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.
The book-club favorite about African-American women working as domestics in the early Civil Rights era South has been lovingly turned into a film that like its source material engages with its sensitive subject matter humbly and sincerely.
Kathryn Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and was devoted to her family’s “help,” which inspired her first novel, the story of Skeeter, an awkward girl just out of college (Emma Stone) who persuades the women who work as domestics to tell her their stories for a book. This is a minefield of an idea, which may be one reason the book was rejected 60 times. We are rightly sensitive about the presumption of a white woman acting as interpreter or, even worse, as liberator. And Stockett had her African-American characters speaking in dialect. There can be no better proof that we have still not figured out how to handle these issues than this summer’s cover of Vanity Fair with a bikini-clad photo of Stone, describing her on the inside of the magazine as the “star” of “The Help.” She is not the star, just as her character is not the author of the book she produces. She is the ingenue. The stars of the story are the maids played by Viola Davis (Aibileen Clark) and Octavia Spencer (Minny Jackson). Entertainment Weekly did a much better job. All three actresses appear on the cover, with a headline: “How do you turn a beloved, racially charged book into a moving, funny film? Very carefully.”
That is thanks to Stockett’s closest childhood friend, Tate Taylor, who grew up with her in Jackson, who optioned the book before it was published, and who wrote and directed the film, and who insisted it be shot in Mississippi and that it reflect the South he knew.
Skeeter is accepted by the ladies who run things in Jackson, but she does not fit in. She is not married and hopes for something beyond bridge club luncheons and dinner-dances. She applies for a job at the local newspaper and is hired to do the household hints column. Since she knows nothing about cooking, cleaning, or laundry, she asks her friend’s maid, Aibeleen, for help. As they talk, she becomes more aware of the bigotry around her and of her own failure to oppose it. She begins to wonder about the lives of the women who raise the children and feed the families in her community but are not permitted to use the bathrooms that they scrub. A New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) encourages her to collect their stories for a ground-breaking book. Skeeter asks Aibeleen and Minny to help her, knowing that she may be putting them at risk of losing their jobs, or worse. Privately, Skeeter works on the book. Quietly, and then less quietly, she works to oppose a local initiative to require all homes to build separate “colored” bathrooms.
The woman behind the initiative is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), ostensibly Skeeter’s best friend and the alpha girl in their community. It is less a matter of prejudice than a struggle for power, but that just makes Skeeter’s refusal to go along more inflammatory. Meanwhile, Hilly has fired Minny, who goes to work for Celia (Jessica Chastain), a pretty blonde from the lower class who does not realize that she is being frozen out by the society ladies of the town. And the more Hilly feels threatened, the more the pushes for her “sanitation” initiative.
Taylor said that Greenwood, Mississippi is closer to what Jackson looked like in the 60’s than Jackson is now and the period detail pulls us into the story. Octavia Spencer, playing a part she helped to inspire, does not let Minny become a caricature and Viola Davis gives another richly layered performance as the quieter Aibeleen. If Howard makes Hilly a little too shrill (and the ending more upbeat than would have been possible in that era) it is understandable given the changing times. No one would believe today that such a short time ago, blatant virulence could be so casual, which is why the conversations this movie will prompt are so important. And Stockett deserves credit for her care in acknowledging moments of generosity and affection on all sides in spite of the restrictions of the era.
This is an involving drama with respect for its characters that has some important points to make about race and gender, about the past that still haunts us, about friendship and passion, and most of all about the transformative power of stories, the ones we tell and the ones we listen to. As Douglas Adams wrote:
It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.
“The Help” does not pretend to be perfect, but it is an honorable step forward and one of the most heartwarming dramas of the year.
Ellen Seldman, the mother of a special needs child, has written a heartfelt post for Parents.com about the offensive language in The Change-Up. It isn’t the (constant) four-letter words or graphic sexual references she objects to. It is the crude references to Down Syndrome. “It contains a scene in which a character asks a dad whether his twins are ‘retarded’ because they’re not yet speaking, then adds ‘I don’t know, this one looks a little Downsy.'”
I agree with her that the language is very offensive (I noted the use of the “r-word” in my review). I think it is important to point out, however, that the movie is not making fun of special needs kids. It is making fun of the “normal” idiot who uses that language.
The Change-Up is a very raunchy, graphic, intentionally provocative comedy. But it is no more on the side of the use of that language than it is of the other irresponsible and disgusting behavior by the character, including exposing the babies to very dangerous items and advising the older child to beat up a bully. I was more offended by the use of the r-word by characters portrayed more approvingly in other recent movies I have seen, most recently “Our Idiot Brother.”
I appreciate Seldman’s support for the very important “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign. My first job was at a school for developmentally disabled children that had the r-word in its name. That was a long time ago, and as with other words we now understand to be unacceptable, this one should be recognized as offensive and inaccurate. Parents should make sure they never use the word, even jokingly, and make clear to their children that they will not tolerate it.
Before Star Wars: The Complete Saga goes on sale on September 16, fans can get a sneak peek right now at the 40+ hours of bonus footage on the Blu-ray collection through the Star Wars Blu-ray: Early Access App. The App, available for all iDevices including the iPad and iPhone highlights a sampling of bonus materials featured in the Blu-ray collection, including never-before-seen content sourced from the Lucasfilm Archives, matte paintings and concept art; prop, maquette and costume turnarounds; supplementary interviews with cast and crew; and more.