Filmmakers legwork leads to the real Sholem Aleichem

Before researching Sholem Aleichem for his latest documentary, director Joseph Dorman said, everything he knew about the iconic Yiddish humorist and author  “could fit into a thimble and still have room for your thumb.”

Soon enough, he gained more than a few thimbles-full of insight into Sholem Aleichem. “He was nothing like I pictured him,” Dorman said. “He was a sophisticated Jewish intellectual, closer to [Anton] Chekhov than to Henny Youngman.”

“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” made its West Coast premiere with three screenings in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival a few weeks ago. Now it’s in general release around the country, opening Friday, Aug. 19 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.


Joseph Dorman

Drawing on rare photos, excerpts from stories read aloud and interviews with erudite Yiddish scholars, Dorman, a Michigan native now living in New York City, tells a tale of a Jewish culture undone by modernity and pogroms.


Despite the social upheaval surrounding him, Sholem Aleichem (born Solomon Rabinovich in 1869 in Ukraine) set about the task of turning Yiddish from a lowbrow vernacular into a literary language. Growing up in the Pale of Settlement, he knew the shtetl environment and its denizens. Before he died in 1916, he told their stories.

Among them were the tales of Tevye the Dairyman, the foundation for “Fiddler on the Roof,” which followed 60 years later.

For generations, “Fiddler” not only represented Sholem Aleichem’s work (to the near exclusion of all other writings); it became modern Jewry’s nostalgic connection to a lost world. Great as the musical is, Tevye represents a small part of the author’s output.

“We Jews have been essentially cut off from this background,” Dorman said. “The only way you can go back to the shtetl is through Sholem Aleichem.”

To tell the story cinematically, Dorman first needed photos. As it turned out, he was able to find scores of them, most of them capturing Sholem Aleichem’s wry expression of intelligence, with and a dash of egotism.

Dorman also found a trove of period photos through sources such as YIVO, the New York–based Yiddish culture preserve. He also located a brief voice recording of the author reading from his own works.


Sholem Aleichem

For voiceovers, done by professional actors, Dorman uses readings from the Tevye stories as well as selected passages from the Menachem Mendel stories (in which the title character always ran from one get-rich-quick scheme to the next).


That might be because Sholem Aleichem himself was similarly infatuated with wealth. One of his stories was titled, “If I were a Rothschild,” and it was the direct inspiration for the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler.”

This is not the only Jewish-themed film among Dorman’s output. His 2005 documentary “Arguing the World” is a portrait of a group of post–World War II New York Jewish intellectuals — Irving Kristol and Irving Howe among them — who helped shape the national debate in the 20th century.

His next film, “The Zionist Idea,” will trace the history of political Zionism from Theodor Herzl to the present.

“I’ve always been a strongly self-identified Jew,” said Dorman, who was raised in a Reform household. “but I’ve never been a very observant person or had a real outlet. For me, it was finding Sholem Aleichem and realizing he was a window onto a world I wanted to know about.”

Much of his fascination had to do with Sholem Aleichem’s milieu. Though today’s audiences think of the shtetl as something static and bucolic — with a few of Marc Chagall’s flying goats thrown in — shtetl life during Sholem Aleichem’s life was, said Dorman, “a very disorienting time.”

“[Jews] were being lured out of the shtetl by the need to make money, or pushed out by violence,” he added. “The shtetl was dying as Jews were moving out in the wider world. They were losing their religion and had to reinvent modern Judaism.”

Along the way, in America and in Israel, Yiddish essentially died out as the language of the Jews. It is preserved today in a few Chassidic communities and in academic circles. Most people, if they read him at all, read Sholem Aleichem in English.

But Dorman hopes his film will spark renewed interest in the author and the world he depicted.

“We are confronted every day with our Jewish identity,” he said. “We need to be in dialog with our history and culture.”


“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” opens Friday, Aug. 19 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.