The perfectly adequate mix of information and light analysis that is the doc Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness fills in a gap in many people’s cultural knowledge. If you’ve heard the name before, it’s because you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof, based on the Yiddish author and playwright’s multiple stories on Tevye, the lovable but flawed milkman. The story of Aleichem is essentially the story behind Fiddler: his body of work served as one of the first, and the most read, chronicles of life inside the shtetl.
Although it wasn’t primarily intended for outside eyes. The son of a progressive type, who placed his son in a secular school in his teens, Aleichem wound up returning home for fodder, writing his dialogue-heavy tales in Yiddish, so that the subjects of his work would be more attracted to reading them. His characters, many of them recurring (he wrote about Tevye intermittently for 20 years, aging him in real time), are happy in their impoverishment; their unwilling to accept suffering, or least to be made miserable by it. As one of the film’s commentators points out, he wasn’t using humor to deflect tragedy but to meet it head on, to challenge it by not taking it seriously. As another puts it, Tevye had daughters the way the rich had money. His creations tend to be compulsive talkers, itself a form of rebellion for living with a lack of options.
Aleichem’s oeuvre, which emerged largely prior to the pogroms (and later the effects of the two World Wars) that would sweep his people out of Eastern Europe, capture a community in flux, and from the perspective of the older generation—a rarity then and a rarity now. Tevye bestows the values of tradition, as expressed in one of Fiddler’s most famous songs, while his spawn succumb to changing times and outside influence. One daughter even marries a gentile and converts to Christianity, causing her father to snub her—an act both cruel and, lamentably, realistic. As with most theatrically released docs that offer little but exposition, Laughing in the Darkness never truly justifies taking up art house multiplex space. But it successfully argues for its subject as rich and fascinating, which is enough.