Sholom Aleichem on stage and screen

Thursday July 5, 2012

Sholom Aleichem was, among Jews, probably the best-known Jew on the planet, according to Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. When he died in 1916, more than 200,000 people attended his funeral in New York City.

The once wildly popular Jew ish writer's legacy has waned over the past 100 years. But this summer, he lives again in the Berkshires.

At 3 p.m. this Sunday, Barring ton Stage will host a discussion of the man behind the musical of "Fiddler on the Roof." And at the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival on Monday, July 30, a documentary about Aleichem's life as a writer will explore dark times for the Jewish people.

Lansky will lead discussions about Aleichem at both events.

"Sholem Aleichem captured something essential about the Jewish experience and what it might be in the modern world," Lansky said. "He looked at that collision between tradition and modernity and found what was essential in Jewish culture, and that's a feat that's never been matched."

Through his Yiddish story collections like "Tevye der Milk hiker," or "Tevye the Milk man," on which "Fiddler" is based, Aleichem captured the struggle of Jews adapting to a modern world that did not always welcome them.

"The reason it's so enduring is that it's so profoundly Jewish," Lansky said. "It's very hard to define, but we know it when we see it. And with Sholem Alei chem, boy do you see it."

Berkshire Jewish Film Fest ival Director Margie Metz ger said she and her committee selected "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" for the 26th annual festival because it provided a way to resurrect through documentary an interest in the pivotal Jewish writers' life -- and it includes Lansky himself.

"[Aleichem] was able to bring the history of what the Jews in Europe had gone through and make stories out of it, and that was just unheard of," Metzger said. "He was a very fascinating character, and we just said, ‘bingo.' We wanted to show it."

But beyond his name appearing on the "Fiddler" credits, most people today are not familiar with the man whose protagonist inspired the beloved musical. His stories are not even taught in Hebrew or Jewish day schools.

Lansky reasons that the disappearance of Aleichem's comical, adroit tales from the Jewish canon is part and parcel to the general "bargain" of assimilation that Jews made when they immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century, and in particular after World War II.

"The country protected religious freedom, but there wasn't a whole lot of patience for differences of culture and language," Lansky said. "They took this big, sprawling religion and discarded the rest of the culture which didn't fit into America in some way. The writers were forgotten. The films, the plays were forgotten."

Lansky founded the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst with this problem in mind -- as the century progressed, he said, Jewish families were tossing out inherited Yiddish texts, since no one spoke the language anymore.

Lansky has rescued thousands of these volumes, translating many to make them accessible again to readers.

Among those translations is the precursor to "Fiddler," "Tevye der Milkhiker." As any original source and its adaptation will, the film and the stories have many differences. The musical's name had nothing to do with Aleichem but was instead borrowed from a Marc Chagall painting.

And in "Fiddler," the driving question is of marriage between Jews of different backgrounds and between Jews and Christians. Aleichem explored Tevye's struggle to hold onto his faith in a changing world.

In his stories, Tevye's daughter Chava and the man she marries aspire toward a broader intellectual way of connecting to the world. To be Jewish, Tevye feels he has to hold adamantly to his beliefs and shut out all others. Chava, with her books and her younger adaptibility, seeks a way to be Jewish that can reconcile her beliefs with all faiths.

"It's a conundrum of the Jewish world, the modern world. That's a very nuanced problem and discussion," Lansky said. "By the time you get to the early ‘60s, all that nuance is sort of lost from the play, and it functions on a much more emotional level."

But one of the most important differences, Lansky said, may be the most subtle. Tevye of "Fiddler" lives in the shtetl of Anatevka, surrounded by fellow Jews, while Aleichem's Tevye is situated in the countryside, a "dorfsyid," alone, without neighbors to counsel him when modernity begins to encroach.

"It's a thousand times more profound," Lansky said, "be cause he becomes the precursor of ourselves, of Jews in a modern world who, every minute of every day, you have to figure out what to do."

Where to find Sholom Aleichem ...

What: 'Fiddler on the Roof' at Barrington Stage Company

When: through July 14.

Performances Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesday and Friday matinees at 2 p.m., with additional Saturday matinee July 14, and Sundays at 5 p.m.

Where: Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield


What: 'New Riffs on Everyone's Favorite Yiddish Story,' talk with Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Barrington Stage Company Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield.

Admission: Free.

Reservations recommended.

Information: (413) 236-8888.

What: 'Modern Jewish Short Stories,' talk about tales by Sholom Aleichem, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Hava Shapiro - Translations for those written in Yiddish, Russian or Hebrew When: 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., Wednesdays, July 18 to Aug. 15.

Where: Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Road, Great Barrington Admission: Free

Information: Jodie Gordon,

What: 'Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,' documentary at Berkshire Jewish Film Festival with Aaron Lansky.

When: 4 p.m., Monday, July 30

Where: Duffin Theatre, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St., Lenox Information:

(413) 445-4872, ext. 25


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