(Ed. note: After the Ledger went to press last week, Real ArtWays in Hartford announced that it had moved up the opening date for the acclaimed documentary film “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” to Sept. 2. The film was to have originally opened on Sept. 9. The film will run for two weeks.)
The pioneering Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem was born in a shtetl in the middle of the 19th Century, and even today his name is synonymous with the Old Country and a vanished way of life.
Blame “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was adapted from a handful of Aleichem’s bittersweet Tevye stories. The musical introduced the once-hugely popular author to new generations of American Jews, but also cast him as a quaint (albeit extraordinarily insightful) observer of a changing world.
“It’s about time that the larger mass of people outside of Yiddish aficionados understood who Sholem Aleichem was,” filmmaker Joseph Dorman says. “I think he’s been hidden from view, the real Sholem Aleichem, for years and years and years.”
Dorman’s erudite documentary, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” opened in New York in July and is gradually being released in other cities. It will be screened at Real ArtWays in Hartford on Friday, Sept. 2.
“He created a kind of myth around himself because he was trying to reach a not illiterate but uneducated Eastern European Jewish audience,” Dorman explained during a recent visit to San Francisco. “And in order to reach that audience, much like Mark Twain did, he created this kind of folksy persona. And that folksy persona ultimately was so successful that people mistook the persona as the man.
“Even Jewish critics at the time,” Dorman elaborated, “perceived him as someone who was kind of a stenographer for poor Jews, who wrote what he heard, and they didn’t realize that he was, in fact, an extremely canny, sophisticated, brilliant modern writer.”
Solomon Naumovitch Rabinovitch, pen name Sholem Aleichem, came to prominence at the moment when Jews were leaving the shtetl and migrating to big cities, both in Eastern Europe and the diaspora, Adapting, assimilating and refashioning themselves, they embraced various utopian movements, including socialism, Bundism and Zionism.
“Sholem Aleichem is so relevant now because he was dealing with the mysteries of modern Jewish identity,” Dorman says. “Marx said in the modern world everything that’s solid melts into air. And it’s true today. Our generation may be more adept because we’ve experienced the rapidity of change much more than previous generations. But we still have to deal with it; we’re still in that flux of things. So I think we’re all Tevyes.”
Dorman was born in Detroit to parents who read the New York Times every weekend. It was inevitable he would eventually move to New York, where he became a writer, producer and occasional director of documentaries. His 1998 film, “Arguing the World,” portrayed the New York intellectuals Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer.
A professor pal pointed Dorman toward Sholem Aleichem, about whom he was essentially ignorant.
“I thought this was a way station for me,” the 53-year-old filmmaker confides. “I didn’t think it was a destination. I thought it was a film I would do while I figured out what I really wanted to do. And I spent 10 years on it, and it took up everything. It infused me.”
Aleichem’s stories of fathers and daughters, and of the challenge of balancing tradition with the modern world, speak to every culture and every people. But they have ongoing resonance for American Jews, who redefine their identity with every generation.
“Unless you are an absolute Orthodox Jew and follow the traditional path,” Dorman asserts, “no matter how Jewish we feel and how much we found certain Jewish identities for us, I don’t think they can ever be as stable or solid as they once were, or once appeared to be. That’s a very powerful and poignant thing that we all live with. It’s the fact that you’re assimilating and trying to hold on to something, and that confusion that somehow you feel a bit damned either way. At least I do.”
Michael Fox is a freelance film critic specializing in Jewish films.