On his death in 1916 at the age of 57, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem drew as many as 200,000 mourners to the streets of New York in the largest public funeral procession the city has ever seen. You are no doubt familiar with his stories—immortalized in the Broadway classic Fiddler on the Roof—and his literary legacy continues to influence not just the sensibility but the very cadence of modern Jewish writers like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.
The life of the man once revered as the "the Yiddish Mark Twain" is documented in director Joseph Dorman's captivating new film, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. Born Solomon Rabinovich in a shtetl in Ukraine, Aleichem chronicled the dissolution of Eastern European Jewish culture, and his own journey into the 20th century was in many ways a metaphor for it. Aleichem pioneered and promoted Yiddish literature while raising his children in a Russian-speaking home in cosmopolitan Kiev. It was during Aleichem's lifetime that Eastern European Jewry, all but isolated from the rest of the world for generations, was ripped from its roots, first by the forces unleashed by industrialization, then by waves of pogroms and mass emigration. Aleichem himself died a refugee, a quarter century before the Holocaust wiped the last remnants of the world of his birth from the face of the earth.
Dorman approaches his subject with a competent if cliched documentary style, replete with slow pans of tattered photos spliced with modern interviews and klezmer music accompanying. It's a style that works, even if it lacks the storytelling genius of its subject.