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  • courtesy of Docudrama Films

The well-made 90-minute film documentary may be mankind’s most efficient mode of communication. When put together by skilled filmmakers, the feature-length documentary can convey quite massive amounts of information while providing wit and heart and functioning as, you know, a movie.

Such is the case with the historical documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, new to DVD and digital this week. In the late 19th century, Aleichem was the world’s most famous Yiddish author and playwright — his stories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof. He’s often referred to as “the Jewish Mark Twain.” (Legend has it that when Twain heard this, he replied “please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”)

Born into a Hasidic family in what is now Ukraine, Aleichem began his writing career in Russian and Hebrew, then switched to Yiddish, the vernacular language of Eastern European Jews. Aleichem’s stories — he produced over 40 volumes in Yiddish alone — detailed the lives of common Jews in the small towns (or shtetls) of Eastern Europe, as they endured increasing poverty and the anti-Semitic violence of the pogroms. Aleichem’s work left lasting legacies in Europe, the Soviet Union and America. When Aleichem died in New York City, in 1916, 200,000 people attended his funeral. It was the largest funeral the city had ever witnessed.