The writer Sholem Aleichem was born Sholom Rabinowitz. He grew up in a Russian shtetl. Today, he is most widely remembered as the author of the stories which became the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. But a new documentary from Joseph Dorman (“Arguing the World”) called “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” makes a case for the man who changed his name to Yiddish for “Hello Friends” as not just a teller of folktales but a major literary figure. Mr. Dorman spoke to me about making the film, which is opening around the country.
Tell me how you became involved with this project.
I really stumbled onto it. I am not a native Yiddish speaker, nor were my parents. Yiddish was lost in my family between my grandparents’ generation and my parents’. I finished my last film a decade ago, “Arguing the World,” and was desperately looking for a project. A friend of mine, a professor of Yiddish literature at Rutgers, suggested doing something about Sholem Aleichem. He had originally thought about doing a film himself, about Sholem Aleichem as a failed immigrant in America and he had curated an exhibit on that a few years earlier. I thought, “I don’t know much about him, I know the name from Fiddler on the Roof. This will keep me busy until I find what I want to do.”
But in a very short time it turned out to be what I wanted to do. It moved from a way station to a destination. I spent the next ten years of my life working on it and falling deeper and deeper in love with Sholem Aleichem’s work and fascinated by his world.
Why is “Fiddler” all most people know about him?
Fiddler on the Roof should have its due. It is a brilliant popular entertainment, kind of a miraculous adaptation in many ways. He did his own theatrical adaptation and really focused on the Chava story [of the daughter who marries a non-Jew]. “Fiddler” is entertainment, re-interpreted for its time. It’s a classic comedy in a sense because everything is wrapped up neatly at the end. Tevye is coming to America. But at the end of the Tevye stories, it is a tragedy in the classical sense. Tevye is homeless. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s like Lear. His world drops out from under him.
What’s so fascinating about the Tevye stories is that he started them when he was younger and wrote them over 20 years. His own experience informed them and they get deeper and darker as they go along. They become a tragedy, something larger about the nature of man’s alone-ness in the universe.
You were able to uncover some real treasures in your research. What were some of your “Eureka” moments?
Because of the budget I did most of the research myself. There are 300 photographs in the film and the bulk of them come from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. It is a marvelous repository for Eastern European Jewish life, originally set up in Vilna between the wars, when the intellectuals of the time realized that the world of the shtetl was beginning to disappear. I would go there and keep looking through there — half the reason for doing a film like this is to get a chance to look at the treasure trove of these photos.
There are a number of photographers. One of the most remarkable was Alter Kacyzne. He was a writer, a protégé of one of the other classic Yiddish writers, Isaac Leib Peretz of Warsaw. He took photographs for the Jewish Daily Forward in the 20’s and 30’s. Even then he was photographing in a nostalgic way for an audience that had been separated form it. People didn’t want to see it as it looked at this moment. They wanted to see the eternal shtetl. Religious Jews are shot as they had been for centuries rather than trying to capture that moment in time.
Another man I don’t know much about is Menakhem Kipnes, who also has wonderful portraits. The last great discovery — and it wasn’t my discovery — was that I found out through one of my interview subjects was about a series of photos from the expedition of an ethnographer called An-Sky. He’s a remarkable figure, born in a shtetl, who became radicalized and a socialist. He decided what he wanted to do most of all was to leave the shtetl and study Russian coal minders. He moved to St. Petersburg, continued to be a writer and an intellectual, and it was probably the post-1905 pograms that radicalized him as a Jew. He realized he needed to turn his talents toward his own people. He realized that the shtetls were rapidly changing and so he organized ethnographic expeditions, recorded songs, and took along his nephew to take these remarkable, remarkable photos. Until the last few years, they’ve been unknown in the West. Now they’ve been published in a beautiful book. They are some of the most beautiful photos in the film. An-Sky was also the author of the famous Yiddish play, The Dybbuk.
I was so happy to see the involvement of Aaron Lansky of the Yiddish Book Center in your film. I am a big fan of his book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.
The sad irony of Yiddish and its fate in the modern world is at the very moment that writers like Sholem Aleichem were bringing it to its literary flowering, taking this thousand year old language which had been looked down on as a street language or a language for women, not working of intellectual vehicle or a vehicle for literature — that was supposed to be Hebrew — at the very moment that writers were using it in all its richness, that was also the very moment it was ceasing to be the vernacular of the Jews. 90 percent of Jews in the world at that moment were speaking it but that was beginning to change as the Jews were leaving the shtetls to go to America or the big Russian cities or to Palestine. An amazing flowering was taking place over 100 years with Isaac Bashevis Singer at the end. This remarkable literature was produced, but it has been by the bulk of Jews forgotten, not just lost in translation but in the movement of Jews but their assimilation into other cultures. It’s a living language for Chassidic Jews, but not for anyone else. What’s nice about what’s happening is that generations younger than mine are realizing what’s been lost and there’s kind of an upsurge now and younger generations are studying it and learning it and that is wonderful. But it is not going to be a living language for secular Jews again. What is important about what Aaron is doing is the importance of being able to read this literature in whatever language you speak. Aaron is very committed to preserving those Yiddish books for Yiddish speakers but even more important is preserving Yiddish language and Yiddish culture whether you speak it or not.
We do speak it in a certain way because it is the ghost in our machine. It informs even the English we speak. One of the most beautiful things I heard was from a young Russian student who said, “It didn’t feel like I was learning Yiddish; it felt like I was somehow remembering Yiddish.”
In this film you make a strong case for Sholem Aleichem as not just a folklorist but a literary figure.
He is the equal of a Chekhov or any other great writer. This is top shelf world literature. It does not have to be couched in cultural terms to make him an important writer. Another irony that exists is that he was trying to reach not an illiterate but an uneducated audience. He created a folksy persona so undeducated people could relate to him. But very sophisticated literature. The very success of that persona masked how sophisticated and intentional an artist he was. He is thought of as a stenographer who wrote down what people spoke. But he took what seems to be everyday language and transmutes it to poetry. He is a great of world literature. Comedy is deceptive. If you laugh, how can it be serious? But of course it can be.
The stories are very particular to their place but the themes have universal appeal.
There are stories about fathers and daughters all over the world. There’s an annual yahrzeit, a memorial for Sholem Aleichem every year. At the last one, there were five men from China who are starting a Sholem Aleichem research center in Shanghai. As the Chinese leave the small towns for the big cities now, they are experiencing what he wrote about.