Meet Sholem Aleichem
In the 1880's, the Ukrainian Jew Solomon Rabinowitz began his literary career under an assumed name—assumed because he was writing in Yiddish, rather than a respectable language such as Hebrew or Russian. The pseudonym he chose was Sholem Aleichem, which is simply the everyday greeting "How do you do?" His stories were immediately popular, and everyone soon knew the identity of the man behind the pseudonym, but he kept it anyway; it was perfectly emblematic of his creation and his era, in which common colloquial Yiddish came gloriously into its own.
The pseudonym also suited the author because of its companionableness. A marvelous new documentary film, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, is full of hundreds—maybe thousands—of individual faces, in vintage photos and on old home movie clips. These people look back at you, engaging you and each other in conversation, defying you to reduce them to nostalgic abstractions. These were Sholem Aleichem's readers, and Laughing in the Darkness tells Sholem Aleichem's story as a way of telling theirs.
In the late 1800's and early 1900's, the settled ways of Jewish life in Eastern Europe fell apart. External forces were involved in this upheaval: the Industrial Revolution and the increasing impoverishment in the Pale of Settlement; the liberalization under Czar Alexander II and the violent repression and pogroms that followed his assassination; the Russian Revolution and World War I. And there were internal forces, both causes and effects: the Jewish Enlightenment movement and the concomitant flowering of Yiddish as a modern secular language with its own literature and press, Zionism, migrations, and assimilation.
Sholem Aleichem experienced personal upheavals along with the communal ones. From a happy boyhood, he plummeted into poverty with a stepmother who cursed so bitterly that her stepson's first literary work was a dictionary of her creative maledictions—demonstrating not only his relish for demotic Yiddish, but his lifelong impulse to derive comedy from pain. Throughout most of his life, while writing story after story, he was anxiously shifting from one money-making scheme to another and even one place to another, constantly seeking security: just like his readers.
The film's writer and director, Joseph Dorman, adroitly weaves together the fortunes of the man, the Yiddish-speaking population, and the secular Yiddish literature and language itself. It accomplishes this through economical narration, with commentary from exemplary "talking heads," major figures who speak with authority and humor: professors Ruth Wisse, David Roskies, Dan Miron, Avraham Novozstern, and Michael Stanislavski; translator Hillel Halkin; National Yiddish Book Center founder Aaron Lansky; teacher and performer Mendy Cahan; as well as the author's granddaughter, Bel Kaufman. It also integrates snippets from Sholem Aleichem's writings, read by actors, and excerpts from several film versions of his stories. The film also introduces two of Sholem Aleichem's best-known fictional figures, both of whom exemplify the experiences of many contemporaneous Jews, including Sholem Aleichem himself.
First we meet the luftmentsh Menahem-Mendl, who has gone off to the big city to make a killing. As poverty squeezed the small artisans and shopkeepers of the Pale, the international stock market was expanding, and the fortunes made by a few attracted many others to try their luck. Hapless Menahem-Mendl represents them all in Sholem Aleichem's epistolary novel; he sends letters home, exhilarated by the riches he's bound to make someday soon. Meanwhile, his exasperated wife, marooned in the village with the children, writes back that dumplings in dreams are only dreams, not dumplings. Sholem Aleichem himself was playing the market in a big way and actually made a fortune—before he lost it all, permanently.
The second character is Tevye the dairyman, perhaps as famous as his creator from the many versions of Fiddler on the Roof. Like the boy Solomon Rabinowitz, and the grown-up author as well, Tevye dreams of security, which he imagines as the luxury of owning a whole big house. Like Sholem Aleichem, Tevye has daughters to support and guide, daughters who are growing up in a world that has changed drastically since his own youth. One of Tevye's daughters marries a revolutionary and leaves for Siberia; this is painful enough. But a second, in marrying a non-Jew, participates in the disintegration of the Jewish people. This he cannot forgive.
After Sholem Aleichem's death in 1916, Laughing in the Darkness traces the fate of his readers in the Soviet Union, where at first Sholem Aleichem and all Yiddish secular literature were celebrated and even subsidized as the voice of the folk. But the 1930's brought repression and purges, culminating in 1952 with Stalin's murder of almost all remaining prominent Yiddish authors. In Israel's early days, immense self-discipline and social pressure combined to suppress Yiddish, associated with Diaspora powerlessness, in favor of modern Hebrew.
Ironically, it was American Jews, the very ones who'd left the Old World behind, who became the keepers of the flame. Inevitably, they tended to romanticize it. By the 1960's, Tevye had ventured forth to Broadway and Hollywood, becoming a sweeter, more cheerful dairyman along the way. When Sholem Aleichem's original Tevye is expelled from his village, his daughter leaves her non-Jewish husband and returns, loyal to her own people as they wander into exile. Several decades later, the film version of Fiddler on the Roof acquired a tellingly all-American ending: Tevye goes off to safe harbor in the new land while his daughter remains with her non-Jewish husband—with Tevye's blessing.
The 200,000 mourners at Sholem Aleichem's funeral in 1916 made it the largest to date in New York City. All the quarreling factions of Jews—the socialists, Zionists, Orthodox and so on—joined the funeral procession. The event was so large that it seems in retrospect to have announced the Jews' arrival as a powerful bloc in the city's population. Only a decade earlier, when the man himself had tried to make it in the American Yiddish theater, his plays were panned, leaving him broke and humiliated. But for the mourners at his funeral, Sholem Aleichem represented their pasts. Almost a century later, Sholem Aleichem shows us who we were, how we became what we are today—and, perhaps, how we may still be Jews in the modern world.
Nahma Sandrow is the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. She is currently writing the libretto for an opera version of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, a Love Story, which will premiere at Kentucky Opera in the fall.