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Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

If Sholem Aleichem is remembered at all today it’s most likely to be as the author of the Yiddish-language stories that inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof in the 1960s. But a century ago, he was internationally recognized and admired, called “The Jewish Mark Twain” and translated into a number of languages, including English.

He wrote stories, novels and plays about Jews living in Tzarist Russia, in the officially established Pale, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, where most Jews were segregated in shtetls, restricted villages. And he wrote them in Yiddish, a language disdained by the Russian and Hebrew-speaking Jewish bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, classes to which Aleichem—born Solomon Rabinowitz near the middle of the nineteenth century—belonged.

In Joseph Dorman’s expertly vivid documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, someone calls the fictional shtetl in his work, Kasrilevke, “Aleichem’s Yoknapatawpha County.” Aleichem’s portraits of this village’s characters, whose conversation and interactions were often both hyperbolic and wry, were spirited and voluble, but he also undercut them with poignance and sadness. Aleichem had escaped this world for a cosmopolitan, privileged life in Odessa, but he sought to capture it in the pungent everyday speech of its residents, even as rural Jewish life in Russia was on the cusp of radical, sometimes violent change. (Aleichem left Russia in 1905 after one of the more savage pogroms, or mob attacks, on the Jews.)

Dorman evocatively conveys this social setting and ably relates its disappearance as Aleichem was giving it an afterlife in literature. The Peabody Award-winning (for 1998’s Arguing the World) writer-director-producer zooms in on and pans across a variety of photographic images and employs rare early twentieth century film footage of long-vanished communities and people. There are the usual erudite talking heads, including novelist Bel Kaufman (Up the Down Staircase), Aleichem’s granddaughter, who recalls his dandyish appearance.

Sholem Aleichem is historically and personally compelling.

Watch the trailer for Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

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