Taking a look at the 'Jewish Mark Twain'

August 25, 2011

By Jason Marck

(Photo courtesy of International Film Circuit, Inc.)
Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem is the subject of a new documentary.

Fiddler on the Roof became a stage and screen classic but there’s more to Tevye the Milkman than meets the eye; and the same goes for the writer who created him. Eight Forty-Eight’s Jason Marck delivered a review of a new documentary film about the man known as, “The Jewish Mark Twain." Sholem Aleichem:  Laughing In The Darkness, opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago and Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park and the film’s director, Joseph Dorman, will answer questions at both theaters Friday and Saturday.

For a thousand years, Yiddish was the everyday language of Eastern European Jews. But even the people that spoke Yiddish didn’t take their mame loshen or, “mother tongue,” seriously.  Sure, it was good for bargaining in the market, telling your friends how terrible the Tsar is and of course, for hilarious curses. 

Writer Ron Litke shared some favorites:

“’Ruen zolstu nisht afile in keyver,” (may you find no rest even in the grave!), or ‘Shraybn zol men dir retseptn’ (they should write prescriptions for you!),” he translated. 

But “real” literature, serious writing, was done in Hebrew or Russian. That is, until the 1880s, when a plucky young writer named Solomon Rabinovich realized his real calling. He didn’t try to be the next Tolstoy or Gogol, he wrote for, and about, his people: The Jews of the shtetls, or, “little towns,” that dotted the far western edge of the Russian Empire. He took a pen name, Sholem Aleichem, a most familiar greeting that means everything from “peace be with you,” to, “how do you do?”  And he did it in Yiddish. 

The Joseph Dorman film, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, brings the author to life.  But more than a mere biography, the film reveals the depth of his work and imbues the filmgoer with the historical perspective needed to understand the vibrant but quickly fading world that Sholem Aleichem was documenting.

His first big breakout was a serialized novel that featuring a character named Menachem Mendel, a guy who went to the big city to strike it rich. He dreamt big, he schemed big; but before he could send any money back to his long-suffering wife, he lost it all. Despite his utter lack of business sense, he remained certain that “the big one” was just around the corner. His wife, Shayna Shayndel, didn’t exactly share his positive outlook.

Chicago improv veteran and Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch helped bring Shayna Shayndel to life in the film.

The Menachem Mendel stories are full of humor, warmth and can-do spirit. But the film reveals a deeper reality. Menachem Mendel isn’t off in Odessa simply because he’s a wacky dreamer:  The shtetl can’t sustain itself; the people are desperately poor; they live in constant fear of pogroms. Strange new “-isms” enter the lexicon: capitalism, socialism, communism, bundism and Zionism. An open world could mean new opportunities but it could also mean a breakdown of the social order. To voice his people’s uncertainty, Sholem Aleichem invented his greatest character: Tevye the Dairyman.   

Tevye had seven daughters and said, “When you have seven daughters, fargayten gelechte, ‘you forget to laugh,’ because seven daughters is serious business.” 

As Tevye’s first three daughters reach marrying age, they each represent a dilemma for him and the Jews of Eastern Europe. The first rejects her arranged marriage and wants to marry for love.  The second wants to run off with a secular revolutionary. The third wants to marry a Gentile, which meant she had to convert. Each episode cut deeper into Tevye, further testing his ability to hold fast to his beliefs while trying to hold on to his beloved family. Sholem Aleichem’s navigated these difficult roads with great pathos; but also with great humor.

Irwin Weil, a professor of Russian language, literature and music and a professor of Jewish Culture at Northwestern University explained.

“Sholem Aleichem showed that in Jewish life, humor could easily be combined with the deepest kind of feeling toward the universe, toward Jewish history, and toward everything that counted. And if you read him, you realize that there are some things you absolutely have to laugh at, but at the same time you’re laughing you realize just how deeply, importantly, and emotionally it goes,” Weil said. 

In the film, scholar and translator Hillel Halken, gave an example of comical Yiddish wordplay that Sholem Aleichem employed so well.

“Erech zoygen, 'God is up there in heaven, and we’re down here on the earth.' But in Yiddish zein in drerd also means…can I use an expletive here?," Halken asked, "It means ‘up shit’s creek,’” he chuckled.

One of the most interesting points in the film came when Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Center explained that while Tevye and his shtetl seemed a million miles away, Jews around the world still wrestle with the exact same questions: which traditions to keep, which to leave behind  and what will it mean for their identity?  

“Tevye lives out in the countryside in the middle of nowhere. So when these incredible challenges of the modern world confront him, he’s got to figure out for himself how you adapt and how you make accommodations for all of this. Which means he’s the do-it-yourself Jew; the ultimate ‘modern’. Or to put it more accurately, he’s the precursor for us.” Lanksy explained.

Filmmaker Joseph Dorman ultimately leaves the audience with something more powerful than a portrait of a writer or a sentimental look at a lost world; or even the notion of how laughter can help pierce the most difficult of subjects. He shows them that great art is timeless—and forever holding up a mirror. 

Music Button: Cracow Klezmer Band, "Haniel", from the album Balan: Book of Angels Vol. 5, (Tzadik)

Director Joseph Dorman will appear for Q&A at Landmark Renaissance Place Theater in Highland Park on Friday after the 4:45 p.m. showing and Saturday after the 7:00 p.m. showing. He'll also appear at the Music Box Theatre on Southport Ave. in Chicago on Friday after the 7:20 p.m. showing and Saturday after the 5:00 p.m. showing