Monday, August 19, 2013

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness directed by Joseph Dorman 2011 (Documentary)

"The movie’s old photographs conjure the look and vitality of shtetl life so vividly you can almost feel yourself jostled in the crowded and dusty streets, hear the cries of peddlers and smell the pungent aromas of the cooking. The gnarly faces and hunched bodies of Jewish peasants, many dressed in rags, attest to decades of pain, hardship and stubborn endurance." from a review in the New York Times by Stephen Holden 7/11/2011

This interesting film traces the life and work of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem who was born Sholem Rabinowitz in 1859 in a shtetl in Ukraine and died in 1916 in New York City.

The strength of this film is its historical context. Sholem Aleichem lived at a time of much upheaval amongst Jewish communities throughout the Pale of Settlement. This upheaval affected his life and became the subject of  his fiction. The Jews of the nineteenth century were mostly poor, insular, and religious. Laws promulgated by the czar and his government become more and more restrictive, and Russian peasants and local populations of Ukrainians were given license to perpetrate violence against the Jews. Pogroms become a threat and an actuality.

Also creating upheaval was industrialization which drove many of the children who had grown up in shtetls with their agrarian ways (thing Tevye, the milkman) to the cities where they were exposed to modernity. Many facets of this new way of life challenged the tenets of their early years. Such was the life of Sholem Aleichem who grew up in a religious family in Voronko and moved to Kiev where he was a successful writer of Yiddish tales who lived the sophisticated life of an intellectual. Like many others of his fellow Jews, he fled to America after a pogrom in 1905 seriously threatened his life and that of his family.

The film has terrific photos of life in the shtetls and in the cities, scenes of Jewish life at home, in religious school, Jews busy at work and relaxing in cafes. These photos of the elderly, married couples, school children, and babies, all of them dressed in their daily or religious or celebratory garb, bring to vivid life the world of our ancestors, a world that has vanished. The movie also includes interesting footage from Yiddish movies that recreate life in Eastern Europe.

Scholars interviewed supply the historical context. They talk about the flowering of the Yiddish language and culture. But they also talk about its demise. Despite being widely considered the beloved Jewish Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem never hit his stride in America. Jewish strivers in America were looking forward to succeeding in the new country; they were less interested in looking back at scenes from the old country.

It is particularly interesting to hear Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman, who is interviewed in the documentary, talk about some of what she remembers about her grandfather.

To read a recent article in the New York Time about some of the politics surrounding Yiddish click here.
To read a history of the shtetl click here.

Sholem Rabinowitz – married to Olga Loev
     Bel Kaufman – granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem (exact connection not clear)

Scholars interviewed
Hillel Halkin
Aaron Lansky
Dan Miron
Avrom Nowerstern
David Roskeis
Ruth Wisse

Voronko, Ukraine
Kiev, Ukraine
New York City, NY


  1. Do you know something about Norman Raeben Rabiniwitz - son of Sholem Aleichem - a famous painters? I'm interested in to know where his paints are for studyng them

    1. I'm sorry. I do not know anything about his paintings or where they are.
      Toby Bird