|Many Jews traveled by the third-class compartment; many stories came out of those trips.|
That’s what Sholem Aleichem’s most well-known character, Tevye the dairyman, sings in the most well-known retelling of his story.
That, on the other hand, is what most of us hear.
In fact, Sholem Rabinowitz – to give the writer his birth name – meant us to hear neither of those things. An immensely complicated writer whose frequently deployed humor and often underlying anger were used in the service of highly literary fiction, he was describing a world he knew inside and out as it fell apart.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is brilliant and justifiably successful musical theater, but it is not an accurate rendition of shtetl life. It is generally a whirl of bright colors; the shtetl’s mud and dust would have turned those colors, had they existed in the first place, to dun.
Director Joseph Dorman has made a documentary film, “Laughing in the Darkness,” that traces the writer’s life and times. The underlying theme, Mr. Dorman said, is the search for Jewish identity.
“It’s about the transition of Jews from the traditional to the modern world,” he said. It is not for nothing that Sholem Aleichem wrote “Fiddler on the Roof” rather than “Brigadoon.” The shtetl – a small town, possibly a market town, somewhere in the Eastern European Pale of Settlement, occupied mainly by Jews – never was a timeless, static place. Nor was it imaginary; instead, it was as subject to changing economics and demographics as anyplace else. By the time Rabinowitz wrote about it, the life he chronicled was ending anyway.
Rabinowitz’s life was bumpy, taking him from wealth to poverty so often that it is not surprising that it became hard for him to regain his balance. He was a strong proponent of Yiddish, writing his stories in that language as it burst from its folk roots to flower on the page, but he did not teach it to his children. To them, he spoke Russian. Although he made fun of this tendency in others in his writings, his photographs show him to have been a fop.
The film weaves about 300 still photographs from the period with interviews with experts – Hillel Halkin, Ruth Wisse, Aaron Lansky, David Roskies, and Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter, Bel Kaufman, among others. It also includes readings from some of his stories.
Rabinowitz’s humor often was black, Mr. Dorman said. “Humor often can have its roots in anger and hostility. He knew how to spin comedic gold out of his own internal anger, and a lot of the anger felt by the Jewish community, which was in dire straits at the time.
“One of his classic jokes was about the two guys talking about the misery of their lives. And then one of them says, ‘Enough with the misery. Let’s talk about the cholera epidemic.’
“Another great story is about a guy complaining about the pogrom he’s heard about. It couldn’t hold a candle to the pogrom he’s been through.
“It’s the humor of the oppressed. It’s a survival mechanism.”
Indeed, the movie includes photographs of pogrom victims as well as of beautiful children, some smiling at the camera, some with haunted eyes; men and women, well-dressed or in rags; skinny horses, tables set for Shabbat, and dead hanging chickens.
“I would venture to say that there was not another man or woman on earth who was able to mine that humor as effectively or brilliantly as Sholem Aleichem could,” Mr. Dorman said. “He was a master at it. That is what was so remarkable about him – this feat of being able to tell the absolute truth to an audience that is suffering from that truth, and to make them laugh and make them able to face that truth.
“He wasn’t about to let you escape, because escape doesn’t help. In the end, you are still tagged by the shadow. But if you can face it head on and still laugh at it, that’s therapeutic.
“That’s why he was so incredibly popular. That’s what made him the writer he was.”
The film includes footage from Sholem Aleichem’s funeral, the biggest in the United States up to that time; people jammed the streets, tens of thousands of them, to honor the writer who had died fairly young and whose work until then they had scorned.
“Almost immediately after the Jews came here, they were cut off from Eastern Europe,” Mr. Dorman said. “So almost immediately they thought of it nostalgically.
“Identity was one of his major questions. It grew to be a stronger and stronger threat as the shtetl begins to dissolve at the beginning of the 20th century. And the effects of assimilation and the breakup of religious Orthodoxy became more and more the focus of his work.
“He was a man between two worlds. His stories were both an affirmation of Jewish identity and an exploration of it.”
One of Rabinowitz’s last stories was about a traveling salesman who ended up in a third-class compartment – that’s the low-end one – with an attractive, bourgeois-looking young woman. The two flirt. “At one point, they are getting to the woman’s station, and she starts to blush. She is embarrassed. It turns out that she is being greeted by a relative who is a chasidic Jew.”
He gets off at the next station, and it is clear then that he too is a Jew.
There is a Yiddish greeting, “Vos macht a yid?” It’s a sort of general what’s-up kind of greeting, but its literal meeting is “How does a Jew do?” “For years, in the shtetl, you always knew who a Jew was,” Mr. Dorman said. Jews didn’t look like Ukrainian peasants. The question was safe. “But all of a sudden, when Jews are moving to the cities and assimilating, all of a sudden Jews don’t look or act like Jews any more. So you have this bizarre tragicomedy; you run away from who you are, but you’re also truly attracted to it.”
He has his own similar story.
“Years ago, I was at B & H Photo,” he said. The store, in midtown Manhattan, is owned and in large part staffed by Satmar chasidim. “I was talking to the young chasidic woman at the cash register when I was checking out, and she said to me, in great surprise, ‘You are a Jew?’
“I was so shocked. I’d always thought that I had a neon sign across my forehead, blinking JEW, and here she can’t recognize me as a Jew.
“I think that somehow, deep inside every Jew who identifies, there is a commandment: ‘Thou shalt be a Jew.'”
It is that commandment – given and clung to, somehow or other, as the world shifts violently and it is impossible to retain balance until the shaking stops – that Sholem Aleichem understood profoundly, and it is that commandment that is the subject of Joseph Dorman’s “Laughing In the Darkness.”
|Laughing in the Darkness|
|Who: Filmmaker Joseph Dorman
What: Screening and then discussing his documentary, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing In the Darkness”
When: Sunday, February 16, at 4 p.m.
Where: Glen Rock Jewish Center, 682 Harristown Road
How much: $10 per person, $8 for anyone 65 and older. Includes popcorn, snacks, soft drinks, coffee, and tea.
For more information: Call the shul office at 201-652-6624.