Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness Dir. Joseph Dorman

[International Film Circuit, Riverside Films ; 2011]

Styles: documentary
Others: Arguing the World

Sholem Aleichem was perhaps the world’s most important Yiddish author. Born as Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich in a small, predominantly Jewish town in Ukraine in 1859, Aleichem lived during a transformative time in the history of the Jewish Diaspora, as what had been primarily a tradition-bound, religiously-based national consciousness became increasingly concerned with the political, intellectual, and cultural dimensions of Jewish identity. The transformation was ignited more by the problems of modernity than its conveniences and abundances, but one aspect of Jewish life experienced an undeniable golden age. The late 19th century saw more secular Jewish literature published than any other time thanks to the sudden elevation of Yiddish from a language considered too common to be used for writing to the primary intellectual tongue of the Diaspora.

In his documentery Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, director Joseph Dorman takes great care to connect Aleichem’s biography to these fascinating changes, as both a product of his era and a producer of it, even if it’s sometimes unclear which one Dorman’s getting at. Aleichem got his start publishing stories in Yiddish newspapers to reach a wider audience than would be available to him through the book market. Publishing in the most popular medium in the most popular language of his community proved a winning combination for the author. After success at home, Aleichem immigrated to America — twice — at a time when pogroms and lack of economic opportunities for Jews in Eastern Europe caused many to take the same journey. But the author mostly met rejection in New York. The national secular consciousness that he, in part, helped to create meant that the city’s thriving Jewish community had little interest in Aleichem’s stories, so deeply interested in Eastern European Jewish tradition. Indeed, after Aleichem’s death, the triumph of the causes he would have embraced — the relative acceptance of American Jews by US society and the creation of Israel (Aleichem was a Zionist), which sought, successfully, to replace Yiddish with Hebrew — helped diminish the number of native Yiddish speakers. Today, under two million people worldwide could read Aleichem’s works in the original. Similarly, his work became popular in the United States only after complex processes of cultural adaptation and appropriation, when his Tevye the Milkman stories were posthumously adapted into the musical (and later movie) Fiddler on the Roof .

While Dorman’s treatment of Aleichem’s life is fine, his treatment of Aleichem’s writing is successful only insofar as it makes you want to stop watching the documentary and, perhaps, go read something. The most glaring mistake is Dorman’s consistent use of Aleichem’s fiction to illustrate his actual life, but there are more subtle missteps when the director uses Aleichem’s work to talk about the diaspora. The film is, unfortunately, a mix of talking head snippets (mostly Aleichem cheerleaders from academia) and black and white photos, many of which are shown over and over throughout the film (with seemingly only one camera effect: a slow zoom into each photo). It’s fine to see the same photos of Aleichem over and over again when the talking heads are discussing his life. But it’s sloppy at best to be shown, and shown again, pictures of anonymous real-life Jewish people to illustrate Aleichem’s fictional stories.

The technique becomes especially troubling when Dorman focuses on Aleichem’s caricature pieces. We’re shown seemingly random pictures of well dressed Jewish men while the talking heads laugh about an Aleichem sketch making fun of a stock-obsessed Jewish man. We see random pictures of Jewish women while we’re read — by a screeching narrator with an exaggerated Yiddish accent — an epistolary work about a nagging Jewish wife. These are presented simply as evidence of Aleichem’s greatness, his ability to capture the spirit of his community. Because of the director’s uncritical enthusiasm for the writer, Laughing in the Darkness makes it hard to distinguish whether its Dorman or Aleichem who needs to work on his craft.

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