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Yiddish writer made us laugh in darkness

March 2012

“Sholem Aleichem … was close to folk sources, yet employed them for a complicated and individual vision of human existence. That means terror and joy, dark and bright, fear and play. Or terror in joy, dark in light, fear in play.”

—Irving Howe in The Best of Sholem Aleichem (Touchstone)

He was and remains the most beloved and popular of the Yiddish writers who blossomed all too briefly in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

He was so admired that when he died at age 57 in New York City on May 13, 1916, an estimated 100,000 people turned out for the funeral procession, said to have been one of the largest such manifestations for a writer in American history.

Jewish Immigrants on Train Photo: Alter Kacyzne

A documentary on Sholem Aleichem’s life and legacy screens for the first time in Montreal Thursday, March 15, at the Jewish Public Library, 5151 Côte Ste. Catherine.

Titled Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, the film, by Joseph Droman, tells the tale of the rebellious genius who crafted a new kind of literature based on the traditional life of eastern European Jewry.

New ideas were sweeping through Europe and the old ways of the Jewish world were facing unprecedented challenges. Sholem Aleichem captured that period with his brilliant humour and sense of irony, yet managed to convey the conflicts that were beginning to tear apart the old ways and certainties with love and admiration for the people as he crafted unforgettable characters.

As the blurb for the movie says, “Sholem Aleichem was not just a witness to the creation of a new, modern Jewish identity, but one of the very men who forged it.”

The film features rare photographs and archival footage, the voice of actors Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch (Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live), and interviews with literary experts and Aleichem’s granddaughter Bel Kauffmann.

Producer/director Dorman will be on hand to discuss the film.

Laughing in the Darkness screens at 7:30 pm. $15, $10 (in advance) for students and library members. Info: 514-345-2627, ext. 3017. Tickets: 514-345-6416.



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