Documentary: “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness”

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Movie Review : Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011)

So, Would It Hurt You to Go See a Documentary About a Yiddish Writer?

Source: NYT, 7-8-11

“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” is much more than a documentary biography of “the Jewish Mark Twain,” as the creator of Tevye the Dairyman, Menachem-Mendl and other beloved folkloric characters has been called. It is a rich, beautifully organized and illustrated modern history of Eastern European Jewry examined through the life and work of the author, born Sholem Rabinovich in Pereyaslav (near Kiev) in 1859. His literary pseudonym was derived from the Hebrew expression “shalom aleichem,” meaning “peace be with you.”

Mitchell Waife

Sholem Aleichem

The film, directed by Joseph Dorman, explores the history and dissolution of Eastern European Jewish culture and the conflicting desires of later generations to remember and to forget. In the late 19th century Jews were second-class subjects in czarist Russia and convenient scapegoats in times of social and political unrest; any dreams they had of assimilation were shattered by periodic pogroms.

The rural Jewish culture of the shtetl was further eroded by the Industrial Revolution and World War I and finally wiped out by the Holocaust. One of the film’s central themes is Sholem Aleichem’s personification of the tug of war between nostalgia for the past and the impulse to leave it behind. As millions of Jews emigrated to the United States, where they found it easier to assimilate, Sholem Aleichem was not everyone’s idea of a forward-looking cultural hero.

The movie reveals that Sholem Aleichem was every bit as colorful a figure as the characters in his stories. He was one of 12 children whom his recently widowed father hid with relatives before remarrying, then introduced one by one to the dismay of his shrewish second wife. One of his earliest works was a glossary of his stepmother’s curses. As a young man Sholem Aleichem, who was something of a dandy, took a job tutoring the daughter of a wealthy Jewish landowner. When a relationship between them was discovered, he was fired, and the lovers eloped. He was eventually accepted by her family….READ MORE

 

More About This Movie

SHOLEM ALEICHEM

Laughing in the Darkness

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Written, directed and produced by Joseph Dorman; edited by Aaron Kuhn, Kenneth Levis and Amanda Zinoman; released by International Film Circuit and Riverside Films. At Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway, at 62nd Street. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is not rated.

A version of this review appeared in print on July 8, 2011, on page C20 of the New York edition with the headline: So, Would It Hurt You to Go See a Documentary About a Yiddish Writer?.
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