Film Review – ‘Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness’

Film Review – ‘Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness’

August 18, 2011 at 3:30 pm

No Jew interested in the traditions of his/her faith should miss this delightful, absorbing and informative documentary about the life of Sholem Aleichem, born Solomon Rabinovich.  The story of his time spent in Russia and New York City is told by Jewish scholars and his granddaughter, Bel Kaufman, accompanied by photographs.

Sholem was born in the Pale of Russia, the section between the Baltic Coast and Black Sea in which Jews were permitted to live under the Czar in the 19th century. Jews were not permitted to own land, were limited in their business opportunities, and lived in small, Jewish- concentrated villages called shtetls. There was a constant fear of pogroms, antisemitic riots, often instigated by the Czar when a government failure arose.  It was easy to blame and punish the Jews by having their Russian neighbors and Cossacks rape and murder.

When Sholem Aleichem began writing, only in Yiddish, his works sparkled with wisdom and joy.  The most famous of his characters was the dairyman Tevye, who became the subject of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,”  written by Joseph Stein and directed by Norman Jewison.  The score was by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock.

In Aleichem’s original story, Tevye’s daughter becomes romantically involved with a gentile, against her families wishes.  At the last minute, she decides not to marry outside her faith and returns to her father’s house.  However, in the musical, Tevye gives his daughter his blessing and off she goes to America.

Bel Kaufman, granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, used her grandfather as inspiration for a class she taught on Yiddish humor this spring. MetroFocus/Bijan Rezvani

Sholem Aleichem also left for America, settling in the Bronx, where he was first lionized and then denounced. Two of his Yiddish plays, which premiered simultaneously at the Yiddish Theatre, were deemed flops. At the time, many Jews had fled the shtetls for American freedom and no longer wanted to identify with the constricted lives of Jews back in Eastern Europe.

While Aleichem was not a literary success in this country during his lifetime, over tens of thousands of people mourned his death in 1916, realizing that they had a Prince of Israel in their midst. Like Lincoln, FDR and John F. Kennedy, who were transported by train either from Washington D.C. to their home states or to DC for burial, Aleichem’s casket visited major Jewish communities in the city for fans to view and mourn.

Edward Irving Koch served three terms as the mayor of New York City, from 1978 to 1989. From 1969 to 1977, he was part of the New York delegation to the United States House of Representatives. Prior to that, he served two years as a member of the New York City Council.  Koch remains active in politics, including as a political commentator, and writes film reviews for “Mayor at the Movies.”