Utterly conventional in form, Joseph Dorman’s biographical documentary about the famed Jewish author whose tales were the inspiration for “Fiddler on the Roof” is nonetheless an engaging piece.
Solomon Rabinowitz (1859-1916), who took the pen name Sholem Aleichem (which one of the commentators interviewed here suggests might be translated as “Hello, again”), came from a large Ukrainian family, and eventually had a large one himself. His tales of shtetl life, written in Yiddish rather than Russian, made him famous in Eastern Europe just as anti-Semitism was reaching its height there and forced him to flee to the West, and eventually to the United States. His work for the Yiddish theatre proved too old-fashioned for the Jewish community in New York and he departed again for Europe, but World War I forced him back to the New World, where he died. His funeral, with which the film ends, attracted a huge throng of mourners—some 200,000, we’re told—as the cortege wended its way through New York’s ethnic neighborhoods.
Dorman’s treatment of Rabinowitz’s life pays equal attention to the personal and professional sides, and uses the usual variety of materials—stills, archival footage of shtetl life, artwork, and excerpts from interviews with scholars and commentators—to flesh out the story with colorful anecdotes and insightful observation. In addition, he employs a half-dozen actors, led by Peter Riegert, not only to deliver the narration but to act out the characters in his stories. The device enlivens the film by giving us a more vibrant sense of his style and tone than any mere description could.
Anyone interested in Jewish culture of the late nineteenth century will find “Sholem Aleichem” enlightening and entertaining; it offers a surprisingly comprehensive—and enjoyable—view of the acknowledged master of Yiddish who used the language to portray a traditional mode of life that was fast disappearing. But one needn’t be a student of the history or literature of the period to appreciate this excellent portrait of a fascinating and important figure.