08/26/2011 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

There's More To Shtetl Humor Than Tevye the Dairyman

Back before World War II (when Yiddish was a thriving language) it was standard practice for the great works of literature and song to be translated into Yiddish. The translators often boasted about how they had managed to improve on the original. There was even a Yiddish-language Western!

Up in the Jewish Alps, the comedians working at resorts in the Catskills often wrote parodies of popular hit songs. In the following clip, you can hear the great Borscht belt comedian, Mickey Katz (Joel Grey's father) singing "How Much Is That Pickle In The Window?"

Many years later, Conan O'Brien surprised Jennifer Grey (Katz's granddaughter) with a strange request. Yiddish humor -- backed by the sound of klezmer music -- quickly took over the airwaves (you can watch the clip here). In the following clip from 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie, Julie Andrews sings in Yiddish.

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Several weeks ago, just prior to the opening night performance of My Fair Lady, Harriet Schlader walked out onto the stage of the Woodminster Amphitheatre and announced that, by popular demand, the 2012 Woodminster Summer Musicals season would open with a revival of Fiddler on the Roof. By a happy coincidence, the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival had just featured a handsome helping of Yiddishkeit with screenings of a new documentary entitled Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness as well as a restored print of 1939's Tevye.

Produced and directed by its star, Maurice Schwartz (who was the actor-director of the Yiddish Art Theatre), Tevye takes a harsher approach to the story of the milkman's daughter, Chava (Miriam Riselle), who falls in love with a handsome young Russian, Fedye Galagen (Leon Liebgold), who is not Jewish. Among the familiar faces are Tevye's wife, Golde (Rebecca Weintraubt) and his eldest daughter Tzeitl (Paula Ubelski).

Tevye (Maurice Schwartz) with his daughter Chavah (Miriam Riselle)

While Sholem Aleichem's short stories were a huge hit in print, his plays did not always fare as well at Yiddish-speaking theatre companies (the great Yiddish actor, Jacob Adler, refused to play Tevye onstage). Seven decades later, one of the movie's great joys is the chance for modern audiences to hear the distinct musicality of the Yiddish language (there are clear English titles in this beautifully restored print from The National Center for Jewish Film).

Tevye (Maurice Schwartz) reading to Shloimele (Vicki Marcus)
and Perele (Betty Marcus) in the 1939 film version of Tevye

What I found fascinating while watching Tevye was how more clearly defined the struggle between the Jews and non-Jews was in shtetl life. Winning Chavah over to Christianity was a major coup for Aleksei (Julius Adler), the local priest. Tevye's grief is palpable, while Fedye's father, Mikita (Daniel Makarenko) and his wife (Helen Grossman) are depicted as crude and insensitive. Once married, Chavah became miserable at the thought of being disowned (and declared dead) by her family.

Not too many people know that Tevye was the first film not made in English to be added to the Library of Congress's prestigious National Film Registry -- or that Schwartz's 1939 film was shot in rural New Jersey. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Joseph Dorman, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a poignant documentary which captures a world of literature that was almost wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis (for a fascinating description of how that literature was saved, I highly recommend Aaron Lansky's thrilling book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued A Million Yiddish Books). Filled with wonderful vintage photographs, Dorman's film is highly educational and grandly entertaining. Who knew that more than 200,000 people showed up for the author's funeral in New York City in May of 1916!

Crowds pay tribute to Sholem Aleichem at his funeral in 1916

In his lengthy director's statement, Dorman writes:

"I knew little about Sholem Aleichem except that he had written the stories of Tevye the Dairyman that had become the basis of Fiddler on the Roof. I remembered that my parents had a copy of the Tevye stories on their bookshelf, but I couldn't remember anyone in my home ever picking it up to read it. As I would soon learn, generations of Jews had copies of books by Sholem Aleichem on their shelf, even if they never read them. They functioned as a kind of talisman of Jewishness. And like most of those people, I imagined Sholem Aleichem to be some old Yiddish grandfather, his stories pieces of schmaltz like so much of popular Jewish culture. It must be full of nostalgia wrapped in sentimentality to be served in overstuffed portions for the Jewish masses."


Sholem Aleichem

"Sholem Aleichem was, in fact, a modern master of the short story and especially the monologue, so much so that he could take his intuitive understanding of common Yiddish speech, place that speech in the mouth of a semi-literate 19th century Jewish shtetl dweller, and produce psychologically and sociologically complex portraits of a deteriorating world and its poor and disoriented inhabitants. And somehow, on top of it all, he could be generous enough in spirit to serve almost singlehandedly as a cultural backbone for a Jewish civilization desperately in need of support and encouragement. That he could, in short, stare directly into the darkness and laugh, and, miraculously, make others laugh with him."

Sholem Aleichem

Narrated by Alan Rosenberg, Dorman's film features Peter Riegert doing voice work for Tevye and Rachel Dratch lending her voice to the character of Shayne Sheyndl. Among the talking heads are the above-mentioned Aaron Lansky and Bel Kaufman (Sholem Aleichem's granddaughter who wrote Up the Down Staircase). Here's the trailer:

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Some truly bizarre pieces of Yiddishkeit can be found on YouTube. Here are three of my favorites:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape