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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Sholem Aleichem Laughing in the Darkness

Sholem Aleichem Laughing in the Darkness (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Joseph Dorman, 2011
Let me tell you about this fellow Sholem Aleichem, or Solomon Rabinowitz, or Rabinovich, or whatever his name is: the very famous Jewish writer of long ago whom this documentary fellow Joseph Dorman just made the movie about. Yes, I’ve seen it. It’s a very good movie. I promise you: you‘ll love it.

But I have to admit. It’s true, Sholem had problems. He couldn’t hang on to a nickel, and he threw all his money away once, lost it on the stock market, or, to be more truthful, lost the money his father-and-mother-in-law gave him. But we all throw away money, don’t we? Face it my friend: Who can hang onto some rubles or dollars in these times, except maybe the Rothschilds? Or whoever has their job now.

Anyway, back to Sholem. He‘s a boy from the shtetl, Voronko, in Pereyaslav, near Kiev, in the old days, the old country. Reads and loves books from when he was a child; his mother taught him. Loved Daniel Defoe‘s “Robinson Crusoe” and wrote his own Jewish version of it when he was a boy. (What was it called? I don’t know. “Rubinstein Krusowitz” maybe, something like that. How would I now? I‘m some mind reader of the dead now?)

But he had a way about him, Sholem. He married a rich girl in the rich mansion where he worked. He was the handsome well-spoken young tutor and her parents said “No,“ so he eloped with her, and they ended up having six children. And his in-laws gave them lots of money, and they lived well for a while and then he lost it, all. In the stock market, like I said. What does he know about money? Tell me the truth: What do you know? What do I know? What does the U.S. Congress know, even? Ay…But the man could write, let me tell you. He had that going for him, always ….No, I won’t say “Oy.” Say it yourself.

What’s important is: He works hard, he writes a story every week (or more) for 25 years, and people keep printing them and putting on his plays and reading his novels, and reading the books of his short stories, and God help us, they’re probably even on the Kindle now. He was, they tell us (how would I know, it’s not like I read all that much any more) the greatest Yiddish writer who ever lived, which of course maybe sounded, in the 19th century, like you would say now the tallest Romanian skyscraper, or maybe the best pizza pie in Saudi Arabia.

I‘m not being a disrespectful smarty-pants. It’s just that there weren’t many Yiddish respectable writers, God knows, when Sholem started back in the late 1800s, and he was the one who insisted on writing in Yiddish, the common people‘s words, instead of Hebrew and Russian, the classier, more literary languages. He edited a Yiddish literary magazine, on top of everything else. (No wonder he lost money on the stock market.) Leo Tolstoy wrote for him, can you believe it? Three stories. No, not in Yiddish, you meshuggeneh. In Russian. Sholem translated it into Yiddish. But think of it: Tolstoy.

We all read his new story in the paper every Friday. A story a week, for 25 years, come rain, come shine. Maybe not always, but almost always. Imagine it! You’ve got to give the man credit. And all those characters he dreamed up and put words in their mouths: Tevye, the milkman in the shtetl. Menakhem Mendl the bad-luck stock market speculator. Motl the cantor’s son. Tevye‘s daughters. You know, they called him the Jewish Mark Twain? And you know what Mark Twain said? “Tell him I am the American Sholem Aleichem.“

Imagine: When he died in New York City, in 1916, there were 100,000 people in the streets for his funeral. Or maybe 200,000: Depends on where you read. (They say 200,000 in the movie press book.) So many people. From the East Side, West Side, from Brooklyn, from Canal Street, from Bleecker Street, From Greenwich Village, from everywhere. And when he came to New York years before, you know, he wrote two plays, they opened them on the same night, and the critics blasted both of them. Yes, the Jewish critics — maybe some of the same ones who were later in the streets for his funeral, taking their hats off when he passed. They’re mean, some of these critics. They like to tear people apart, tear artists apart, especially people with a big name. And who had a bigger literary name in the community, in our whole world, than Sholem Aleichem?

After all, “Sholem Aleichem” is what you say fifty times a day whenever you meet someone, whenever you say hello, whenever you say goodbye. You say it to everybody, and it means: “Peace be with you.”

But they all read him, you know. My father, my mother. My sisters, my brother. The Goldbergs, next door. The Bernsteins, the Singers, the Matuschanskavaskys up the street: their son Walter, you remember, the kid who gambled, and his friends Billie and four-eyed Izzy. The Einsteins. The Cohens, The Konisbergs, the Greenbergs, the Garfinkels, the Malamuds, the Spielbergs, the Roths. Even Mr. Monicelli, who brought the milk. Faithfully, every Friday, we read him and he made us all laugh, Jewish or not. And it’s not like he was some Little Mary Sunshine you know. He knew about all those bad things, or intimated them: the pogroms, the prejudice, the poverty. He was aware of them. And of what was to come? Thank God, he didn’t know about that. Or maybe he guessed. They say Kafka and Chekhov were two of his favorite writers. Kafka! Chekhov! A couple of comedians!

So much pain all around him, around us, even in what a lot of us thought was, compared to the shtetls back in Russia, paradise. Compared to the pogroms in Russia, the next stop to the promised land. America! How beautiful it could be, and how beautiful it seemed, by comparison. How bad and bigoted it sometimes got, like for all the Jews on the black list. (Be thankful it wasn’t worse.) Yet, we all got together, America at the head, and we got rid of that murderer, Hitler, and his Nazi bums.

You know what Sholem Aleichem said about how to remember him at his funeral: “Let my name be recalled with laughter, or not at all.“ Think of it! Such a man. Such a mensch.

God knows, Sholem had a sad enough life: his mother dead when he was only 13, family sickness, that money he lost, those mean New York critics, and then the family, wandering all over Europe on lecture tours to make just a little money to live on. And tuberculosis, sick in New York City, sick as a dog maybe, his last four years. But he wrote still. Made people laugh…still. Go figure. “If I were a Rothschild…” What a joke, huh?

But you know why everybody knows him now? Of course you do. That play on Broadway, that big hit big-deal musical, so popular, what was it called? “Fiddling on a Hot Tin Roof?” No, well listen, it’s only a joke. You can’t kill a man for a joke. Yes, even for a bad joke, you can’t. Fiddler on the Roof, I know. Everybody knows, God knows. Book by Mr. Joseph Stein, my old college friend Danny’s father; music by Mr. Jerry Bock, with those klezmer style pop ballads, so pretty (“Tradition…!”); and lyrics by Mr. Sheldon Harnick with those words he sometimes gets, I swear, straight from the Tevye stories: “If I were a rich man deedle eedle eedle….All day long I’d bidi-bidi-bum, if I were a wealthy man.”

And, you know the funny thing is — funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha — he would have been a rich man, Sholem Aleichem, if he just could have lived fifty years more, when “Fiddler on the Roof” came out on the stage in 1964. Imagine it: If he could have just lived to 105-106 years old, the royalties from that one song alone eventually gets him, I don’t know, millions — although when Sholem wrote the original words for Tevye (not for Mr. Zero Mostel or Mr. Chaim Topol), it was what I said before: “If I were a Rothschild…” No matter. We get the meaning.

“Tradition!” Listen, what more can I say about him? The movie says it better. He made us laugh, he made us cry. He lived 57 years, he wrote always (when he could), and 100,000 (or so) people in New York City took off their hats when his coffin rode by. How many people show up for all the funerals of all those rich men we know or know about, except maybe to make sure the bastards are really dead? Sholem Aleichem: It wasn’t a perfect life, but it was a rich one. And nobody’s perfect — as two other writers, those Jewish boys Billie and Izzy, once said. They were right. Especially about comedy, they were right.

Yes, Yes. Don’t aggravate me now. I’ll read him again some day. When it comes out on the Kindle maybe. No, no, I’ll take him off the shelf tonight, I promise…Actually, I have read him recently, I lied. And my mother Rachel, God rest her soul, read him to me. You don’t have to tell me how great he was, how important. The movie said it too, Mr. Dorman said it, and very well. Meanwhile you gonif, you nebbish,  stop giving me grief. Yes. Peace be with you.

As my friend, Mr. Rabinowitz, or is it Rabinovich, just told you (I was busy at a screening, watching some French movie) this documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, is a very good picture. Full of good talk, with experts like Michael Stanislawski of Columbia, Ruth Wisse of Harvard, Avram Nowersztern, the director of Sholem Aleichem House, Dan Roskies, the chair in literature at the Jewish Theological seminary, Aaron Lansky, founder/ director of the National Yiddish Book Center — and Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter, writer Bel Kauffman, 100. (Well, maybe we could have done with a few less experts telling us how great he was, and a bit more Sholem Aleichem. But it‘s okay; that‘s what we have experts for.) The movie is full of great old pictures from the past, imaginatively edited and collaged, full of the feel and culture and literary treasures of Russian, Eastern European and New York City Jewish culture — though the movie makes it clear that Sholem Aleichem speaks to everybody, from Mark Twain on. By the way, Peter Reigert reads the voice of Tevye and Alan Rosenberg narrates.

Most of all. Dorman’s film is full to the brim with Sholem Aleichem, so much so that you may feel at the end you really know him, that you’ve always known him, just like you know your crazy drunk uncle who tells those wonderful stories at Thanksgiving and makes everybody laugh. Not that Sholem was crazy or drunk. But he knew how to make us laugh, and we did. He was an artist, a poet, a comedian. I guarantee you’ll have a better time at this little documentary about the world‘s greatest Yiddish writer, than if you go to (you should forgive the expression) A Good Old Fashioned Orgy. Or those other big fancy-schmancy Hollywood movies. That’s a promise. Peace be with you. Or as we say: Sholem Aleichem. (In English and Yiddish, with English subtitles.)

In Chicago, at The Music Box Theatre.


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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Sholem Aleichem Laughing in the Darkness”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon