Documentary details author’s ironic journey

. May 17, 2012.

Subversive, ironic and devastatingly satiric. These may not be the first words that come to mind after seeing the 1971 movie, Fiddler on the Roof. After viewing the new documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, about the author whose written works formed the basis of that film, you might change your mind.

The author, Sholem Rabinovich, was all those things and more. The “Jewish Mark Twain,” was born in 1859 in Russia, during a harrowing time of revolution and social upheaval. His own life was more than a match for the times, with his family enduring bouts of great wealth followed by crushing poverty. Even the writer’s pen name, “Sholem Aleichem,” Yiddish for the greeting, “how do you do,” bares more than a hint of ironic humor.

This documentary tells more than the story of the life of the beloved author, one of the first to write tales in Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews at the turn of the last century. We see the history of the times told through rarely seen black and white film shot in the era, stripped clean of sentiment, as Rabinovich would
have preferred.

Scholars appear on screen to share funny, touching and tragic anecdotes about the author and the times. We also hear from the Rabinovich’s granddaughter, 100-year-old Bel Kaufman, who wrote the book, Up the Down Staircase.

Rabinovich came by his irony naturally. When his mother died when he was 13, his father wanted to remarry, but faced a problem. He had fathered 12 young
children with his first wife, not a big selling point to future brides. His dad’s solution? He farmed out the youngsters with relatives until after the wedding ceremony and then brought each child back one by one as a surprise for his new spouse.

Rabinovich’s stepmother was no pushover, however. In fact, Rabinovich’s first writing effort was a compendium of her colorful Yiddish curses, familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a collection of the author’s short story collections – Tevye the Dairyman or Motl the Cantor’s Son.

When the writer’s life proved less than lucrative, despite his wild success with his readers, Rabinovich tried his hand at working as a stockbroker, a factor that would lead to his financial ruin. While this made him less than beloved by his mother-in-law, it didn’t affect his popularity with the public. One especially touching element of the film is actual footage of his funeral, a ceremony held in the streets of New York that saw more than 200,000 people lining the streets out of grief and respect.

While anyone who watches this film, written and directed by Bloomfield Hills native Joseph Dorman, will discover many treasures, it was a special thrill for me. I share a background with the author and found myself straining to see my father’s face in the crowds of young boys in the movie shot when my own dad was their age. Don’t miss this lovely film.

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