Lost in Translation

This Fiddler doesn't exactly raise the roof

The Yiddish language — a fusion of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic — is often dismissed as merely a source of folklore and colorful insults. Yet Yiddish, spoken by an ever-diminishing population, is, in linguist Dovid Katz's words, "a language whose everyday words ... continue to burn with ancient passion, humor, and psychic content that have come down the line of generation-to-generation language transmission, from antiquity into the 21st century."

The history of Yiddish is an underlying theme of Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Joseph Dorman's earnest documentary about the Yiddish-language author best known for the Tevye the Dairyman stories, which inspired the Broadway and Hollywood musical Fiddler on the Roof. Sholem Aleichem ("peace be upon you"), the pen name of Solomon Rabinowitz, was not, as the film implies, the first author to write popular fiction in Yiddish — but he was the most successful, elevating the often scorned "people's language" of Eastern European Jews into a serious language of literature.

The film does what it can — using archival photographs, narration, academic talking heads, and John Zorn music — to dramatize the life of the prolific author. But the story encounters two problems with translation. One is the difficulty of translating a life of letters into a movie. The other is that Aleichem's stories translate poorly. The chief pleasure of his writing is its unbelievable linguistic invention. That is why his stories are remembered less for their biting wit than as gently humorous nostalgia pieces.

The film traces Aleichem's tumultuous biography and the decline of Eastern European Jewish life, drawing parallels between his experiences and those of his characters. Born in a Ukrainian shtetl in 1859 to a prosperous merchant, he received, unlike most Jews, a secular Russian education. He married a wealthy landowner's daughter, moved to Kiev, and published articles in Hebrew and Russian before deciding to write in Yiddish and founding a Yiddish literary journal.

He inhabited two worlds: that of the modern capitalist investor and the shtetl dweller. Pogroms and financial reversals sent him to America and Switzerland, and he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1915. Embraced as "the Jewish Mark Twain," Aleichem had achieved worldwide acclaim.

In his will, Sholem Aleichem wrote, "Let my name be recalled with laughter or not at all." Although it can't fully convey the tone and cadence of Aleichem's prose, Laughing in the Darkness expresses the enduring humanity of his writing. It's a fitting tribute to this sometimes underrated literary master, recalling him with laughter and affection.

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