Monday, April 1, 2013

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

By David Luhrssen
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  Sholem Aleichem wrote stories by the bushel, but is best known for one set of characters, the milkman Tevye and his family in a small Russian-Jewish village in the late 19th century. Tevye found his way from the written page and into film and onto the stage, took up singing on Broadway and found his way back into movies in Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Although torn from their ancient village, the Hollywood ending was considerably more hopeful than what Aleichem had in mind.

Writer-director Joseph Dorman explores the life of this writer, a leading figure in Yiddish literature, in his splendid documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (out on DVD). 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 who explored the literary potential of Yiddish, a language that had been spoken by Eastern European Jews for a millennium but had never found a literary voice. Yiddish was still a flexible language, like English in Shakespeare’s time—its vitality unreduced to clichés and banality through repetititon.

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.

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