Sholem Aleichem: Laughing In The Darkness
This is a remarkable but somewhat painful film, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. Notwithstanding the film title, one does not remember a single instance of laughter anywhere in this faithful picture of the past century of tsarist pogroms and Stalinist anti-Semitic attacks against innocent scapegoat citizens of their colder and less hospitable vastnesses. It is a source of wonder to see how a 93-minute film biography of a man whose life occurred largely before the advent of moving pictures, and before the art of photography was quite invested in the world, could be made using just an assemblage of photos, newsreel clips and world-renowned Yiddishists and literary recalls, plus photos that may be B/W and faded, but startlingly fresh. Director Joseph Dorman has achieved something great, and greatly moving.
Aleichem's granddaughter, the famed writer Bel Kaufman, contributes poignant family stories from her own recollections at her grandfather's knee, along with Harvard scholars (Ruth Wisse), think-tank mavens, archivists and literary figures. The archival research involved is amazing. That the filmmaker succeeded in creating such a lively recall of the brilliant folklorist and writer of Yiddish parables and classics is commendable. But well-done homage to a man who lived through so much horror and ugliness to Jews in Russia, in Poland, in Europe, and here and there, all the time writing his remarkable stories and books in Yiddish, a disregarded, almost despised but virile language, is not to say this is an easy entertainment to sit through. Perhaps it is this reviewer, whose history seems to be so interwoven with its passages of sadness and movement, of shifting and readjusting -- the great writer's birth name, Rabinowitz, was this reviewer's family name before it was what it is now -- and the knowledge that this man was a forebear that was cause for some thoughtful mulling and gestational processing.
Born Sholem Rabinowitz in 1859 in today's Ukraine, Aleichem was a champion of the common people who saw in him their muse and Homer. When the volk heard a reading, saw a play or read a story by this taleteller, they resonated to its tumultuous rhythms and precarious adventures, since no one, with few exceptions (much later, Isaac Bashevis Singer being a notable standout) wrote in this language that spanned the continents, and in many ways joined the Jewish people in disparate countries and extremises. His contemporaries wrote in literate Hebrew or, not Jewish, Russian (Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky). Jews could converse with each other if they came from Greece or Bulgaria, from Argentina or Lithuania -- everyone, old and young, wealthy (who spoke French and Russian, as well as Yiddish) or poor could speak voluminously with anyone from other countries who also spoke their momma loshen -- mother tongue.
Yiddish is as rich a language as any the world has seen: It incorporates wildly colorful shtetl phrases with the raffish black humor emerging from centuries of murderous rampages in all of Europe, with phraseology from the French, German and Russian, with bits and pieces of Polish, Hungarian, even English and other languages that have hosted Jews for their transit through hectored anguish and emergent industry. It is the lingua franca of Jews the world over -- even, to an extent, the Hebrew-dominant Israel -- because it bespeaks and subsumes their turbulent lives in each of these sometime-hosts. Aleichem's idea to write in this 'subterranean low language' of the people was itself a revolutionary recognition of its myriad charms and multiple inflections. As to Yiddish humor, the Larry Davids, Jackie Masons and Woody Allens would not exist but for the choice to live, and laugh, through the nonstop vale of tears.
Born quite poor, Aleichem was fascinated by the stock market. Once he was married to the daughter of a wealthy merchant, he could indulge and play the market all day, every day. Then write far into the night. He was convinced he would make a fortune from his perambulations in stocks and bonds. Why not? Others seemed to do it.
When, late in his career, no longer wealthy (he lost 30,000 rubles in one fell swoop, an inconceivable fortune in the early 20th century) because of market debts incurred in one catastrophic market crash (what we might fashionably call a big 'correction') when he lived in Kiev, his mother-in-law then supported him and his family for years, but never spoke to him again, once he lost the inheritance from her husband. He came to the United States, lofted on the shoulders of thousands in New York, and his name -- which in Yiddish means Hello! How are you! Well be it with you! As well as So long -- was shouted in approbation, Sholem Aleichem! This was the creator of Tevye the Milkman, Fiddler on the Roof Tevya, and countless other beloved if bittersweet icons of Jewish folklore. But his two plays in the Yiddish theatre in the Lower East Side were poorly received by the critics, and he returned to Europe, to London, where eking out a living was always difficult. Sick with diseases he would have eliminated or managed to a large extent had he lived today -- TB, prostate, diabetes -- and alone without his wife and six children...he had accomplished much though he died too young.
Of the United States, he knew, and stated, that for Jews, the United States was "the best country for Jews that had ever been." He was widely considered the Yiddish Mark Twain.
A telling anecdote: When asked what he thought of the peregrinational, quintessential Yiddish writer, Mark Twain called himself "the English-speaking Sholem Aleichem." This biography offers an extraordinary wealth of rare pictures, even remarkable photographs of the writer's 1916 funeral in New York, where an unprecedented throng of some 200,000 showed up, making it probably the city's largest funeral attendance to date.
Incidentally, when someone hails you with Sholem aleichem, the correct response is Aleichem sholem! Go in peace. For lovers of the written and spoken word, this is vivid, involving biography-transcription. This portrait of a genius adroitly, if with weltsmertz, captures the world of chrysalis birthing, through acerbic and painful humor, as a brilliant observer explored the struggle to fashion a modern Jewish identity
Ironically, Aleichem's seesaw finances improved considerably after his death. His estate is worth a great deal more than he could have ever imagined in 1916. As someone famously remarked about the ever-popular and fiscally sound Elvis after his premature demise: Dying -- a smart career move.