By Jeremy Gillick
Sholom Aleichem, the revered 19th century writer whose earnest, incredulous and good-natured humor came to define a century of Jewish jokes, is back. Not resurrected–Aleichem was never much of a believer, though he undoubtedly would have welcomed the Messiah into the world like an old friend into his home–but reincarnated in the body and voice of Theodore Bikel. At 84, the man who made Fiddler on the Roof into an American story–Bikel has played Tevye the Dairyman upwards of 2000 times–has brought back to life the man whose writings shaped his long and illustrious career.
“Laughter Through Tears,” which recently premiered at the DCJCC’s Theater J and which, following it’s strong reception, was extended to run through January 18th, is a one-man tribute to Sholom Aleichem. Written, acted and sung by Bikel himself, the play offers a moving and funny depiction of Aleichem that is at once sincere and nostalgic. Not just nostalgic for Aleichem, or even for Bikel’s own distant youth, but for Yiddish, a language on behalf of which Aleichem fought an uphill battle for most of his life.
Forced from his home in Eastern Europe by pogroms, Aleichem found himself, alongside countless other immigrants, in a land where assimilation all but required abandoning his native language. But, as Bikel reminds us, Yiddish was the soul of the Jewish people; Aleichem could not have written in any other language for precisely that reason. Despite his best efforts, its use faded. The old country may have been full of dreams and longing, as Bikel explains, but so too is the new one, and the old country is their object.
Bikel’s performance won’t bring back Aleichem or the land and people of his tales, but it gives a glimpse, and that might be enough to forestall the demise of a lost language. In fact, its revival may already be under way.