At one time, 90 percent of the world’s Jews spoke the same language, and that language was Yiddish. This extraordinary fact is tossed off by one of the talking heads in “Sholom Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” a documentary that premiered at the 20th New York Jewish Film Festival and is now in theatrical release, as if it didn’t have profound implications for Jews today. Language, after all, is one of the great unifying and dividing forces in human culture. What would Jewish life be like if 90 percent of Jews in the world spoke the same language, different from their non-Jewish neighbors?
Filmmaker Joseph Dorman’s previous film was “Arguing the World,” a scintillating documentary about four famous New York Jewish intellectuals; this project about the great Yiddish writer is just as absorbing. Using a trove of photographs, clips from Yiddish films, and unusually thoughtful commentary from scholars and experts such as Columbia’s Dan Miron, Harvard’s Ruth Wisse, David Roskies from JTS, author Hillel Halkin, and the founder of the National Yiddish Book Center Aaron Lansky, Dorman examines Sholom Aleichem’s life and art, and its impact on the Jewish culture of the Soviet Union, Israel, and the U.S.
Born in 1859 in the Russian Pale of Settlement, the future writer had a comfortable, secure childhood, which abruptly changed when his father went bankrupt. Suddenly, the teenage Sholom Rabinowitz (his real name) was just as poor as the great mass of shtetl Jews. Unlike most of them, however, he’d had a secular as well as a religious education, and when he finished school, he became tutor to the daughter of a wealthy man. Romance flowered, and the young couple eloped over the older man’s objections; when his father-in-law died, Sholom Aleichem inherited a fortune, and the young family moved to Kiev.
By the end of the 19th century, industrialization had destroyed the shtetl’s economic base, and the drumbeat for change had begun among the Jews. Socialism, Zionism, communism, and their numerous variants competed for the Jews’ allegiance, and many people escaped to the cities. Sholom Aleichem’s first popular character, Menachem Mendel, represents that shift. An eternal optimist, despite his lack of brains or experience, Menachem Mendel is convinced that he can become a millionaire by playing the market. No matter how often he fails, or how bitterly his wife rails at him in her letters, he continues to look for the next big thing. These stories reflected Sholom Aleichem’s own financial misadventures. He lost a great deal of money speculating on the stock exchange and at one point had to be bailed out by his mother-in-law.
The most astonishing fact in this fascinating film is that although Sholom Aleichem was one of the founders of Yiddish literature and became the most famous writer in the Jewish world, his six children could neither read his work nor converse with him in Yiddish. The family spoke Russian at home, as did other upwardly mobile urban Jews. The only conclusion to draw is that at the moment Yiddish was bursting into literary maturity, it was already on its deathbed. It’s been a long, protracted demise, as I.B. Singer remarked.
Sholom Aleichem’s most familiar and beloved character was Tevye the Milkman, and the experts have a lot of interesting and surprising things to say about him, and how different Jewish communities adapted the character to suit their needs after Sholom Aleichem’s death. Halkin sees Tevye as the forerunner of the modern Jew, dependent on himself to define his Judaism. He also notes that Sholom Aleichem recognized that America was the best place the Jews had ever lived, and would therefore be the graveyard of Jewish culture. Of course, the open and accepting society Jews found in America is only partially responsible for the demise of Yiddish. It’s true that American Jews quickly learned English, indeed mastered the language and became some of the best American writers of the 20th century. The Nazis bear most of the blame. They destroyed the Jewish communities of Europe, murdered the Jews, and wiped out their language.