Originally published on JewishBoston.com.
It’s hard to imagine an American Jew who isn’t at least passingly familiar with the character of Tevye the Dairyman thanks to the overwhelming success of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. But I suspect that most people who can belt out “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” or danced to “Sunrise, Sunset” at their wedding couldn’t identify the man who created those characters, and even fewer have actually read his original stories.
Filmmaker Joseph Dorman has set out to remedy this with his new film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, which has its Boston-are premiere this weekend at the Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline. Dorman himself will be present at Sunday’s 2:30 pm screening to answer some post-show questions from the audience, but we grabbed him for a few questions in advance.
JEWISHBOSTON.COM: Your affection for Sholem Aleichem’s work definitely comes through in the film, but I’m curious beyond wanting to share that love… Why Sholem Aleichem, and why now?
JOSEPH DORMAN: Maybe the best way to answer this is by saying, why not sooner? Sholem Aleichem was a brilliant writer and a man who, perhaps more than anyone, has described the crisis of modern Jewish identity. Modern Jewish history — the immigration of Jews to America, Israel and other parts of the world, the destruction of Eastern European Jewry and with it the Yiddish language as a Jewish vernacular (except for the Chasidim) have all conspired to bury this quintessential explorer of the Jewish soul. I knew nothing of Sholem Aleichem until my friend Jeffrey Shandler, who is a Professor of Yiddish literature, suggested the idea of a film. Once I began reading Sholem Aleichem’s stories, I realized how woefully inadequate our knowledge of this master’s work and world is. And yet his stories, though written some one hundred years ago are startlingly relevant — and not just for Jews. The journey from the traditional world to the modern one is a universal experience and one we continue to feel the effects of even today.
JB: If someone came away from your film wanting to dive into reading Sholem Aleichem for themselves, where would you recommend they start? Do you have a favorite story (and/or a favorite translation)?
JD: There are any number of good translations but I have to say that if I were to suggest a starting place there’s no better one than Hillel Halkin’s one volume translation of the Tevye stories and the Railway Stories. The latter are late works, that are both dark and funny — very Chekhovian.
JB: You’ll be doing a Q&A after a screening this weekend. We don’t generally think of film as a medium where the artists get to interact with the audience. What has your experience been with audience Q&As? What makes for the best audience-filmmaker interactions?
JD: I actually love doing Q&A’s, and so far I’ve had a very nice response from audiences. The film features some remarkable archival stills and photographs, and people are eager to learn about these as well as more about Sholem Aleichem’s life and work. And for me, its a chance to talk about my own encounter with the author through his life and work and to talk about just why I think he must be read. He is a national Jewish author and how can we Jews be completely whole if we disregard him and his work? Would the Russians forget Tolstoy?
JB: What’s next on your slate?
JD: I’m working on a history of the Zionist idea with a colleague, Oren Rudavsky, and I’m also working on a film on a remarkable pediatrician in Newark — an AIDS pioneer who continues to challenge the medical profession. He’s not only an amazing physician but a very funny storyteller — sound familiar?