When Joseph Dorman’s friend – a professor of Yiddish and Jewish studies at Rutgers University – suggested that a film about the life and times of Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) might appeal to an audience, he was only faintly interested.
“My reluctance stemmed from my ignorance,” said Dorman, an American filmmaker who has worked for PBS, CNN, CBS and the Discovery Channel, and has twice been nominated for Emmy Awards for outstanding cultural and public affairs programming.
He added, “I had no idea how great a writer Sholem Aleichem was, and how much his own work explored issues of Jewish identity that were of deep interest to me. Once I began to read his stories, my doubts melted away. Indifference soon turned into obsession. The only doubts that remained were whether I could make a movie about a 19th century writer. That also became the challenge, and I like challenges.”
Dorman, who describes his subject as “a brilliant and sharply observant writer,” met the challenge with verve. His 93-minute documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, was screened at last year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival and is scheduled to open here at the Empire Walk 10 Cinemas (5095 Yonge St.) on Feb. 24.
Dorman’s film is an engaging biopic about a highly creative and imaginative Russian Jew whose stories captured the authenticity of the shtetl, the world of our forefathers, and formed the basis of the beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof.
Through archival footage, vintage photographs and interviews with experts, Dorman, the scion of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, reveals Sholem Aleichem’s genius in exploring a society on the cusp of profound change.
“Sholem Aleichem’s popularity and influence were so great that his stories became synonymous with east European Jewry,” said Dorman, whose previous film was about a group of young Jewish socialists in New York who develop very different political ideologies. “The descriptive power of his stories and their ability to capture the essence of an entire Jewish civilization made him the perfect vehicle to explore that world.”
Dorman admits he knew nothing about the figure he celebrates.
“I had him pegged as a popular writer of sentimental fiction. I don’t come from a family of Yiddishists, so I had no idea that Yiddish was transformed by Sholem Aleichem and many other writers into a remarkable literary language.”
Calling him a writer of complexity and depth, Dorman said he excelled in the short-story genre.
“His greatest novels – Tevye the Dairyman, Menakhem Mendl and Motl the Cantor’s Son – are really serialized stories often told in monologue form. Yet within the span of eight to 10 pages and through the words of a single individual, he could distill a large theme: the journey of an entire people from a traditional world to a modern one, with all its attendant dislocation and confusion.
“He witnessed the birth of modern Jewry, and he did it through word portraits of uneducated and barely literate people. Like Freud, a contemporary, he was a master psychologist.”
Dorman contends that Sholem Aleichem churned out his stories during a moment of catastrophe, when the forces of modernity and industrialization uprooted millions of people and touched off a wave of pogroms in the Russian empire.
“He wanted to use his art to comfort his fellow Jews,” he observed. “But he didn’t choose the path of escapism. Rather, his stories confronted these catastrophes head on and drew humour from them. If you can laugh at something, you’ve somehow tamed it.”
Deeply respectful of Sholem Aleichem, Dorman believes that he, as well as contemporaries such as Mendele Moycher Sforim and Isaac Leib Peretz, essentially invented modern Yiddish literature.
As he put it, “The first secular Jewish novels were written in Hebrew, but there was a serious problem with this. Only a small minority of well-educated Jews could read and understand a Hebrew novel. But everyone spoke Yiddish. The result was that Sholem Aleichem’s work had a huge popular following. He, in turn, provided east European Jewry with its first true portrait of itself through his stories.”
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness enabled Dorman to reconnect with his past.
“I went to Ukraine to shoot footage, and simply travelling through the country in search of former shtetls and signs of Jewish existence was a powerful experience. In general, I think I now possess a more integrated understanding of my family’s past and of east European Jewry’s past. As a man who loves history, that has given me a great deal of satisfaction.”
Dorman, who is currently working on a film about the history of Zionism, believes his documentary on Sholem Aleichem will be useful and enlightening to Jews in North America whose ancestors hail from eastern Europe.
“North American Jewry has largely been cut off from its immediate past. Most of us know our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents come from the shtetl, but we have little idea what this means. The shtetl is a place that is at once mythic and yet one dimensional.
“The Holocaust wiped this world off the map, destroying this culture and our connection to it. We became focused on the destruction of a civilization at the expense of remembering what was destroyed.”
Dorman hopes that Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness will redress this equation.