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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011

Documenting Author of 'Fiddler on the Roof'

'Sholem Aleichem' a highlight of 2011 Jewish Film Festival

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Tevye, perhaps the world's most famous fictional Jew, lived long before his debut on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof. The poor milkman who dreamed of being a rich man was the creation of Sholem Aleichem, a leading figure in Yiddish literature and the subject of the splendid documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.

Writer-director Joseph Dorman eschews the current fashion of flashy computer graphics and clumsy historical re-enactments in favor of archival photographs, a solid narrative and interviews with knowledgeable figures. Called "the Jewish Mark Twain," Aleichem was a keen satirist with unforgettable characters. Born in a Russian shtetl similar to the village depicted in Fiddler on the Roof, Aleichem was an eyewitness as the traditional culture of Eastern European Jewry dissolved under pressure from all sides. The forces of modernity in the form of capitalism made traditional cottage industries unsustainable; some embraced socialism as an alternative, and Zionism beckoned those who dreamed of a Promised Land.

For many, America, not Palestine, became the place of promise. Russia's Jews had lived in peace for centuries until the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, when right-wing fanatics used Jews as a scapegoat for the country's ills and launched waves of pogroms, triggering a mass migration to the New World. Fiddler on the Roof ends with Tevye setting forth for America, but at the conclusion of Aleichem's short stories (his protagonist evolved in real time over a 20-year period of writing), the milkman boards a train destined for nowhere. As the documentary explains, Aleichem was never entirely comfortable with his eventual American home, where he was honored more in death than in life. And yet, his writings would eventually become a touchstone for Jewish Americans seeking access to their roots.

Fiddler on the Roof
dressed Tevye in nostalgia, but Aleichem wrote the original stories as history was being made and imbued them with humor, pathos, psychological insight and well-earned irony. They may be specific to the Jewish experience, but they have universal significance for anyone trying to maintain continuity with their history in an uncertain world where each of us must decide what to retain from tradition.

Sholem Aleichem
screens 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at Marcus North Shore Cinema. It is presented as part of this year's Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival, running Oct. 23-27. Tickets are available through the Jewish Community Center (JCC) or at the JCC table at the theater entrance one hour before each screening. For a complete guide to the festival, go to jccmilwaukee.org and click on "Upcoming JCC Events."