Sholem Aleichem was one of the first authors to write in Yiddish–a language that’s been around for hundreds of years, but has only had a body of literature for 150 years or so. Before Sholem Aleichem, Yiddish was thought to be a low, plebian language, used in daily conversation but never in serious literature.
The new documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness paints a picture of Sholem Aleichem as both an anthropologist of and participant in European Jewish culture. Even as the shtetls were dying and Jews were emigrating to America, Sholem Aleichem collected the denizens of Jewish towns and neighborhoods in his stories. His characters were everyday people, unglamorous and identifiable residents of the shetl. The most famous, Tevye the Milkman, has become an icon of the Old Country and everything Yiddish–and the lead character of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which was adapted from Aleichem’s short stories.
As the documentary says, Sholem Aleichem “was trying to paint a portrait of a society as that society was dissolving.” A hundred years later, those portraits are still vivid in many people’s minds as the definitive idea of what that vanished culture was like.