Gogol, Chekhov … Sholem Aleichem — Russia’s other great author

Despite a long life of distinguished writing, it’s not without irony that Sholem Aleichem today is probably known to most people as the guy who wrote the story behind “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Although he did not write the classic musical, Sholem (or Shalom) Aleichem was indeed the progenitor of Tevye the Dairyman (as well as Menachem Mendl and other Yiddish folk heroes), but he was also the creator of a new literature, a worldly man of profound insight and biting wit, frequently compared to Gogol and Chekhov.

In the documentary “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” writer-director Joseph Dorman has produced a three-dimensional picture of the man, who in his own life and writing represented the transition of Jewish identity from the shtetl to its later variants in Russia, America and Israel.

He was born Shalom Rabinovitz in a Ukrainian shtetl in 1859, the son of a prosperous merchant. When he died in New York in 1916, some 200,000 people attended the funeral, the largest procession of its kind in the city’s history.

Sholem Aleichem died before newsreels became common, so Dorman tells his story through black-and-white photos of the author and his large family, augmented by pictures of shtetl life, linked by generally lively commentators.

Among the latter are Bel Kauffmann, the writer’s 100-year-old granddaughter; Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center; scholars Hillel Halkin and Ruth Wisse; and “Fiddler” lyricist Sheldon Harnick.

Critic Dan Miron observes that in all his works, Sholem Aleichem “explores one question: How to adapt to modernity and yet not lose the continuity of civilization that was Jewish. Clearly, his answers given 100 years ago cannot be the answers given today. But what we can learn from him is how to negotiate an answer. Or even how to ask the question.”

At the time when Sholem Aleichem was born, some 90 percent of Jews spoke Yiddish, but to the intelligentsia, the language was strictly lower class and not fit for literature, or even a newspaper.

However, Yiddish was still malleable, one critic comparing it to English in the time of Shakespeare, and ripe for a writer who could give it literary form. Sholem Aleichem began his career writing in Russian and Hebrew, but then chose to write in Yiddish instead, and has come to personify the richness of his native tongue.

It was also a time when Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, was spreading in Russia and was advocated by Sholem Aleichem’s father, who gave his son both a traditional Jewish and secular education.

Later, living in Kiev, Sholem Aleichem is photographed as an urban dandy and becomes a stockbroker, with ultimately disastrous results.

But all the time he was writing constantly, usually standing up, his reputation spread, and in America he was dubbed “the Jewish Mark Twain,” even though his Yiddish plays were at first thoroughly panned in New York.

Throughout, Sholem Aleichem maintained an ambivalent attitude toward the United States, fearing that the relatively good life and materialism in the golden country would eventually spell the end of Jewish peoplehood.

Writer-director Dorman is a veteran independent filmmaker whose documentaries are frequently seen on PBS, CBS, Discovery Channel and CNN. He is a winner of television’s Peabody Award, a two-time Emmy nominee, and “Sholem Aleichem” won the Jewish Experience Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival earlier this month.

In a phone call from New York, Dorman described himself as having been an “ignoramus” on Sholem Aleichem’s works when he started the film project 10 years ago. As he got more deeply into the material, he became increasingly fascinated with the writer’s descriptions of the transition of Jewish identity from one age, and one country, to another.

The son of an Orthodox physician and psychoanalyst, Dorman said that working on the film sharpened his awareness of both the richness and changing nature of Jewish identity.

“Reading Sholem Aleichem raised a lot of questions for me, which only led to more questions,” Dorman said. “The most important thing is to keep asking questions — that’s very Jewish, isn’t it?”

“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” opens Aug. 5 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. Weekend matines are available Aug. 6 and 7 at Laemmle’s Claremont 5 and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more on the film, visit this article at www.sholemaleichemthemovie.com.