Sholem Aleichem And Modern Jewish Identity

Sholem Aleichem And Modern Jewish Identity

‘Arguing the World’ director Joseph Dorman turns his lens on the great Yiddish writer.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Joseph Dorman has a confession to make.

“I love compulsive talkers,” he says, laughing. “I’m very interested in talk.”

You might have guess as much after seeing the two feature-length documentaries he has directed: “Arguing the World,” his 1998 profile of four Jewish intellectuals — Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell — who came out of the stacks of the CCNY library to shake the New York political and literary world by its lapels; and “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” his deft, intelligent new film, which opens July 8.

Needless to say, the four men profiled in the first work were all prolific and prolix wordsmiths and, as Dorman eagerly notes, so are Sholem Aleichem’s richly imagined and drawn characters.

“That is his great genius,” Dorman says, “creating characters who express the world through their talk. In fact, it is talk as subject matter that links the two films.”

Yes, he adds, but it’s talk about a specific, highly fraught topic, what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. In fact, when asked if “Sholem Aleichem” is a sort of rough prequel to “Arguing the World,” Dorman lights up.

“That’s right, it’s definitely a prequel!”

At first glance the connection might seem oblique. But as the film makes clear, Sholem Rabinowitsch’s struggles between his two worlds — the business and political realities of Czarist Russia, and the real literary world and fictional shtetls of Sholem Aleichem, his nom de plume — are a precursor to the even more complicated grappling for self-definition of the 20th-century intellectuals who could have been the sons of his literary creations.

Born as Rabinowitsch, self-invented as Sholem Aleichem, he rode a whirligig of business success and failure, literary acclaim and opprobrium. He grew up in comparative comfort, only to see his family plunged into poverty when he was in his early teens. He married into a wealthy family and was a successful speculator, but when the markets went south, they took his money as completely as they did anyone else’s.

None of this was lost on Sholem Aleichem. As he switched from Hebrew to Yiddish and found his subject matter in the shtetls and urban ghettos of the Pale of Settlement, Odessa and Kiev, he became a deft chronicler of the foolishness of would-be capitalists like himself. As upheavals in Russia led to the dissolution of the shtetlach, he became their eulogizer. But he never sentimentalized the brute realities of Jewish life in the Old World, and one of the best elements of Dorman’s film is his refusal to allow the candy-coated visions of “Fiddler on the Roof” to define the author’s worldview. (And the use of several clips from the film version serves as an unintentional reminder of how dreadful the movie is.) What makes “Sholem Aleichem” a cut above the run-of-the-mill “great author’s great life” documentary is the film’s attention to the intricate relationship between social reality and the art that depicts it.

“His stories are about the transition from the villages to the towns and cities, about what happened to the Jews who were uprooted by the rapid changes in Russian life,” Dorman says. “These are very powerful stories, not just for someone who’s Jewish. Because of his greatness, he’s a universal writer.”

Dorman, who grew up in Detroit and is in his early ’50s, remembers “seeing a copy of ‘Tevye and His Daughters’ on my parents’ bookshelf, but I never saw them open it.”

Nor did he.

“I didn’t start reading Sholem Aleichem until I started working on this film,” he admits with a sheepish grin. “I was under the generally held but false impression that he was a folksy humorist. Does one take Sholem Aleichem seriously today? When I sat down and began to read the books a whole new world opened up.”

It was a world that was familiar to Dorman, not only from the work he had put in on “Arguing the World,” but from the kind of questions almost every Jew asks in a post-Holocaust, post-Israeli independence world.

“It’s not an historical question; it’s relevant to my own life,” Dorman says. “These are things I have been struggling with as a Jew. I’m not a deeply religious man. I value Judaism as a heritage, and I will dip into the Bible from time to time. That is the question for me: I think of myself as having a strong Jewish identity, but I never understood what I was carrying around.”

The Yiddishists and Yiddish literateurs took one path to Jewish identity. The socialists and their more radical cohort took another; and as the earlier film shows, their paths diverged in multiple ways, some of them unpredictable.

Dorman readily admits that he must explore the other alternative that Sholem Aleichem didn’t venture towards, although the CCNY guys ultimately all would embrace it: Zionism.

“I’ve been an avid reader in Jewish history,” Dorman says. “I lived in Israel when I was 18. I don’t think Israeli Jews have answered the question [of the Jew in modernity] either. It’s almost unanswerable.”

Needless to say, he is starting work on his next film, a history of the Zionist idea.

It’s a good guess that he’ll find no shortage of compulsive talkers eager to tell him what they know.

“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” produced, written and directed by Joseph Dorman, opens Friday, July 8 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1868 Broadway, between 62nd and 63rd). For information, call (212) 757-2280 or go to

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