Sholem Aleichem Doc

Warsaw (1905)

From Tzivi’s Sept ’11 Spotlight:

Joseph Dorman’s wonderful new documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness opened at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago and the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park on Aug. 26, but I predict it will be so popular that it will still be playing locally well after this September issue arrives in your mailbox.

Readers of this column already know how passionate I am on the subject of Fiddler on the Roof, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I actually flew to New York last January for the film’s world premiere. Since that time, Laughing in the Darkness has been embraced by audiences everywhere, quickly jumping from the Jewish film festival circuit to commercial theatres in urban centers all around the USA.

In a mere 95 minutes, Dorman does a superlative job of placing Solomon Rabinowitz’s (Sholem Aleichem) work in historical context, masterfully combining a treasure trove of photos with scholarly reflections and readings from favorite stories by well-known actors such as Peter Riegert, all pulled together by a bouncy soundtrack from John Zorn.

But for all that, please forgive me one tiny kvetch: Laughing in the Darkness is a very male-oriented view of both “Sholem Aleichem” (as a writer) and Solomon Rabinowitz (as a man). Almost all of the “talking heads” Dorman interviews are men (with the sole exception of Ruth Wisse), very little attention is paid to Rabinowitz’s wife Olga and his large family (with its many daughters), and “Sheyne-Sheyndl” (wife of luftmensch “Menachem-Mendl”) is the only female character to get her own voice. Had Dorman included more women in his mix (maybe scholars like Anita Norich and/or translators like Aliza Shevrin), I’d be singing Now I Have Everything.

Joe Dorman with Karen Underhill after the Q&A at the Music Box Theatre in Andersonville on 8/27/11. (Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner)

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    • TziviahHuttner
    • September 19, 2011

    Comment from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous (9/09/11):

    I was surprised that you made no mention of Bel Kaufman. Especially since your “tiny” (1/3 of the column) kvetch was about the “male-oriented view.” Since the males included Hillel Halkin, whom I found very bright and articulate, I am grateful to Dorman for the talking heads he did have, including Ruth Wisse.

    An author I knew, criticized for not including an item in a critic’s agenda, told the critic that that wasn’t the book he wrote, and that perhaps the critic should write a book on the subject from that point of view.

    I am posting this comment with my reply (below) for those of you who may have the same question about the absence of Bel Kauman’s name in my original column:

    Dear Reader, With only 742 words in the entire column (& only 284 in the section devoted to Dorman’s film), it was difficult to address the subject of Bel Kaufman.

    She was born in Berlin in May 10, 1911:

    Rabinowitz died in New York on May 13, 1916. So the truth is, she could barely have known him under the best of circumstances, and the actual circumstances were very bad indeed. She was a young child living in Ukraine; he was a sick man who had already lived in America for approximately two years at the time of his death.

    So where did “the memories” she recounts in the film come from? The memory of her mother (Lyala) receiving the telegram “Papa very ill” was a vivid one, but the others? Nowhere does Dorman mention the name Marie Waite-Goldberg, author of My Father, Sholom Aleichem, which is their likely source.

    I called Dorman’s film “wonderful,” said it did a “superlative job… of masterfully combining,” noted that it “has been embraced by audiences everywhere,” & predicted that it would be very “popular” here in Metro Chicago. But with all this high praise I will tell you what I told him face-to-face after the Saturday afternoon Q&A at the Music Box Theatre: 99% perfect still leaves a 1% problem, and as a critic, I felt it was my responsibility to point it out.

    We have since traded several additional messages which convince me that Dorman did not consciously intend for his film to be so male-oriented. What we both agree on is that Rabinowitz loved women–especially his wife Olga and “his large family (with its many daughters)”–and it was this love that enabled him to create so many wonderful women characters. Therefore, as I said to Dorman in my most recent message: “We as ‘his heirs’ owe them [meaning both the women he loved & the female characters he created] our respect.”

    Since Dorman will likely be presenting his film to many, many new audiences in 2011 & 2012, my hope is he will find ways to fill this 1% gap when opportunities to do so present themselves. But that is his job, not mine. My job was to present the strengths & weaknesses of his film as best I could in the space available, and any critic who told you he/she did not write “from a point of view” would be lying.

    I thank you for your comments, and I hope you feel I have responded sincerely. I would like to post your comment as well as my reply on my Blog because I’m sure others had the same reaction you did. Should I mention your name in my post or would you prefer that I enter your comment anonymously?

    Zay gezunt,

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