'Let my name be remembered with laughter - or not at all!" wrote Sholem Aleichem, "the Yiddish Mark Twain," in a will published the day after his death at 57 in 1916.
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Joseph Dorman's superb documentary, remembers the author born Sholem Rabinovich in 1859 near Kiev with much laughter and much more insight.
Who knew that the creator of Tevye the Dairyman (the central figure of the stories that inspired Fiddler on the Roof) resembled Val Kilmer with a goatee? Who knew that the writer's first literary work was a compilation of his stepmother's curses? Who knew how vast his celebrity, such that 200,000 mourners attended his funeral in New York? (Newspapers of the time put the number at 100,000, which ranks with the number attending Rudolph Valentino's funeral a decade later.)
Sholem Aleichem (his nom de plume means "peace be with you") was the Yiddish Bard, the guy who took a disreputable vernacular language without a literature and gave it a voice - and won it respect.
The eloquent talking heads, who include Bel Kaufman (Up the Down Staircase), the subject's centenarian granddaughter, movingly speak of him as a figure akin to a sand sculptor.
He was the folklorist of a society that was disappearing as he wrote about it. His protagonists, shtetl Jews not permitted to assimilate into Russian culture and embarrassed by their own, speak the singsong wisdom of the ancients. One of the scholars likens Yiddish, and by extension Aleichem's stories, to the "portable homeland" carried by Diaspora Jews who emigrated to America.
Dorman's movie comes to life in the reading of Aleichem's stories by the likes of Peter Riegert (who voices Tevye) and Jason Kravits (the voice of Menachem-Mendl, a failed stock speculator, a caricature of Aleichem himself).
Aleichem's gift, akin to alchemy, was in transforming tragedy into farce, whether it be the Menachem-Mendl stories that find humor in domestic disaster or a semiautobiographical account of a devastating 1905 pogrom that his narrator describes with offhand breeziness.
Aleichem's belief that if he had something serious to say, he had to make his audience laugh while saying it is his great bequest to Yiddish letters and Jewish humor.
Dorman makes the case that Aleichem is the source from whence flows modern Jewish humor. The rhythms of his language and startling codas of his punch lines echoed through the 20th century. You can hear it in the work of Mel Brooks, Albert Brooks, and the Coen Brothers.
Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof, says on camera that most of his lyrics were lifted wholesale from Aleichem's stories. He changed "If I were a Rothschild" to "If I were a rich man." He thinks Aleichem would approve.