Last night, I made a special effort to watch the documentary “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” a recent biography delving into the life of Sholem Aleichem, showing at Cinema du Parc.
Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) was a well-known writer who documented the challenges faced by the Jewish community in the Polish/Russian countryside during a turbulent time. Living there for centuries, they navigated the influences of modernity, blending their cultural traditions with ideas from France (emancipation), America (liberty), socialism, and resistance against the Czar’s rule.
In that era, most European Jews spoke Yiddish, a language that evolved over a millennium from a fusion of Hebrew, German, and Slavic languages. Sholem Aleichem chose to write in Yiddish, though this coincided with a shift among Jews favouring the languages of their host countries over their ancestral “mame loshen” or “mother’s tongue” at home.
Sholem Aleichem’s works, centred around the Shtetle and its inhabitants, reflected his time and place, amplifying the voices of average Jews in the Polish and Russian countryside. Notably, characters like Tevye, the Milkman, and Motl, the Cantor’s son, populated his narratives, forming the basis for “Fiddler on the Roof.” “Die Kleine Menshelech,” a play based on these characters, catalyzed the revival of Yiddish in Israel during the 1970s, following its decline, particularly during the Holocaust, where six million Yiddish speakers were among the victims.
Currently engrossed in a documentary about Yiddish culture, I ponder the fate of the Yiddish language three generations post-Holocaust: Does anyone still speak or remember Yiddish?
Amid the compelling portrayal of Sholem Aleichem’s ideas and accents in English, the documentary reveals a troubling historical truth: the systematic attacks against Jews in Poland and Russia starting in 1881. Before this, Jews and others lived together relatively peacefully, but the sudden eruption of violence, notably the anti-Jewish pogroms following the Czar’s assassination in 1881 and recurring in 1905-06, disrupted this harmony.
Sholem Aleichem himself experienced the horrors of the 1905 Kyiv pogrom, hiding with his family in a hotel for three days during the massacres. The documentary “Laughing in the Darkness” aptly captures these tumultuous times.
In hindsight, the insufficient reaction to violence against Jewish citizens in Poland and Russia foreshadowed later tragedies. The Nazis, observing the world’s indifference, adopted similar tactics, culminating in the orchestrated destruction of Jews during the Holocaust. Regrettably, echoes of this state-sponsored brutality persist today in places like Syria and have manifested throughout history in the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Iran.