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'Sholom Aleichem,' I Don't Know Why You Say Good-bye, I Say Hello

September 21, 2011 By:
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Joseph Dorman

Would Sholom Aleichem text?

On the one hand -- but he would have had to use both hands, agrees Joseph Dorman: "And he'd text in Yiddish!"

He would know: As writer, director and producer of Sholom Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, opening on Sept. 23, at the Ritz at the Bourse, filmmaker Dorman opens wide the door on the revered late Yiddish writer's rites and rituals, with some surprising results and revelations.

If he were a rich man ... but Sholom Aleichem was. Indeed, the beguiling, folksy folklorist born in a Russian shtetl as Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich in 1859 was riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags, not so much from plying the world with stock-in-trade characters but from playing the stock market.

Yidle-diddle-diddle-didle, indeed! The man who created Tevye the dairyman going to market was crème de la crème in the Russian bull market in the late 19th century.

And he had dreams that were literary versions of having a seat by the Eastern wall: "What he planned to do with the money," says Dorman, "was fuel a modern literary magazine," which he did, for two issues, of Di Yidishe Folksbibliotek, and "to fund literature in Yiddish."

He accomplished that for a bit; but in 1890, the market turned what can only be calleddrek -- ugly -- and Sholom Aleichem bid Sholom Aleichem to his good fortune, unfortunately trading it for bad.

Was he more Job than Tevye? This famous writer was finding his way back, reveals Dorman of the man who had been born in Pereyaslav in the Ukraine to a wealthy Chasidic family gone bust.

But he never really did make it; and the Father of Yiddish literature followed in his own father's footsteps -- his father having been a wealthy merchant gone bankrupt.

Was he comfortable later on? Well, it was a living: He gained financial support from his well-off mother-in-law, who "never spoke to him again," says Dorman, after he lost his fortune -- even though she lived in the same house and shared meals with her daughter and, spit three times, her sechel-less son-in-law.

Not So Perfect 
So, if the writer and riches weren't a perfect match, his literary bent brought him the fortune of fame -- as revealed through the film's archival footage and interviews with scholars as well as with author Bel Kaufman, the writer's granddaughter.

"What made Sholom Aleichem who he was was an understanding of the human condition and the contradictions of the Jewish soul," says Dorman.

"He also had the gift of self-awareness and was a great artist," whose influence can still be felt. After all, wasn't it his name that inspired the Beatles to croon, "I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello"?

If the stock market was his Chelm and he was overwhelmed by its shifting fortunes, the writer was no fool -- albeit he loved writing about them.

"He was a playful man, with joie de vivre," says Dorman.

It translated to a writer who at first used Hebrew to express himself only to find Yiddish -- not exactly the language of the literati -- more to his liking.

"His soul pulled him to Yiddish," asserts Dorman.

And he didn't push back, moving to the mamaloshen side in 1890 and eventually taking it with him on his move to the United States, escaping pogroms, in 1905. On the one hand, concedes the director, "it was a bit scandalous"; on the other hand, "he was directing his work to a popular audience."

He dismissed critics who dismissed his choice, says Dorman. "Like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain," whose writings razzle-dazzled the rabble while still being alluring to the intelligentsia, "he pulled it off."

Dorman pulls it altogether in this memorable documentary of the business world's "lost soul" who found a home in the literary world, where he was "exceptionally acute."

As for that texting: "Sholom Aleichem embraced the new; when he moved to America in 1905, he understood it was not his culture, yet he was still able to write the Mottel stories," fables about a cantor's son.

When Sholom Aleichem died in New York at age 57, his funeral was greeted by 200,000 mourners. Yet, his legacy lives on.

Naturally, as Yenta would say. And so says Dorman. After all, who would argue with a documentarian whose Arguing the World -- about such forward thinkers/writers as Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer -- could have used a fifth, Aleichem, for a pedagogical pinochle game.

We are the world? We are the shtetl, exclaims Dorman in his film. "I am Tevye, you are Tevye -- we are all Tevye!" he concludes with a yidle-diddle-diddle-didle of his own.

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