Yiddish has all but disappeared as a spoken language -- represented, like Latin, by a few common expressions and terms that have made their way into common usage. But we get a reminder of what a rich and colorful milieu it was in the new documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.
One of the few authors who wrote primarily in Yiddish -- considered a peasant's tongue in his native Russia -- Aleichem became the most famous literary figure of that language. His fame as a writer -- among readers who were not part of the Jewish community -- grew only after his death, spurred in part by the popularity of the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, based on Aleichem's writing.
But as Joseph Dorman's documentary shows, Aleichem lived a life that can be seen as amusingly ironic in retrospect, even as it plunged him into, to use the Yiddish, tsuris during his life. In many ways, he was like a character from one of his stories. Hey, you write what you know.
Aleichem lived a life that was like an economic rollercoaster: He was born to a family of means. But his father lost his wealth when Aleichem, born Solomon Rabinovich, was a youth, plunging the family into poverty. But Aleichem found the wherewithal to attend university, and wound up as a tutor to a wealthy Jewish family, eventually marrying the oldest daughter -- and inheriting the family fortune when his father-in-law died.
So he moved his family to Kiev, where he lived a well-padded life. He spent his days as a speculator in the financial markets under his real name, and his afternoons writing stories for Yiddish publications as Sholem Aleichem.
Even as his stories brought him fame, they also brought a modicum of shame. He was, after all, writing in Yiddish, a mongrel language to the strata of the Jewish world in which he lived, who saw Hebrew as the holy language. His gentile countrymen also frowned upon Yiddish, which was not the pure tongue that Russian was.
But Aleichem stayed true to his roots, finding the salty, pungent idioms of Yiddish the perfect mode of expression for his stories of the dreamers and schemers, lackeys and losers, who populated his work. It also conveyed the conflict between faith and pragmatism with which all people struggle and which particularly bedeviled his characters.
The film chronicles his constant ups and downs financially: his literary success and business failures, his triumphant emigration to America -- and his subsequent flops in the Yiddish theater. A variety of witnesses -- from Yiddish scholars to his own granddaughter, writer Bel Kauffmann (Up the Down Staircase) -- explain his importance and tell his stories, with both amusement and sadness.
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a fitting tribute -- or introduction, depending on your point of view -- to a writer whose work still rings true in its understanding of human foibles, even as the language it is written in fades into obscurity.
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