By Pamela Zoslov
The Yiddish language, a fusion of German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages, is often dismissed as merely a source of folklore and colorful insults (my favorite among those my mother taught me translates to “You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground”). Yet Yiddish, spoken by an ever-diminishing population, is, in linguist Dovid Katz’s words, “a language whose everyday words…continue to burn with ancient passion, humor, and psychic content that have come down the line of generation-to-generation language transmission, from antiquity into the 21st century.”
The history of Yiddish is an underlying theme of Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Joseph Dorman’s earnest documentary about the Yiddish-language author best known for the Tevye the Dairyman stories, which inspired the Broadway and Hollywood musical Fiddler on the Roof. Sholem Aleichem (“peace be upon you”), the pen name of Solomon Rabinowitz, was not, as the film implies, the first author to write popular fiction in Yiddish, but he was the most successful, elevating the often scorned “people’s language” of Eastern European Jews into a serious language of literature.
The film does what it can, using archival photographs, narration, academic talking heads and John Zorn music, to dramatize the life of the prolific author. But the story encounters two problems of translation. One is the difficulty of translating a life of letters into a movie – detailed analyses of the stories’ plots, as well as hammy readings by actors Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch, create the unwelcome feeling of a classroom lecture. The other is that Aleichem’s stories translate poorly; the chief pleasure of his writing is its unbelievable linguistic invention. That is why his stories are remembered less for their biting wit than as gently humorous nostalgia pieces, personified by Topol yi-di-deedling “If I Were a Rich Man” (based on Aleichem’s “If I Were Rothschild”).
The film traces Aleichem’s tumultuous biography and the decline of Eastern European Jewish life, drawing parallels between his experiences and those of his characters. Born in a Ukrainian shtetl in 1859 to a prosperous merchant, he received, unlike most Jews, a secular Russian education. He married a wealthy landowner’s daughter, moved to Kiev and published articles in Hebrew and Russian before deciding to write in Yiddish and founding a Yiddish literary journal. He inhabited two worlds: that of the modern capitalist investor (like his hapless fortune-seeker Menákhem-Méndl) and the shtetl dweller (the Tevye stories). Pogroms and financial reversals sent him to America and Switzerland, and he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1915. Embraced as “the Jewish Mark Twain,” Aleichem had achieved worldwide acclaim; his funeral drew 100,000 mourners.
In his will, Sholem Aleichem directed family and friends to recite one of his stories (“one of the very merry ones”). He wrote, “Let my name be recalled with laughter, or not at all.” Although it can’t fully convey the tone and cadence of Aleichem’s prose, the film expresses the enduring humanity of his writing. It’s a fitting tribute to this sometimes underrated literary master, recalling him with laughter and affection.
Originally published in Cleveland Scene.