‘Sholem Aleichem’: the man who inspired ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Working under the handicap of very little archival film of his subject, director Joseph Dorman has nevertheless produced the beautiful and illuminating documentary, ‘Sholem Aleichem: Dancing in the Darkness.”

In this country, Aleichem (the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich) is best known for creating the Tevye stories that inspired the great Broadway musical and film “Fiddler on the Roof” (above). He was the poet laureate of the Eastern European immigrant experience — taking us into the Jewish village life that was smashed by the czar in Russia and then obliterated in Germany, Poland and elsewhere by the Nazis.

Tevye is a man who knows when the time has come to abandon a life he loves — he’s resigned to his fate but nothing will stop him from complaining about it and celebrating what he and his family and friends are losing.

The documentary reminds us of the writer’s lofty position in the modern history of world literature and his cultural importance as perhaps the first in a long-line of self-deprecating, half-jaded/half-romantic Jewish comic figures.

He is to Jewish and, specifically Yiddish, arts and letters what Mark Twain is to American literary history — someone who could capture a society as accurately through humor as others have done it via darker means.

The writer’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman — the 101-year-old author of “Up the Down Staircase” — provides warmly humorous interview material on a man she only knew as a young child.

In a 2011 piece in The New York Times, Kaufman talked about a humor course she taught earlier this year at Hunter College. What she said there applies to Dorman’s film as well.

“We investigat(ed) why so many comedians are Jewish and so many Jewish jokes are so self-accusing…It goes back to immigration from the shtetl, from that poverty, and because the Jew was the object of so much opprobrium and hatred…The jokes were a defense mechanism: ‘We’re going to talk about ourselves in a more damaging way than you could.’ ”

Dorman’s film shows how Aleichem’s popularity rose and fell during his own lifetime as Jews came to grips with the cultural changes he wrote about. On his first extended visit to New York City, he was viciously panned for the first two plays he produced for the vibrant Yiddish theater of the early 20th century. Many of those Jews who had just arrived in America had no interest in looking back to where they came from.

While he was hugely popular in Europe within his own lifetime, he didn’t really come into vogue here until after he died at the age of 57 in New York in 1916.

200,000 people — of all ethnic backgrounds — gathered for his funeral procession, with many of his critics realizing that he had captured something important about the immigrant experience that applied as much to Irish and Italian people as it did to the Jews.

One scholar in the documentary says that Aleichem taught people of his faith “how to be Jews in the modern world and yet not lose their connection to a civilization that is Jewish.”

“Laughing in the Dark” is narrated by Alan Rosenberg and scenes from some of the stories come vividly to life in the voice work of Peter Reigert and Rachel Dratch. among others.

(“Sholem Aleichem” is available on DVD.)

Joe Meyers