Sholem Aleichem Documentary gives background for ‘Fidder on the Roof’ fans

Documentary on Sholem Aleichem gives background for ‘Fidder on the Roof’ fans
By Jana Monji, LA Theater Reviews Examiner
August 6, 2011

Do you hum “If I Were a Rich Man” or show up to “Fiddler on the Roof” sing-alongs? See this documentary about the man who made it all possible by recording a life that was rapidly changing and he did it with wit and humor while creating a genre: Yiddish literature. He didn’t even live to see his story become the first successful musical depiction of Eastern Russian Jewish life take a few Tonys in New York, the city where he died.

Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich admonished his friends and family to “Let my name be recalled with laughter or not at all” in his will. He is better known under his pen name, Sholem Aleichem. Director Joseph Dorman’s documentary, “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” is currently at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

Born in 1859 to a Hasidic family in what is now the Ukraine but what was then part of the Russian empire, he died in 1916, long before a musical based on his stories would hit Broadway in 1964. That musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” would win nine Tony Awards including one for best musical, score (music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick), book (by Joseph Stine), direction and choreography.

Zero Mostel originated the role of Tevye, the milkman, in the Broadway production(1964-1972) and other actors in the original production included Beatrice Arthur (Yentl), Bert Convy Perchik), Bette Midler (Rivka replacement) and Adrienne Barbeau (Hodel replacement).

Topol, who starred in the original London production, would star in the 1971 musical movie.

When Rabinovich died in 1916 in New York, he was 57 and his funeral was one of the largest in New York history. He was buried in Old Mount Carmel cemetery in Queens. As a writer, he was better known as Sholem Aleichem and compared to Mark Twain.

While Twain wrote to express spoken American English with regional flavor, Sholem Aleichem wrote in Yiddish and advocated Yiddish as a national Jewish language. He effectively created a new literary genre by reviving Yiddish. He wrote novels and short stories and failed plays.

His Tevye was the main character in several of his stories and is best known from the story “Tevye and his Daughters,” also called “Tevye the Milkman.” Originally published in 1894, when the story was made into a musical, it was set in 1905 Russia. The title of the musical comes from Marc Chagall’s painting “The Fiddler.”

The documentary attempts to show how Rabinovich was influenced by his upbringing. His father was originally a well-to-do businessman, twice married. The family later lived under reduced circumstances and Rabinovich’s stepmother would become a character in his later writings. Rabinovich would marry a woman from a well-to-do family against their wishes and the couple would have six children. The family would be separated after the 1905 pogroms (Europe and the United States).

The documentary includes old photos, and interviews with academics, and even Rabinovich’s granddaughter, herself a writer.

There’s some irony that the world knows Rabinovich best through theater even though his own theatrical ventures failed. Besides “Fiddler on the Roof,” those of us who attend plays, might be familiar with the Santa Monica Playhouse’s “Author! Author! An Evening with Sholom Aleichem.”

This documentary is a reminder that God does work in mysterious ways and sometimes fame comes well after a person has died and that, for us creative types, is even more reason to see this absorbing documentary.

Laemmle’s Playhouse 7
673 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, CA
Laemmle’s Royal Theatre
11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
”Ž1:00”Ž ”Ž3:10”Ž ”Ž5:25”Ž ”Ž7:40”Ž ”Ž10:10pm”Ž

Laemmle’s Town Center 5
17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, CA
”Ž11:00am”Ž ”Ž1:00”Ž ”Ž3:15”Ž ”Ž5:45”Ž ”Ž8:00”Ž ”Ž10:15pm”Ž

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