Director discusses new documentary

Sholem Aleichem

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Director Joseph Dorman’s new documentary explores the life and times of the groundbreaking Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem whose Tevye stories formed the basis of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The Jewish Light spoken with Droman recently by phone about his film, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Dark.”

What led you to choose this subject for your film?

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A friend suggested doing something on Sholem Aleichem. I knew very little about him and what I thought I knew was wrong or misguided. So I looked into it, and I started reading Sholem Aleichem’s stories, and learning about his life, and I was almost instantaneously entranced. I first read the Tevye stories. I knew “Fiddler on the Roof” but what I knew about Sholem Aleichem, or what I thought I knew, was that he was kind of a dusty old Jewish humorist who was at best probably interesting as a kind of historical phenomenon. When I started reading his work, I realized I was wrong.

How so?

At its most basic level, it’s just wonderful literature and very, very funny. As good as the musical is, the stories are better-they’re deeper, they’re more complex. It was a window onto a world I’d heard about all my life, this world of the shtetl. Maybe the most surprising thing for me was how enormously relevant he still was to my life. The things he was talking about, the things that Tevye is dealing with and his other characters are dealing with-how you live, struggle, how you manage your own identity, in this case Jewish identity, and be in a world where everything is kind of constantly shifting around you-was what I had been dealing with my whole life. It felt like I had stumbled onto some sort of riches that I had never known about.

Was it difficult finding the archival photos and films you used in the film?

Once I decided to do a film on him that was the awful question-how the heck do I make the film? I found out early on there were all sorts of wonderful pictures of Sholem Aleichem, so I was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief about that. Then there was the question of how you recreate the world of the shtetl? There are, luckily, a number of pretty remarkable archives. The film footage is kind of different. There were a little bit of outtakes from dramatic movies, but the most interesting stuff really comes from home movies that were taken by wealthy American Jews in the ’20s and ’30s. These home movies begin at these almost palatial Jewish homes and you see these people traveling on very tony cruise liners, and the next thing you see, they are in the shtetl, visiting their relatives. So all I had to do was cut out all the tony American stuff and what that left me with was this remarkable footage of the shtetl.

Sholem Aleichem was compared to Mark Twain when he visited New York. Do you think the two were comparable?

The parallels are remarkable-from the pseudonym and the use of common language. Sholem Aleichem also used the fractured Yiddish of uneducated people to create his stories. But Yiddish itself was a language not even regarded as something worthy as a vehicle for literary output. They are both humorists and satirists in a certain way, but there are differences, too. In many ways, Sholem Aleichem is a larger figure for East European Jewry than Twain is for America. (Aleichem) was such a cultural hero because he was uniting this disparate group of people at a very low moment in their existence, a moment of incredible impoverishment and terrible anti-Semitic violence. I think you would have to say that Sholem Aleichem, just by the mere fact of the environment and circumstances, was an even more powerful and important figure for his audience.

Why was this important writer nearly forgotten?

It’s the accidents and odd turns of history. Sholem Aleichem’s fortune mirrored the fortune of the Yiddish language in the last 150 years. What is poignant and frustrating all at the same time is that Sholem Aleichem was taking Yiddish at this particular moment in history and saying, “I can take this language that no one cares about and I can make it a language around which Jews can build a culture, a modern culture.”

It seems you made a decision for the film to go well beyond biography, to describe a changing world, not just in Europe but also the American immigrant experience. Can you talk about that?

What was exciting was that (the film) was a way for me to tell not only his story but to tell this larger story, which is really the last 150 years of Jewish history. I love using people as a lens-it is a great way to look at this larger world and make it personal.