Documentary shows the real man behind Tevye

Documentary shows the real man behind Tevye

Think of Sholem Aleichem — arguably the best known of all Yiddish writers and humorists — and you think of his best-loved, best-known and most enduring character: Tevye the dairyman.

You think of Topol dancing to the chorus of “Tradition” in “Fiddler on the Roof,” as his little horse pulling the milk wagon trots quietly behind him.

And, of course, you think of what you would do if you were a rich man.

Well … don’t.

The real Sholem Aleichem was a much more complex figure — modern where Tevye was old fashioned; worldly where Tevye stayed close to his little village of Anatevka; rebellious where Tevye clung to the faith of his ancestors.

Most of all, Sholem Aleichem was a visionary, but in a sad way. He could tell the world what he was writing about — the Jewish world within the Russian Pale of Settlement — was vanishing.

Perhaps that’s why the documentary about the famed writer being screened this weekend at the JFilm Festival is titled so appropriately — “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.”

A sensitive documentary told through the eyes of Yiddish writers and editors, historians of the 19th century shtetl life and even Bel Kaufman, granddaughter of the famed writer, the life of Sholem Aleichem is honestly woven together with old sepia photos and film footage and narrated excerpts from his own stories.

Sholem Aleichem was hardly the figure one would expect to memorialize shtetl life and the Yiddish language.

Born Shalom Rabinowitz (Sholem Aleichem was his pen name) in 1859, he was from a well-to-do family in Russia. His father was a follower of the modernist Haskala movement, which encouraged Jews to adopt secular lifestyles. In fact, the elder Rabinowitz hoped his son would make his mark as a Hebrew writer.

That may have happened had his father not suffered business reverses or the boy been able to enter one of many Russian universities, which had strict quotas on the number of Jews to be admitted. Instead, he became a “penniless teacher,” as his granddaughter describes him in the film.

These moments influenced Sholem Aleichem’s life and writing. Could his hometown of Voronkov, in modern day Ukraine, have been the inspiration for Tevye’s village of Kasrilevke (Anatevka in the movie)?

His work was fiction, but it was real as well.

And always funny. As the great writer said himself in an autobiography, “To make people laugh was almost a sickness with me” — an ironic statement considering his bouts of depression as a young man.

The film follows Sholem Aleichem through the many stages of his careers — reporter, critic, publisher and writer. But Sholem Aleichem, in the eyes of many, is the dean of Yiddish literature, taking the genre beyond the dour, deadly serious prose and poetry of so many other Yiddish writers by giving readers a way to lighten their burdens — laugh at them. And they responded by making the author their literary champion.

“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” is a comprehensive look at the leading figure of Yiddish literature, but it is a compelling story, too — honestly and passionately told. This could be the best documentary of the festival.

• • • 

Also showing in week two of the festival:

“Little Rose” — In Communist Poland of the 1960s, a member of the Polish Secret Police uses his beautiful girlfriend to infiltrate the Jewish intellectual circles that question totalitarian rule and dream of political, social and cultural freedoms.

“Remembrance” — A young Polish prisoner and his Jewish lover carry on a dangerous and torrid affair in the most unlikely of places: the confines of a concentration camp in 1944 Poland. Tomasz meticulously plans their successful escape and smuggles out photo evidence of the Final Solution while he’s at it.

“Restoration” — When Yakov Fidelman’s longtime business partner dies, he discovers that their antique furniture restoration business is in dire financial straits. His abrasive son, Noah, wants him to close the business to build condos, not understanding that it is the only thing touching his father’s lonely, quiet life.

“Standing Silent” — Child sexual abuse scandals are not limited to one community or religious segment, as viewers find in this documentary that follows one journalist’s drive to report on abuse in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community. Phil Jacobs, a longtime writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times and an Orthodox Jew himself, faces a hostile public and his own demons when he decides to report on sexual abuse in the observant community.

“Rabies” — Israel’s first-ever horror film — a sexy, campy, and clever game of murder — involves a young couple that happens to be brother and sister, a deranged cop and his lovesick partner, and a group of tennis playing friends.

“Kaddish for a Friend”  — Fourteen-year-old Ali grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp where he learned to hate Jews at an early age. After escaping Lebanon, he and his family end up in Berlin’s Kreuzberg area. Wanting to fit in and be accepted by the local gang, he helps them vandalize the apartment of a Russian Jewish neighbor. To avoid deportation, he is forced to help the neighbor repair the damage.

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(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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