One hundred years ago, Yiddish theater producers in Warsaw and Moscow began filming their plays, to show them to Jews in far-off places. The technique was simple—they would mount a movie camera on a tripod and leave it there, unmoving, to record the drama; it was primitive, but effective. The films were financially successful, and the Yiddish cinema was born. It became a major artistic and cultural force in Jewish life until the start of World War II.
And, this week, Eve Annenberg’s Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish makes its North American premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival. It’s a new, Yiddish-language, U.S.-made, full-length feature.
Annenberg’s film places the tragic Shakespearian love story in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community, and the filmmaker, who had little previous knowledge of Yiddish, decided that a film set there must use Yiddish as its primary language. For decades, Yiddish, like most foreign languages, didn’t appear in American movies; filmmakers believed American audiences disliked subtitles and portrayed foreign language-speaking characters with actors speaking accented English. But a new trend toward authenticity and realism is returning Yiddish, like other foreign languages, to the screen. In A Serious Man, released two years ago, Joel and Ethan Coen presented a 7-minute prologue set in 19th-century Poland; the characters in it spoke Yiddish.
Yiddish is used in movies to connect with memory, particularly by European filmmakers. French filmmaker Emmanuel Finkiel focused on the lives of elderly Jews who come together on the Promenade in Cannes in his Madame Jacques sur la Croisette (1996). “The Yiddish spoken by this age group is more than a language,” Finkiel said. His Voyages (1999) followed three Holocaust survivors, each with his own narrative, searching for some unambiguous closure. Though the film did not directly relate the horrors of the Holocaust, Finkiel’s approach to the events had the Yiddish world of the past collide and engage in a struggle with the Jewish world of the present, and it was clear that Yiddish held its own. Finkiel provided the setting for a Yiddish world that was dynamic and nuanced, but that teetered as the elderly generation died.
Yiddish movies are even being made in Israel, where, for much of the country’s history, the language was anathema—in 1930, there were riots in Tel Aviv when My Yiddishe Mame was screened. But over the last decade, student filmmakers have turned to the language to either faithfully portray ultra-Orthodox Jewish life or to tackle the divide that for years forced censure of Yiddish and deprived generations of Israelis of a rich Jewish language and culture. In Nava Nussan Heifetz’s The Cohen’s Wife (2000), set in the Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox world, she dramatized a situation in which a Cohen must, according to Jewish law, divorce his wife because she has been raped. In My Father’s House (2006), Dani Rosenberg examined the birth of the state, when new immigrants, survivors of the death camps, were forced to shed their Diaspora personas in order to “properly” assimilate into the new society. “The film had to be in Yiddish,” Rosenberg said. “By Yiddish, I don’t just mean the language, but also the culture which the Israeli government tried to erase.”
Yiddish movies being made in America are set in communities where Yiddish is spoken in the home and on the street. Mendy and Yakov Kirsh shot their 2005 movie A Gesheft (“The Deal”) in the ultra-Orthodox community of Monsey, New York. Here, just as early Yiddish movie-makers saw Yiddish cinema as a way to combat the assimilationist message of mainstream American films, the Kirsh brothers were reacting to mainstream culture by creating what they called “kosher entertainment.” This is noteworthy, as for generations ultra-Orthodox Jews avoided the “corrupting influence” of Yiddish culture as too mainstream.
Eve Annenberg made Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish with exiles from the ultra-Orthodox community. Lazer Weiss and his wife, Malky, the actors who play the star-crossed lovers, spoke only Yiddish until they left the Satmar Hasidic community in their teens; neither had seen a movie when they left. The three are now developing ideas for a second Yiddish film. Meanwhile, there are reports that Topol, best known as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, will star next year in a Yiddish-language Golem, and blogs are even suggesting Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union might be filmed in Yiddish.
It’s not just new projects. Old Yiddish films are being restored, Yiddish-cinema courses are being taught on campus, DVDs of the Yiddish film classics are easily found, and Yiddish short films can be seen on the Internet. Yiddish is not only a vibrant language but also a culture and lifestyle. Finally, its cinema is being introduced to a whole new generation of cineastes.
Eric A. Goldman teaches cinema at Yeshiva University. A new edition of his Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present was recently published by Holmes and Meier.