Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sholem Aleichem and Marshall McLuhan

I saw Joseph Dorman's 2011 documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, with Tina last night.  Superb footage and sage commentary about the man born Sholem Rabinovich in Russia in 1859, who died world-renown under his pen name Sholem Aleichem in New York City in 1916 (a year after my father was born here in 1915, four years after Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton in 1911).  Sholem Aleichem was known as the Yiddish Mark Twain.   Given one of his specialties in ironic endings of short stories, he also could have been known as the Yiddish O'Henry or De Maupassant.

But the Twain reference speaks most to Sholem Aleichem's relevance to Marshall McLuhan.  Mark Twain's ear for American vernacular, and capacity to put it on the written page, fired up his master works Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  Aleichem did the same for Yiddish.  McLuhan provided tools for explaining this genius of both writers - hybrid energy, their capturing of one mode, the acoustic, and rendering it convincingly in another mode, the visual.

As Dorman's movie makes clear, Sholem Aleichem might have written in Russian, his native written language, or in Hebrew, the formal, sacred language of his people.  Instead, he chose to write in the shtetel slang he heard all around him.  This made him cooler than Tolstoy and the Talmud, a written rapper of his time.

McLuhan understood and wrote about the power of slang, including its transformation into cliche and in turn into archetype (see my Digital McLuhan and its discussion of McLuhan's tetrad for more).  Sholem Aleichem, alas, died a decade before his work would achieve its full archetype status - in the Soviet Union, Palestine, and America, in different ways, as the movie shows.

Laughing in the Darkness now buttresses that enduring status.   I had one quibble with the documentary - it made no mention of Joe Stein, who wrote the play, Fiddler on the Roof,  which catapulted Aleichem's Tevye the Milkman stories into theatrical and then cinematic prominence in the 1960s and 70s.  Although I studied Sholem Aleichem in the Workmen's Circle Yiddisheh shuleh in the late 1950s, and heard about him from my parents and grandparents, for many people Fiddler was their introduction to Sholem.

From the ear to the page to the screen, a McLuhanesque story of media evolution right there.

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