Most Americans (and not just Jewish Americans) know the classic Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. The surficially quaint story Tevye the dairyman struggling with the challenges of maintaining tradition in the face of a changing society is beloved throughout the world. It’s been staged in theatres small and great and its filmed version is considered one of the movie musical greats.
What you might not know is that the story of Tevye and his village (in Yiddish—shtetl) Anatevka beyond the great Russian Pale of Settlement was written by Sholem Rabinovich (1859-1916), better known by his pen name, the almost legendary Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Writer-Director Joseph Dorman has created a new documentary on the fascinating life of this master storyteller and humorist born in Kiev Russia.
The feature-length Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness lets viewers into the author’s universe—the world of our ancestors; the world of Tevye the dairyman. Sholem Aleichem found the humor in the rapidly changing society of late 19th century Jewery.
Director Dorman effectively intersperses photographs from Sholem Aleichem’s world: his family, his village, his school days, with readings and extracts from his works. Laughing in the Darkness also taps into the knowledge of several experts on his life and word, including Harvard Yiddish literature scholar Ruth Wisse, David Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary, author and Yiddish translator Hillel Halkin, Aaron Lansky, the founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, and author Bel Kauffmann (Up the Down Staircase), Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter.
With a life informed by the sudden intrusion of anti-Semitism imposed on the Jews of Eastern Europe after generations of peace, Sholem Aleichem was also influenced by the great Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala)—a period of intellectualism that paralleled the European Enlightenment from earlier in the century. But Sholem Aleichem was also driven by the early adversity in his life, and by a creative and ambitious spirit (which sometimes did not work out so well for the writer).
Sholem Aleichem had a unique ability to weave a nostalgia for a changing culture with the humor and ironies of shtetl life. His stories and novels reflect not only the Jewish Experience, but the experiences of all immigrants who yearned for the shores of America, whether Irish, Italian, Asian, or Eastern European. It is what makes Sholem Aleichem’s work universal, no matter its language of origin, and why Fiddler on the Roof remains a mainstay of American, and even international theater. But more than that, Laughing in the Darkness also explores the creative inner-workings of a genius of the written word.
Despite the folksiness of his Yiddish tales, Sholem Aleichem was a well-educated intellectual—a journalist. He wrote in the language of the people—Yiddish, in itself daring. When he died in 1916, his funeral in New York was attended by 200,000 people, a testament to the man and the legacy he would leave Jews and non-Jews alike—all over the world.
Laughing in the Darkness has been making the film festival circuit and has been playing at art-house theatres in limited release across the U.S. It opens in Baltimore this weekend. Upcoming screenings are listed on the film’s official website.