Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness by Ron Steinman

If you are Jewish you should be familiar with the writer Sholem Aleichem. If you are not Jewish or versed in important world literature, I will excuse your lack of knowledge about this great writer. What you are and however you think, take the time now and see Sholem Aleichem, Laughing in the Darkness. It is a wonderful film smartly written, directed and produced by Joseph Dorman in a labor of love about a great Yiddish writer who has left an indelible mark on Jewish and American culture. Who was Sholem Aleichem? In a few words, he wrote seriocomic stories in Yiddish about Eastern European Jews, some of which became “Fiddler on the Roof, ” based on tales about Tevye the Milkman, his five daughters and, even then, a long vanished world. Steeped in the world of the shtetl – the small insular village or town that dominated Jewish life in the 19th and early 20th Century – Sholem Aleichem had a gift that enabled him to bring that world to life in all its humanity. For 25 years, he turned out a short story a week in Yiddish, still the language of many Eastern European Jews. His purpose was to preserve that world’s rich Jewish cultural underpinning under constant attack and the threat of destruction by tsarist Russia.

Born near Kiev, Ukraine in 1859, Sholem Aleichem made several trips to New York, first arriving in 1906 when he was 47. In New York, he continued writing stories, and he also wrote plays but he had a difficult time breaking through tough, hidebound critics who had little sympathy with his efforts. Many called his plays old fashioned and not cognizant of what the New World meant to recently arrived Jewish immigrants there for a new life. The old ways had no place in the New World. Never really happy with how his American audience accepted him, he returned to Europe but then came back to New York for a second time where his nostalgic stories of how the Jews once lived would to bring him the recognition he craved. He died in 1916 at age 57. His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in New York at that time with an estimated 150,000 people lining the streets. He lies buried in Old Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens. Considered by many to be the Mark Twain of Jewish literature, his legacy lives on to this day though his many works. Critics and audiences today usually, and unfortunately, look at documentary film and seem more taken by technique than by content. It is as if technique, especially in the world of 2.0 where one’s attention span deteriorates after a page or two or a few minutes of a film, is more important than the story telling. Overly cute, sometimes extreme editing, the use of rapid-fire sound cuts, and often bad music dominate many contemporary documentaries.

This film neither uses — nor needs— any gimmicks or outrageous editing. Produced in beautiful black and white using archival film and stills in the traditional manner with no frills, strong interviews, and where needed, Shalom Aleichem’s actual words, the film is an object lesson in how to create a compelling film that captures our attention merely through its essence. Unfortunately, you will not find this film at your multiplex, but seek it out wherever you are. You will not be disappointed.

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