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Sholem Aleichem revived in new documentary

Sholem Aleichem circa 1905


3 out of 4 stars


Not often does a film double as a literary critic, but this is the Northrop Frye of docs. Essentially, it revises and sharpens the blunted reputation of a great writer.

To many, including me, Sholem Aleichem (the cute pen name of Sholem Rabinovich) is guilty by association with Fiddler on the Roof, the Broadway musical inspired by his Yiddish tales of Tevye the Dairyman. Judged by that musical, he must merely be a folksy scribbler of schmaltz. How wrong we are.

Interweaving talking heads with archival photos of the stories' principal setting – the Russian shtetls of the late 19th century – Joseph Dorman's film makes a convincing case that Rabinovich stands in the proud company of Chekhov and Gogol, Dickens and Twain.

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He was a sharp-eyed satirist whose work, dark in theme yet garrulous in tone, unflinchingly tackled the dominant issue of his culture: how to be Jewish at a time of lethal pogroms and emerging modernism.

Since his death in 1916, subsequent generations, in the Soviet Union and Palestine and later in America, have all distorted his writings to fit their own mythic needs.

By dusting off those false assumptions, and excavating the source material, the doc shows Sholem Aleichem engaged in precisely the same struggle that occupies young Jewish writers today – seeking to accommodate the push of change while still honouring the pull of tradition.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

  • Directed and written by Joseph Dorman
  • Classification: PG
  • 3 stars

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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