Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer and humorist whose vivid portrayals of life in the Eastern European shtetl were the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof is the subject of a new movie that's playing a limited engagement in New York City and nearby suburbs.
Using rarely seen photographs and archive footage, the voices of actors Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch, and interviews with leading experts and the author’s own granddaughter, author Bel Kauffmann, the film brings to life as never before Sholem Aleichem’s world and his timeless stories.
The movie reveals that Sholem Aleichem was every bit as colorful a figure as the characters in his stories. He was one of 12 children whom his recently widowed father hid with relatives before remarrying, then introduced one by one to the dismay of his shrewish second wife. One of his earliest works was a glossary of his stepmother’s curses. As a young man Sholem Aleichem, who was something of a dandy, took a job tutoring the daughter of a wealthy Jewish landowner. When a relationship between them was discovered, he was fired, and the lovers eloped. He was eventually accepted by her family.
Hebrew was the written Jewish language, and Yiddish, a mixture of German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, had no literature, no newspapers or publications. According to the movie, Sholem Aleichem, who founded a Yiddish literary journal, aspired to be “the designer of modern Yiddish literature.” This rich, highly expressive language, which one scholar in the film likens to Shakespeare’s English, is remembered as having been “a protective shield” and “a portable homeland” separating insular rural Jews from their Russian neighbors.
Sholem Aleichem was a workaholic who, clad in an old bathrobe, would rise at 5 a.m. and write constantly, usually standing up. For more than 25 years he turned out a story a week. Oddly, because Russian was spoken in his home, his six children never learned to write or to speak Yiddish.
Sholem Aleichem was 47 when he came to the United States for the first time in 1906, hoping to be a celebrated playwright, and he was deeply crushed when his first two plays, which opened on the same night, were savaged by critics. He returned to Europe, where he supported himself by giving readings. (The film includes a short, scratchy recording of one.) When he reluctantly returned to America shortly before his death, he received a much warmer reception. More than 100,000 people, The New York Times reported, lined the streets for his funeral in New York in 1916.The film is playing at the Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinemas in Manhattan. For showtimes at these and other theaters, click here and enjoy the film trailer below.