Thursday, August 11, 2011

Before there was Fiddler, there was Tevye.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness  - A riveting portrait of the great writer whose stories became the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof.

"Throughout his life, Sholem Aleichem lived an extraordinary contradiction. He was at one and the same time, the most popular and successful Jewish writer of his era .....while facing constant financial hardship. It's clear this was partly due to the fact that he was a terrible businessman; (that) he was as bad at business as he was brilliant at writing!  So there’s that. He had a large family to support as well and so sold off the rights to his work to make ends meet and suffered the consequences in the long run. Was there something more than this, something inside him that needed to fail in this way?  It's impossible to know. His own father experienced a terrible financial loss in Sholem Aleichem’s youth. Was he recreating this as an adult? I’m afraid that’s above my pay grade," explained director Joseph Dorman when asked whether his subject was a masochist or an optimist.

Joseph Dorman
We asked Dorman how he became interested in his story amongst all the hundreds of other stories out there.

"I have to confess that a friend had to introduce me to Sholem Aleichem," he replied.  "I vaguely knew who he was because I knew Fiddler. But, like many people, I thought he was a folksy humorist, someone who’s work was long outdated. I had no idea he was a great writer, someone equal to Chekhov or Philip Roth or Saul Bellow.  But once I began to read him I understood the power and depth of his work and more than that, I understood how that work explored not only my own history as a Jew, but the modern predicament as a whole. We live in a world of constantly shifting identities and Sholem Aleichem explored this experience as brilliantly as anyone."

"Sholem Aleichem’s genius was to explore the life of the common man. In Yiddish the expression translates as the little man or little person, hence the title of the story. Its about an archetypal Jewish shtetl or market much like the one in which he spent his youth. In those days, Jews were mainly craftsmen and shopkeepers in Eastern Europe."

We probed Dorman to respond to this quote: “The outside world pulled like a magnet.”

"Although its clear that Sholem Aleichem was partially referring to material goods here," he explained, "you have to understand that Jews were so impoverished that they weren’t looking for wealth so much as some kind of basic economic stability. But this is really only part of his meaning. Much more than this, he’s describing the lure of secular education for young Jews restricted to religious learning according to Orthodox tradition. The real lure is a new kind of forbidden learning – science, math and great writers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky!"

He left his life open to interpretation.  We asked Dorman what was his interpretation?

"Its not so much his life as I think his stories he left open to interpretation. But, if pressed, I’d say that he was not just a great writer, though that of course would be enough. He was something larger and more important than that, what the critic Irving Howe called a “culture hero.” He was a man with immense literary gifts who was born at a moment when the Jewish people were fragmenting – facing persecution from without and disintegration of a millennium’s old way of life from within. Through his talent and his great generosity of soul, he found a way to use literature as a vehicle to carry the Jewish people over this abyss and he did it without ever turning away from the fears, the uncertainty and the darkness in their lives. That makes him utterly remarkable in my eyes."

Would he have loved the 200 thousand people at his funeral, or treated it with disdain?

"Sholem Aleichem never fled his fame or the millions of readers who loved him. He would have been honored and pleased to see the outpouring of affection and grief lavished upon him by American Jews. He also might have chuckled a bit at the fact that these same American Jews had been not quite so kind or welcoming to him just a few years earlier!" 

Sholem Aleichem opens at The West End Cinema on Friday August 12th.  Watch the trailer here: