ruby Dee as the angel who champions Bontsche’s cause. It would appear that it was easier for a blacklisted actor to get TV work in 1959 than a black actor.)
As for the artistic quality of “The World of Sholom Aleichem” – well, that’s the fly in the ointment. The production, not unlike the entire “Play of the Week” series, was made on the cheap and relied heavily on the strength of its cast. The production is more than fine for the comical Chelm tales, but the heavenly court that judges Bontsche’s case is more than a little maudlin, while the utter lack of chemistry between Carnovsky and Berg in “The High School” creates an abrasive labor – he overdoes the “woe is me” act while she is still pushing the overbearing Molly Goldberg shtick of her long-running urban sitcom “The Goldbergs,” which does not fit in a Czarist-era story.
“The World of Sholom Aleichem” has never been officially released for home entertainment viewing. Grey market VHS videos based on 16mm prints circulated for a while, but they’ve become very hard to find at reasonable prices. Some collectors are willing to sell copies, if you know where to look. “The World of Sholom Aleichem” had a very rare public screening in January at the Paley Center for the Media in New York. Lee Grant was the guest of honor for that event and she provided rare insight regarding the production.
For those whose are interested in Eastern European Jewish culture, “The World of Sholom Aleichem” is worth hunting down. Despite its shortcomings, it is an important and intriguing milestone in the development of U.S. and Jewish-American culture.
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