Last night, I made a special effort to watch the documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a recent documentary biography of the life of Sholem Aleichem, playing at Cinema du Parc.
Sholem Aleichem was the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, who lived from 1859 to 1916. He was a famous chronicler of the lives of the Jews of that period. The Jewish population lived in the Polish/Russian countryside for hundreds of years and faced the onslaught of modernity. The cultural traditions of the Jews intermingled with french ideas of emancipation, American notions of liberty and pursuit of happiness, socialism, and the struggle against the rule of the czar,
Most European Jews spoke Yiddish then, a language that developed over the thousand-year settlement of Jews in Europe and is a confluence of Hebrew, German and Slavic languages. Sholem Aleichem wrote in Yiddish, although it was already a time when Jews were beginning to favour the wording of the countries in which they lived rather than their “mame loshen” – “mother’s tongue” of the home and hearth.
Sholem Aleichem wrote about the Shtetle – characters who inhabited his world. He reflected on his time and place and gave voice to the average Jew living in the Polish and Russian countryside. He wrote about Tevye, the Milkman, the character on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, and Motl, the Cantor’s son. Die Kleine Menshelech, a play based on these same characters, was the one that began the rebirth of Yiddish in Israel during the 1970s. During the Holocaust, the Nazis killed six million, primarily Yiddish speakers from every walk of life.
I am currently working on a documentary about Yiddish culture. What happened to the Yiddish language three generations after the Holocaust? Does anyone still speak or remember Yiddish?
Among all the excitement of hearing Sholem Aleichem’s accents and ideas in English on screen, another thing that stuck out was the documentary reporting the systematic attacks against Jews in Poland and Russia starting in 1881. It was a new phenomenon at the time. Jews and their neighbours had been living side by side in relative harmony. Jew-baiting was a medieval phenomenon; the nineteenth century was supposedly a period of “emancipation and liberty” for the commoner. And then came the unexpected violence, killing Jewish men, women and children in their homes. These were the “pogroms” initiated following the Czar assassination in 1881 and repeated in 1905-06.
Sholem Aleichem himself lived through the pogrom in Kiev in 1905. He “hid for three days in a hotel” with his family while the massacres were going on. I suppose this gives rise to the documentary’s title, “Laughing in the Dark.”
The startling photographs of murdered bodies with grieving family members pictured in the documentary do not leave me. Instead, they remind me of stories we have been hearing on the news about the deaths of Syrian men, women and children in Homs and other areas of Syria. The death toll reported so far is over 9000 people, with no end in sight.
In hindsight, it is easy to see that the absence of response to the violence perpetrated against Jewish citizens in Poland and Russia led directly to the politics and daring destruction of Jews, practiced by the Nazis as an instrument of State. Sadly, I am reminded of the current practice of similar statecraft in Syria today. But this has been happening for years in the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Iran.
Two more excellent reviews re Sholem Aleichem, his life and times,
Religion and Ethics
NY Times Review