Story last updated at 4/18/2012 - 11:10 am
Modern American Jewish identity is forged in the cauldron of change, anti-Semitism and violence that was late 19th century Eastern Europe (and, later, mid-20th century Eastern Europe). No better witness to this transformation exists than Yiddish literature, and no greater Yiddish writer exists than its inventor: Sholem Aleichem.
In celebration of this important figure not only to Jewish culture, but world culture in general, Congregation Sukkat Shalom ("Shelter of Peace") presents "American Comedy's Jewish Roots: An Evening with Sholem Aleichem" on Monday, April 23 at Gold Town Nickelodeon. The program begins at 6:30 p.m. with a viewing of the critically acclaimed documentary "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," followed by a discussion led by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg and myself (the closest thing you're going to get to an expert Jewish humorist between here and Los Angeles). Admission is $12; two for $22 for Congregation Sukkat Shalom members.
Progenitor of such contemporary Jewish humorists as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and, more recently, Jon Stewart (in addition to most of his "Daily Show" writers, including my old writing partner), Sholem Aleichem portrayed life in "the Pale," a corridor encompassing present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Moldova and parts of western Russia outside of which the Russian Czar legally forbid Jews to live.
Conditions in the "shtetl," the small Jewish settlements of the Pale, were difficult, marked by isolation, grinding poverty and pogroms resulting in the murder and rape of tens of thousands of innocent people. But Aleichem captured the struggle and resiliency of his people with incredible color, depth and humor, not as a means of escape, but more as an exercise in looking at hardship from a different perspective.
In the process, Sholem Aleichem - a pen name that in Hebrew means "peace be unto thee;" in Yiddish, more colloquially, "hey, how's it going?" - created an entirely new literature. Before him, Jewish writers wrote solely in Hebrew, even though Yiddish was the lingua franca; after, countless volumes were written in Yiddish, without which we would have no record of the dying language.
Using rarely seen photographs and archival footage, as well as interviews with leading Jewish scholars, "Laughing in the Dark" director Joseph Dorman tells the captivating story of the writer/humorist widely known as "The Yiddish Mark Twain," whose fictional tales formed the basis of the Broadway musical (and, later, major motion picture) "Fiddler on the Roof," which, incidentally, Floyd Dryden Middle School students performed last year as its spring musical.
The film follows Aleichem's life, starting from his birth in 1859 in Voronko, a market town that later served as the model for "Kasrilevke," the fictional shtetl where he set most of his work (think William Faulkner's "Yoknapatawpha County" or Stephen King's "Castle Rock"). In many ways, Aleichem's trajectory mirrors that of many Eastern European Jews - periods of flourishing followed by state-sanctioned persecution followed by flight to a foreign and confusing new world.
Of course, the documentary also includes numerous passages from Sholem Aleichem's extensive bibliography, featuring the voices of Peter Riegert ("Crossing Delancey," "The Sopranos"), Alan Rosenberg ("Last Temptation of Christ", "Luck") and Rachel Dratch ("Saturday Night Live").
Far from outdated, these actors bring to life Aleichem's humor, which, in depicting European Jewry at a time of profound crisis and change that would ultimately spell its mass emigration to America at the turn of the 20th century, made him a folk hero. His funeral, in 1913, remains one of the largest in New York City history, attended by more than 100,000 mourners. To put that number in perspective, only 30,000 Jews live in Poland today, from a community that once numbered more than three million.
"Juneau is quite a cultural community," said event organizer Natalee Rothaus, noting the rise in popularity of Jewish film festivals across the United States. "Anchorage has one, even Fairbanks - we thought, why not the capital city, too?"
Ultimately, Rothaus sees producing additional Jewish movie nights, and perhaps even a full-fledged festival - "depending on feedback." This would fit especially well with the Gold Town Nickelodeon's recent emphasis on community-based cultural events.
"An evening with Sholem Aleichem is a perfect fit for us: a fascinating subject that involves a theme people want to talk about," said Gold Town manager Colette Costa. "That's our mission - to be community-based and art-house driven. We can't show blockbuster movies in 3-D, but we can serve the community, and that's how we're going to survive."
Similar to recent Gold Town special screenings, "Laughing in the Darkness" will be followed by Rabbi Gartenberg's and my discussion. Interestingly enough, my own sketch comedy group - Three Jews and a Persian (the Persian actually just completed a Muslim-centric comedy tour of the U.S. south, but that's a whole other story) - once upon a time in New York opened for Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey's sketch comedy duo.
"Like any great writer, Sholem Aleichem is deeply rooted in time and place, but somehow manages to penetrate universal themes," said Rabbi Dov Gartenberg of his seeming remoteness from our own existence.
"We here in Juneau know from darkness - Sholem Aleichem teaches us how to laugh at that darkness, which really is a great gift."
Geoff Kirsch writes from Juneau. Read more at www.geoffkirsch.com.