The Life Of Prolific Writer Sholem Aleichem
Sholem Aleichem, circa 1907. Aleichem had lived in New York City for several years before his death in 1916. His funeral there was one of the largest in the city’s history. (click for larger version)
November 02, 2011A new documentary film, "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," opened last week, which smartly and affectionately profiles a Russian Jewish writer who died nearly a century ago. There are circles in which Sholem Aleichem is revered. But to many, his may be an unfamiliar name.
So, who is this Sholem Aleichem? And, why should anyone care about him?
For the unenlightened, it may help to know that the 1964 award-winning Broadway musical, and subsequent hit film, "Fiddler on the Roof" were based on his series of stories about Tevye the milkman, first published in 1894.
Those familiar with "Fiddler" will remember that it depicts a Russian Jewish family in transition. Externally, their lives are threatened by Russian authorities. Upheaval and relocation are the only ways they can save themselves.
Internally, one of the family's five daughters rejects her father's arrangement and chooses to marry for love. Far worse, another daughter marries outside their faith.
"Fiddler," of course, is a comedy, and that is because Tevye's creator was, first and foremost, a humorist.
This inclination began early. Aleichem first recorded humor on the page as a boy when he created a lexicon of his stepmother's curses. A popular one: "You couldn't be left, could you, with your grandfather and grandmother to sicken and waste away. No! You had to be sent here to eat us out of house and home; may the devil send for you, may the worms eat you and gnaw away your living flesh."
Aleichem's granddaughter, the novelist Bel Kauffman ("Up the Down Staircase") quotes her grandfather as saying, "To make people laugh was almost a sickness with me."
Sholem Aleichem (click for larger version)
Perhaps this ability to use humor to describe situations that were not always funny is what prompted the author's nickname, "The Jewish Mark Twain." Legend has it that Twain responded by saying, "And they call me the American Sholem Aleichem."
Joseph Dorman's film, "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," describes the late 19th century as a time when the traditional world was being shattered by the forces of change. This may have been truer for Eastern European Jews than for any other group.
Typically the literature of the day was written in Russian or Hebrew. Yiddish, a mixture of German, Hebrew and the Slavic languages, was seen as the language of everyday life – too common to be literary.
Aleichem saw things differently. As a young man he switched to writing in Yiddish and continued the practice to the end. Prolific until his death in 1916, at age 57, he wrote stories, novels, plays, young adult stories, poems, essays and critical reviews.
A man of ever waning and waxing fortune, he also created and funded, while he could, a Yiddish literary annual. His objective was to encourage other Yiddish writers, which he continued throughout his life.
As communities broke apart and Jews scattered to America and elsewhere, reading a Sholem Aleichem story on Friday night became a Jewish family ritual. Yiddish had become a "portable homeland" for the displaced and dispossessed. Aleichem's work was the surest and safest way to be temporarily transported back home.
"Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" tells the story of a great, flawed and funny man. It also describes clearly and in-depth the world into which Aleichem was born and the tumultuous changes that occurred during his lifetime. It is a tremendous effort. Whether you have been drenched in the writings of Aleichem or have yet to get your feet wet, this film is worth your while.
"Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" is now showing at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.