"Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" Is a Collective Family Album

Joseph Dorman's Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a film-essay-cum-biodoc on author Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916), who, taking as his pen name the Yiddish greeting Sholem Aleichem ("Peace be with you"), was at once popular writer, literary artist, and Jewish culture hero. Laughing in the Darkness opens with the inevitable invocation of Fiddler on the Roof, the Broadway musical through which Sholem Aleichem's invented Jewish folklore — at once emblematic of tribal solidarity and suggestive of social upheaval — entered the American mainstream. Still, the movie is not nearly as sentimental, reductive, or triumphalist as it might have been. Dorman does not fail to acknowledge the contradictions of Sholem Aleichem's posthumous career — revered as a Yiddish Gorky by Jewish Communists, reduced to a children's author in Israel, and taken for a repository of shtetl tradition by assimilated Americans. The Jewish people invented Sholem Aleichem as he invented them. His greatness as a writer was founded on an uncanny ventriloquism — he conjured up characters through their distinctive voices and with the help of the richness of the Yiddish language. Thus, in addition to Sholem Aleichem, Dorman focuses on his three greatest creations: feckless speculator Menachem Mendl, irrepressible orphan boy Motl Peyse, and the humorously long-suffering dairyman Tevya. Analysis is provided by an informative cast of talking heads, and additional substance comes from period photos and newsreel footage. In the spirit of the Sholem Aleichem oeuvre, the film is a collective family album.

 
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