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December 14: Sholem Aleichem on Television

December 14, 2015

gilfordThe World of Sholom Aleichem was broadcast on this date in 1959, on David Susskind’s show, The Play of the Week. Written by blacklisted writer Arnold Perl (adapted from his 1953 Off-Broadway play), it was performed on camera by several actors who had themselves been victims of McCarthyism, including Morris Carnovsky, Jack Gilford, Lee Grant, and Zero Mostel. “Play of the Week was able to hire them,” writes Stephen Bowie at his blog, Classic TV History, “only because it was an independent, unsponsored production.... Using blacklisted talent was still a courageous move on the part of the producers, Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman, and upon its broadcast ‘The World of Sholom Aleichem’ became a predictable magnet for right-wing froth-at-the-mouthers.” The show also burned its way into the hearts of many young Jews, for whom Jack Gilford’s performance as Bontshe Shvayg (Bontshe the SIlent), in Perl’s adaptation of Y.L. Peretz’s classic story, was utterly moving and memorable.

“[T]here would have never been a Fiddler on the Roof had it not been for two very different works that were both titled ‘The World of Sholom Aleichem’ — the first a 1943 book by Maurice Samuel, the second a 1953 play by Arnold Perl. Equally indispensable were the first translation of the Tevye stories into English, published in 1949, and a 1952 book by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life is With the People, which romanticized life in the shtetl.” —Bennett Muraskin, Jewish Currents