Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Tevye’s Creator: Sholem Aleichem

He was a Zionist, not a Communist. Yet, Sholem Aleichem’s stories were so popular with Yiddish speaking Russians, the Soviet state declared him a friend of the proletariat, albeit a politically naïve one. Often dubbed the Yiddish Mark Twain (to which Mr. Clemmons once replied: “tell him I am the American Sholem Aleichem”), he remains best known as the creator of Tevye the Milkman, the beloved protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof. The eventful life and full oeuvre of the Yiddish writer is put into fresh context in Joseph Dorman’s documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In addition to Twain, Sholem Aleichem might also be compared to Anthony Trollope as a prolific working writer. Early in his career, Sholem Aleichem (born Solomon Rabinovich) lived by his pen in the Ukrainian shtetls, where threats of pogroms were a real and present danger. Eventually, Sholem Aleichem (twice) immigrated to America. Laughing repeatedly emphasizes the role Sholem Aleichem’s stories played in keeping alive recent Jewish immigrants’ cultural memories in their bustling new homes. On-screen commentators describe Sholem Aleichem as a critical transitional figure, a New World man of letters writing of the Old World his readers knew so well.

Of course, he had a handful of beloved characters, most definitely including Tevye. Laughing nicely delineates the differences between the Tevye immortalized by Topol and that of the original short stories, but it stretches the point when speculating how Aleichem might have approved of the happy ending rewritten for Broadway and Hollywood.

Traditional in its approach, Laughing is always respectful to its subject without becoming obsequious. It covers the epic sweep of Sholem Aleichem’s life and the richness of his canon briskly but informatively. The parade of talking heads (including his granddaughter, author Bel Kauffmann) are considerably more insightful than the documentary industry’s standard, while actor Peter Riegert (fondly remembered for Local Hero and Animal House) clearly and sensitively gives voice to the Sholem Aleichem’s words.

A quality production, Laughing also boasts a supportive yet distinctive soundtrack composed by John Zorn (known for curating the Radical Jewish Music series), operating here in mostly a chamber string quartet mode with musicians like violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Erik Friedlander. It is perfect soundtrack music, apparently playing obtrusively in corner, but actually quite compelling once you focus on it.

An intelligent film wrapped in a classy package, Laughing should appeal to wide audience: essentially anyone who saw and loved Norman Jewison’s Fiddler or any stage revival, which should be just about everyone. Engaging and enlightening, it opens this Friday (7/8) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.