Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

***1/2

 

“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” is a sophisticated and unsentimental film about Jews in the modern world. And it’s also a lousy biography of an uninteresting dead dude.

The movie tells us that Sholem Aleichem’s death in 1916 was an earth-shattering event for American Jews and hundreds of thousands witnessed his funeral procession. Director Joseph Dorman wants us to think that this guy was really a big deal and an influential figure.

It is hard to believe. Aside from leading an unremarkable, drama-free life (one wife, several healthy children), all Sholem Aleichem ever did was edit, publish and write comedy stories for a Yiddish-language journal.

Um…I don’t care. And I’m a Jewish guy who likes to write, so I can only imagine how meaningless that sounds to you!

For a movie with “laughing” in the title, there are very few laughs. Indeed, the only funny thing about “Sholem Aleichem” is that documentary filmmaker Joseph Dorman is such a bad biographer but such a gifted historian.

This little movie really made me think about what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. And then it made me rethink it.

The story begins in the so-called Jewish Renaissance of the mid 1800s. After centuries of peaceful agrarian isolation in the hinterlands of Central and Eastern Europe, some intrepid Jews decided to venture into the Christian world.

In 1800, virtually every European Jew was a rural farmer or a small-time independent businessman. By the dawn of the 20th century, Jews were a major presence in academia, the medical profession, high finance, and in Socialist revolutionary circles.

The most obvious result of this incursion was the extreme backlash that left Europe almost entirely Jew-free in less than 50 years. In a happy surprise, though, the film doesn’t focus on the violent, depressing side of the Jewish experience.

Instead, Dorman explores the intense and unresolvable conflict between tradition and assimilation. Should we embrace the lure of the secular, urban, materialistic, ever-changing modern world? Or should we cling to our ancient, unique, and – frankly – weird identity?

This gut-wrenching identity crisis raged inside the heads of late 19th century Jews. Especially in the head of Sholem Aleichem’s literary alter-ego Mendel, who was the inspiration for the lead character in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

I find this conflict fascinating, but ultimately I wonder whether it was ever really a conflict at all. As soon as Jews found their way to America – a country that actually welcomed us – tradition went right out the window. When given an amazing culture that was willing to have us, Jews assimilated quickly and eagerly. You sure don’t see anyone speaking Yiddish anymore.

The full failure of Sholem Aleichem and his 19th century philosophy is expressed vividly at the end of the Hollywood movie “Fiddler on the Roof.”

In Aleichem’s original story, Mendel heartlessly disowns his daughter for betraying her people and marrying a Gentile. Mendel literally has a funeral ceremony and never speaks to her again.

The Hollywood version turns the ending entirely on its head. Ultimately, Mendel embraces his daughter’s decision – recognizing that the erosion of the old ways is inevitable and that even intermarriage is perfectly okay.

Sorry, Sholem Aleichem: you lose. Your language, your values, and your world are all dead. The movie “Sholem Aleichem,” however, is wonderfully alive with thought-provoking ideas.

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