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Originally published Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 3:04 PM

Movie review

'Sholem Aleichem' documents 'the Jewish Mark Twain'

A review of "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," a documentary by Joseph Dorman.

Seattle Times arts critic

Movie review 4 stars

'Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,' a documentary directed by Joseph Dorman. 93 minutes. Not rated. Varsity.

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In his day, he was "the Jewish Mark Twain." Today he's best known for creating the memorable character Tevye, the beleaguered Russian Jewish milkman of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."

Yet the story of writer Solomon Rabinovitch is, in the fascinating, valuable documentary "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," broader and deeper than the résumé of a singular comic writer of genius.

The film adroitly sets the writer's works, his triumphs and tribulations, against the backdrop of a tumultuous period for European Jewry. And it explores how the works of Sholem Aleichem (Rabinovitch's pen name, and "Peace be with you in Hebrew) richly captured that late-19th-century culture.

Director-writer Joseph Dorman uses rare archival footage of Russian shtetls (rural Jewish towns) to illustrate the author's roots and wellspring of inspiration.

His pungent, sardonic stories depicted flawed, likable folk whose "petty little lives" were "not so petty and not so little," as one of the film's scholarly commentators notes.

Aleichem cut a colorful figure himself. He was a dandy, a risk-taker, the father of 12, whose fortunes rose and fell repeatedly. The most personal descriptions of him are shared with affection by his granddaughter, the writer Bel Kaufman.

Though Tevye became a figure of nostalgia for assimilated 20th-century American Jews, his saga mirrors the fracturing of an European Jewish society beset by bloody pogroms, poverty and war, leading to mass immigrations to the U.S. and Israel.

Aleichem foresaw the demise of his culture, and its vibrant Yiddish language. Yet his characters could always laugh — at themselves, and life itself.

Settled by necessity in the U.S., in his 50s, Rabinovitch never acclimated to the modern Jewish Diaspora. But his immigrant readers knew what they'd lost when he died in 1916. His funeral drew 200,000 people, to mourn the man — and the end of a Jewish epoch.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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