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Shalom Alechim, Laughing in the Darkness

Shalom Alechim with his granddaughter, Bel Kaufman

I seldom write movie reviews mainly because I think that Roger Ebert and some others, whose names I don’t know, hold the reins in that area. But this time I am going to break with tradition and hunker down and review “Shalom Alechim, Laughing in the Darkness,” for being so darned splendid.

The movie, based on the life of the great Yiddish writer, deserves four stars, but I would give it more if I could.

Born around 150 years ago in a Russian shtetl, Shalom Rabinowitz, aka Shalom Alechim, was the forefather of Yiddish literature and the forerunner of greats like Isaac Bashevis Singer. Before Shalom Alechim, there was no Yiddish literature. There was the Yiddish language, which is a mixture of German and Hebrew, but Yiddish stories weren’t put down in writing because it was considered a common, coarse language. If a story was going to be committed to the press in those days in that community and part of the world, it was going to be put down either in Hebrew or Russian for the hoi polloi and the intelligentsia.

Although he wrote the “Tevye Stories,” the book on which “Fiddler on the Roof” is based, he knew much sorrow and darkness in his life. His mother died when he was a child, and in accordance to Jewish law, his father remarried almost right away. Afraid that his bride would leave him if he had eight children, he hid them with different relatives then slowly brought them out over time after the nuptials.

His stepmother was a shrew, though, and would curse the boy with every Yiddish curse she could think of; he responded by listing them in dictionary form, which she found humorous. It was the beginning of one who could turn darkness into laughter and light.

As a young man, he fell in love with the daughter of the man who’d hired him to tutor her. After finding out that was going on, his employer fired him, so he went to town, found a job and they eloped. (His granddaughter is the writer Bel Kaufman of “Up the Down Staircase” fame.)

One day, he began writing stories about the townspeople under the name Shalom Alechim, which is a Yiddish greeting meaning “peace onto you” to which the response is “and to you” (Shalom Alechim, Alechim shalom) and he began publishing them under his pseudonym in the Yiddish newspapers.

He wrote about the vibrant people in the shtetl he was familiar with and grew up in and in some cases cast himself as the intermediary as if the characters were telling him their woes. The people recognized themselves, and the stories quickly became Friday night Shabbat reading for the family. He captured a people and gave them back to themselves and captured a way of life that was disappearing under the social and political changes sweeping through Europe and Russia and the unfulfilled desire of many Jews to fit in and be accepted in czarist Russia. He also created Tevye, the dairyman who maintains a philosophical outlook even when his world is falling apart.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is nothing new. It’s always simmering beneath the surface, and it was especially prevalent in Shalom Alechim’s time. There were a series of uprisings that the czar and the masses blamed on the Jews that led to the pogroms between 1905-1917, and it was more dangerous than it had been to be a Jew.

One of my great aunts, who lived through the pogroms, told me about a time the Cossacks came broke into her home, and she had to hide with her younger brother behind a stove and held her hand over his mouth to muffle his screams. She knew that they would kill them if the Cossacks heard him screaming. They were among the lucky ones who survived.

These pogroms let the Jews know that they were doomed if they stayed in Russia, and this led to the mass exodus of many to the United States. In fact, 86% of Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, Jews are descended from this group of immigrants. I am one of them, as was Shalom Alechim and his wife and small child they arrived in New York Harbor with. His other five children were grown and stayed in Europe.

He was given a king’s welcome in America and set about writing plays, but having failed and given scathing reviews, he returned to Europe to give readings of his work to standing room only audiences. He returned after an especially vicious pogrom and died in New York City in 1916. Two hundred thousand people attended his funeral, the largest ever for a literary figure at that time including Mark Twain.

But Shalom Alechim only saw some literary success during his lifetime, and it was after his death that his fame took off and never really abated. He gave us back to ourselves and future generations a link to the past. And he gave the world a Tevye, the dairyman and a host of other characters because he saw laughter in the darkness.

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