Friday, September 9, 2011

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness [2011]

MPAA (unrated) Roger Ebert (3 stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (written and directed by Joseph Dorman) is a documentary about the Russian/Ukrainian-born Jewish Yiddish-language writer born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich who took the pen name Sholem Aleichem.  He is most famous for writing the stories of Tevye the Milkman which became the basis for the musical / film Fiddler on the Roof.

Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich was born in 1859 in the Shtetl, that is, in one of many predominantly Jewish villages that existed in the Polish/Ukranian/Byelorussian countryside at that time.  The documentary followed his rather itinerant life from the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Ukrainian countryside to Kiev, Ukraine's capital to New York City back then to Czarist Russia in Odessa and finally back to New York City again, where he died in 1916).

The 19th century was the period of the Romantic Movement and Romantic Nationalism marked by prodigious production of art and literature throughout Europe and the rise of nationalist consciousnesses again throughout Europe coalescing around the ethnic traditions being collected and studied at the time (ie the Brothers Grimm, et al) often for the first time in their own language and then celebrated in a big way.   The Yiddish Renaissance of which Sholem Aleichem was very much part (as he edited a Yiddish language literary journal out of Kiev at the time) was very much _in the spirit of the age_.  Similar movements throughout Europe ranging from Norway and Finland in the North to Italy in the South helped produce a plethora of new nation states resulting from both the unification of Germany and Italy to the eventual breakup of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, all taking place during a period from the late 19th century through to the end of World War I.

However, the picture was _not at all_ "completely rosy," as the same movements that gave voices to countless theretofore marginalized/anonymous and largely discounted people (and peoples) throughout Europe _also_ resulted in violent clashes when parallel and competing nationalist movements came into contact and clashed.  In Czarist Russia for instance, the same Romantic Movement that produced such Russian literary giants as Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov, whose literary legacies this documentary argued _helped inspire_ Sholem Aleichem and other figures of the Yiddish Renaissance, _also_ resulted in the pogroms of the late 19th century that drove Czarist Russia's Jews by the hundreds of thousands/millions into exile and eventually into the United States.  And the same Romantic Nationalism that inspired the Yiddish Renaissance _also_ inspired within the Jewish community the Zionist movement that eventually rejected the Yiddish language as "a language of bondage" in favor of Modern Hebrew which became the primary language of the modern state of Israel

This then would be the socio-cultural background of this documentary, and which covered it quite well though the documentary focused on where this background directly touched Sholem Aleichem's life in Russia, in the Jewish diaspora community in the United States (New York), and in Zionist circles at the time and Israel since.

The richness and dynamicism of that period of time (from the late 1800s through the early 1900s) in Europe has generally _not_ been captured well in American film.  Perhaps the recent Sherlock Holmes remake and the upcoming sequel could give one a taste, as well as Woody Allen's recent movie Midnight in Paris.  However, those portrayals are of London and Paris which touch on the western edge of Europe and don't necessarily capture the spirit of that time that was playing-out actually _primarily_ in Central Europe.  Here perhaps Czech (and other Central European) portrayals _could be useful_ especially the "life and times" of the fictional Czech character Jara Cimrman (invented by Czech writers in the 1970s during the height of the Cold War in good part to remind even the Czechs what Central Europe used to be like before it was devastated first by the Nazis and then by the Communists).  For this was both the part of the world and the time that also produced both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein and is perhaps culturally most similar to that of Sholem Aleichem portrayed in the documentary here.  Knowing more of the region and the time could help one better appreciate both the Yiddish Rennaisane and then even better grasp the full horror of the Nazi Holocaust which all but wiped out the Jewish community that had remained in this region.  For in doing so, the Holocaust wiped-out from 10 percent to, in some parts, one-third of the people that gave the region its life.

Still what Sholem Aleichem gave to the Jewish community and to the world were his stories of a time and place (amply recounted in the documentary) that remains part of the heritage of tens of millions to hundreds of millions of people in the region around the world as well as a wisdom present in those stories that can be useful to us all.  Because most of us both "like a good story" and can certainly appreciate the precariousness of life that _can feel_ at times like being a "Fiddler on a Roof."  And the documentary did a great, great job at telling the story of one of the greatest storytellers of his time (and any time).

<< NOTE - Do you like what you've been reading here?  If you do then consider giving a small donation to this Blog (sugg. $6 _non-recurring_) _every so often_ to continue/further its operation.  To donate just CLICK HERE.  Thank you! :-) >>

No comments:

Post a Comment