Tevye's creator elevated Yiddish
By Adam Bernstein
Friday, Aug 12, 2011
Some moviegoers will be hard-pressed to identify the subject of Joseph Dorman's superb documentary "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness." A borscht-belt comic, perhaps?
Not hardly. Aleichem, often called the "Jewish Mark Twain" for a playful and colloquial writing style he shared with the American writer, was a Yiddish humorist and storyteller. Of all his celebrated characters, his most famous remains the pious shtetl dairyman Tevye, who inspired the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."
Aleichem's Tevye stories - rather, a much-reduced version of them - have become a cultural mainstay thanks to a Tony Award-winning musical in 1964 and a popular film. "Fiddler on the Roof," for better and worse, has since become a staple of high school and community theaters, with would-be Tevyes of varying ability warbling "Tradition" and "If I Were a Rich Man."
The play endures, but what became of the man who invented the characters? Aleichem - a Ukrainian Jew born Solomon Rabinovitch in 1859 - compiled a literary legacy far broader than Tevye before his death in New York in 1916.
Through his prolific writing and a literary journal he founded, Aleichem also elevated the Yiddish language into an art form that challenged the more-accepted literary traditions of Hebrew and Russian. The film credits Aleichem as the architect of a Yiddish "cultural renaissance."
Reportedly, 100,000 New Yorkers mourned when he died in that city, yet his fame has since been obscured by a vastly diminished Yiddish-speaking universe. In the decades since the immigration boom of Eastern European Jews to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Yiddish movies, theater and newspapers have all but disappeared.
Like Dorman's earlier work "Arguing the World" - a study of the eminent 20th-century Jewish intellectual frenemies - his Aleichem documentary is a highly accessible and sharply drawn film.
Besides readings from Aleichem's marvelously cadenced prose, Dorman relies heavily on evocative stock film images of life in shtetls - the ragged Jewish communities where Aleichem grew up and focused many of his stories.
The documentary features interviews with authorities on Jewish traditions and literature. Those sources speak with the uninitiated in mind - taking care not to use phrases without explaining their meaning and context.
Aleichem - his pen name means "peace be unto you" in Hebrew - chronicled Eastern European Jewry in an era of near-constant upheaval. The late 19th century marked the end of insular, impoverished shtetls - not only because of pogroms but also because of a yearning for progress and a desire by some to blend into the broader world.
Aleichem was among those who wanted to escape - and did. He was one of 12 children who dispersed when their prosperous businessman father suffered a major financial reversal.
His widowed father remarried but, having neglected to mention that he had children, slowly sent for them one by one. His stepmother was not pleased. Her shrewish behavior inspired Aleichem's published "glossary" of her piquant curses ("may a madman be written off a madhouse roster, and may you be written in").
Aleichem had a secular education, exposing him to an intellectual world beyond the shtetl. He became a tutor, fell into forbidden love with a rich pupil and eloped. Aleichem moved to Kiev, embracing its cosmopolitan life as he became wealthy as a stock trader. In appearance, he adopted the well-heeled look of the bourgeoisie.
When he lost all of his money, his disapproving mother-in-law rescued him. She also moved in with him and, in a master stroke of passive-aggressiveness, never spoke another word to Aleichem. Amid this familial turmoil, he was busily establishing himself as a writer.
Aleichem's great achievement, according to the many scholars interviewed in Dorman's film, was conveying the humanity of shtetl Jews whose lives were shattered by change. He made their dreams and struggles understood through memorable characters such as the speculator Menachem Mendel, whose schemes to get rich quick are comically derided by his practical wife, Shayne Sheyndl.
Arguably his greatest invention remains Tevye. Unlike the warm-hearted creation in "Fiddler on the Roof," the Tevye of his stories is far more layered - unable at times to accept challenges to tradition in a world erupting around him.
As one expert says, Aleichem's power was that he showed shtetl Jews that "their petty little lives were not petty." This film does great justice to reaffirming Aleichem's contributions.
Contains nothing objectionable.