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Arts & Culture


August 2, 2011 | by

On a recent Friday evening I went to see the new documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness at a West Side theater that, on any given day, swings heavily Jewish and seriously elderly and on this occasion surpassed itself on both counts. The audience arrived early, settled slowly, talked loudly, and laughed at Yiddish jokes before they were translated, probably among the last people in the world able to do so. My own few words of the language—picked up in a class I briefly flirted with at the 92nd Street Y—were of little help.

That class was held only a few blocks from my grandparents’ apartment, and each week, I’d go there afterward for a late dinner. They were glad to see me regularly—I wasn’t, typically, on the Upper East Side—but the nature of the class made the dinners particularly meaningful. My grandfather would speak to me in Yiddish. I’d known it was his first language, of course, but he never spoke it normally, and it was surprising to see him slip into it as if eighty years hadn’t elapsed.

My grandfather, who died earlier this year, was a librettist, which is to say he wrote the dialogue for musicals. He started in radio, worked in early TV, and in the fifties made the move to Broadway. Looking for new material in the early sixties, he rediscovered Sholem-Aleichem’s tales of shtetl life and transformed them into an unlikely musical that became Fiddler on the Roof. (He had come to my sixth-grade class and told us about its inception—the difficulty of finding producers, the skeptics and naysayers, the creative team’s unwavering commitment to the project—during our “Immigration” unit.) 

Grandpa Joe had never known the shtetl firsthand: his parents had moved to America a few years before he was born. Like many of his generation, he divided his youth between an old-world home and a real life of baseball, progressive politics, and English. His was perhaps the first generation for which Sholem-Aleichem’s stories were not reminders but lessons.

Sholem Aleichem, born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich in what’s now Ukraine, is widely regarded as the father of Yiddish literature. As he himself expressed it, when he was coming of age in the late nineteenth century, good Jews wrote in Hebrew, while good writers used Russian; Yiddish was the lowly everyday vernacular of the people. However, it was through the rhythms and color of Yiddish that he was able to bring to life the rapidly changing Jewish experience via the serialized stories that ran in Europe’s Jewish papers and in his almanac, the Yiddish Popular Library. In the fictional shtetl of Kasrilevke, and in a series of characters like the perennially optimistic speculator Menachem Mendl or the homespun philosopher Tevye the Milkman, Sholem-Aleichem not only captured that world for future generations but endowed it with a dignity and significance that was meaningful for his legions of readers. This was not escapism: Sholem-Aleichem addressed everything from the changing mores of the younger generation to the grim reality of pogroms. But his stories managed to evoke the fatalism and the resilience necessary for Jewish survival in tsarist Russia.

Despite the challenges of Eastern Europe—and the financial setbacks Sholem-Aleichem suffered in speculating ventures—the author was even more miserable in New York when he moved to the city in 1905, fleeing Russian pogroms. Initially greeted rapturously as the “Jewish Mark Twain,” Sholem-Aleichem was quickly dismissed as old-fashioned and out of touch; the modern American Jew had moved on. After only a year, he returned to Europe, sick and humiliated. His disillusionment with the New World was not merely personal: as the author and translator Hillel Halkin, a commenter in the film, observes, in the American Jew’s unprecedented prosperity, Sholem-Aleichem could, no doubt with some bittersweetness, foresee the inevitable death of their culture.

This is a dilemma he explores with aching poignancy in one of the Tevye stories: Chava, Tevye’s third daughter, falls in love with a Russian gentile. Although Tevye’s defining characteristic is that of a loving father, he cannot bring himself to forgive her. He casts out Chava, now married to the Russian, and commands the family to sit shivah as if she’s died. The “happy ending”—or Sholem-Aleichem’s version thereof—is his daughter’s repentant return: having left her husband, she begs her father’s forgiveness and is allowed to rejoin the living.

This might come as a shock to those only familiar with the story from Fiddler on the Roof: in that iteration, Tevye grudgingly bestows his blessing—after which, Tevye and his family board a boat bound for America. Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a documentary on the writer’s life and work, opens with a shot of Topol’s 1971 Hollywood Tevye dancing across a yellow-toned steppe, a striking contrast to the grim black-and-white images of shtetl life shown throughout the film.

The musical, of course, was a version for a mid-twentieth-century American public (and it evolved, incidentally, from a far more faithful first draft). But, more to the point, it was a version written by products of that new world. As lyricist Sheldon Harnick comments in the film, he himself was married to a non-Jew. My grandfather, raised in an Orthodox home, was not religious, and my father recalls that they sometimes celebrated Christmas in New Rochelle. My dad and his brothers would go on to marry out of the faith. For me and my brother, Judaism meant only the menorah we occasionally remembered to light and the string of Bar Mitzvahs we attended in middle school. My largely Jewish progressive high school would not have dreamed of staging a show as traditional as Fiddler on the Roof, although I’m sure we all knew the score.

And then that ill-fated Yiddish class. I signed up on a whim and quickly found myself out of my depth. Taught by a scholarly old man in a cap and a series of threadbare sweaters, it was technically for beginners. But my classmates—mostly elderly, with the exception of a pair of twenty-something sisters who informed me they “really liked Jews” and were taking the class for a second time—all seemed to recall Yiddish from their youth, or to know a measure of Hebrew, and so quickly surpassed me in both speaking and reading. I was unquestionably the class dunce, and I can’t pretend I narrowed the gap with assiduous scholarship. After a few weeks, hopelessly behind, I stopped going. The truth was, I felt like a fraud.



  1. eli | August 2, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    It is kind of annoying that the author refers to Sholem Aleichem as “Aleichem” as if this were his last name. Sholem Aleichem was a psuedonym, a pen name, and a way of greeting your fellow Jew. If anything, refer to the man as Rabinovitz z’tz’l

  2. Sadie Stein | August 3, 2011 at 10:05 am

    @eli — Thanks for the comment, and this point is well taken. I considered this a lot while writing it, and my rationale, ultimately, was that his pseudonym (and you’re right, even during his lifetime, most everyone knew his identity) was akin to Mark Twain’s — and in that case, “Twain” would be acceptable. I’m sorry you found it distracting!

  3. pkalina | August 3, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Would someone please translate Motl’s comment for those of us who are amorets.

  4. Sadie Stein | August 3, 2011 at 10:25 am

    @Pkalina — that much Yiddish I know, and we reserve the right to remove anything uncivil!

  5. motl | August 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    It’s uncivil not to respect names of writers. You comparison with Twain is sensless. And sorry for my English : in this I am an amorets and I would never write something important in that language.

  6. Simkhe | August 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    The scholarly convention is to refer to the author as Sholem-Aleichem — neither as just Aleichem nor as Rabinowitz.

  7. Sadie Stein | August 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Thank you — I will make that correction!

  8. Nancy | August 3, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    I will Google it, but I would have loved to have seen your grandfather’s name in the article.

  9. Rhonda | August 3, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I’d also like it if Ms. Stein could please clear up her relationship to Gertrude (the other Ms. Stein!!)?

    What an impressive family of Writers! 🙂 🙂

  10. Sadie Stein | August 3, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Hi Rhonda, much as I wish I could claim that relationship, I don’t think there’s any connection there!

  11. Alan | August 19, 2011 at 1:50 am

    Ms. Stein, I am a an exhiled Brooklyn Jew living in the Land of the Frozen Chosen out here in Minnesota…Saint Paul, no less. I’m in the theater biz and I guess you could say radio biz as well, but also work at a couple of High Schools, designing lights and projections for thier shows. One show that this very goyisha school did was your Zayde’s show Fiddler on the Roof. I not only designed lights and projections for it but I also coached the kids in jewish dialect or accents. I’m happy to say the show was a big hit with the audience and one of my favorite productions that I have worked on. But I also did work on the original Sholem Aleichem play back in College with starred Michael Lomonaco who is now a renown Chef in NYC. It was a darker play but a powerful production, but I must say I love musical far more and especially the who opening sequence that I’m assuming your Zayde wrote. And while he may not have been an Observant Jew, he was certainly an observant Jew and I’m happy to say an optomistic one at that.
    Thanks for the article and L’chiam!

  12. Sadie Stein | August 19, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Alan, thank you for sharing such a lovely story!

3 Pingbacks

  1. […] Sadie Stein of The Paris Review goes to see Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, and we end up finding out she’s the granddaughter of the man who wrote the screenplay for the Fiddler on the Roof film.  See what happens when you read?  You learn interesting things like this! […]

  2. […] Sadie Stein of The Paris Review goes to see Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, and we end up finding out she’s the granddaughter of the man who wrote the screenplay for the Fiddler on the Roof film.  See what happens when you read?  You learn interesting things like this! […]

  3. […] barrage of criticism prompted Ms. Stein to change her tune – and her references – and in later online versions of her text she called the writer by his full and rightful pen […]

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