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On the Move

Rokhl’s Golden City: Two tales of Jewish immigration on film

Rokhl Kafrissen
January 13, 2023
Original image: Library of Congress
A Jewish war orphan arrives in the United States, 1921Original image: Library of Congress
Original image: Library of Congress
A Jewish war orphan arrives in the United States, 1921Original image: Library of Congress

Meshane mokem, meshane mazl. Change your place, change your luck. This idea, that moving house can change one’s fate, is one of the many concepts that came into Yiddish directly from the Talmud and even the Torah—think of Avrom leaving home to found a great nation. And yet, this ancient notion, moving from one place to another, from one fate to another, has produced much of what we think of Jewish modernity.

Immigration, of course, is one of the most important narratives, and myths, of American Jewishness. That immigration narrative tends to collapse into a generalized departure from some oppressive European locale followed by a hopeful arrival in New York, as symbolized by Ellis Island and/or the Statue of Liberty. But Jewish migration in the 19th and 20th centuries was far more complicated than one linear journey. Two movies playing at the 2023 New York Jewish Film Festival highlight the twinned themes of Jewish migrations and Jewish luck: a newly restored 35 mm print of Joseph Green’s 1939 A brivele der mamen (A Letter to Mother) and a brand-new documentary, Jews of the Wild West.

A brivele der mamen, the movie, was actually inspired by a song of the same name, from 1907. Songwriter Solomon Smulewitz touched a popular nerve with his lachrymose tale of a mother begging her son to write to her once he leaves for the United States. Alas, the mother writes every day, but she receives no answer from her son and dies, wishing only that he say Kaddish for her:

Di mame vet ir kadishl hern
In ir keyver gern

The mother will hear her son say Kaddish
Which she eagerly awaits in her grave

While the son had the resources to take off for the United States and change his luck for the better (he has grown rich and prosperous), the mother is not totally without agency. She can’t leave, or force him to write back to her, but she can haunt him with guilt for the rest of his life. A more cynical listener might say that death is not the end here, but only the final migration, which the mother of the song uses to one-up her feckless son. He now has no choice but to give her the final, painful word, unless he wants to rush his own migration into oylem habe, the world to come.

Smulewitz wrote A brivele der mamen at the height of Jewish immigration to the United States, the bulk of which happened roughly between 1881 and 1921. The song was a hit and remained popular for decades, being covered many times, and like the proto-IP of its day, spawning a BDMEU (brivele der mamen extended universe).

In 1938, Yiddish actor-director Joseph Green traveled back to Poland with his production company to shoot two Yiddish films, almost simultaneously: A brivele der mamen and Mamele. In his classic study of Yiddish film, Bridge of Light, J. Hoberman says A brivele der mamen is “arguably the most artful and shameless of Yiddish weepies.” Having just watched it, I would have to agree. I don’t really care much for melodrama, but I found myself in tears more than once. Yes, Dobrish Berdichevski, the mame of the title, suffers extravagantly. She faints, she crumples, she weeps for her various misfortunes. Can you blame her?

The film opens right before WWI and is marked by the very real migrations of the day. Her luftmentsh husband takes off to prove himself in America without telling her in advance. Her daughter Miriam runs off with the local dance teacher, though Dobrish tells her would-be makhetonim (Miriam is engaged to their son) that she has gone to “Balta” to stay with an aunt. Her younger son Arele then joins his father in New York. War breaks out in 1914 and her older son Meir is drafted to fight.

Unlike the mother in the 1907 song, Dobrish feels like a real person, not a pathetic cliche. When war comes, Dobrish herself must set out on a journey, at one point taking shelter from a battle in a cemetery, accompanied by her now-makhetonim (her daughter Miriam having come back home and wed their son Yudke in the meantime). I usually resist the temptation to read the destruction of the Holocaust back into what came before, but it seems clear that Green sensed the imminent arrival of war and that foreboding colored this production. Not everything about the film, however, is melancholy. As a director, Green is interested in quasi-ethnographic detail, and the audience is treated to lively moments of Yiddish singing, dignified wedding dancing, and an unforgettably heartbreaking Passover Seder. Little Arele, nebekh, must sing his Four Questions to the empty chair left by Dovid, the absent husband in America. Oof. It may be over the top melodrama, but I dare you not to feel something when you see it.

A still from ‘A brivele der mamen’ (A Letter to Mother), 1939
A still from ‘A brivele der mamen’ (A Letter to Mother), 1939Ⓒ The National Center for Jewish Film

A brivele der mamen was, according to Hoberman, the last Polish-Yiddish feature to open in New York. The movie marked the end of the brief “golden age” of Yiddish cinema. As Hoberman put it, “Within two years, American production” of Yiddish films “had ceased as well.” I’m thrilled to see that the National Center for Jewish Film will be screening a newly restored 35 mm print at the New York Jewish Film Festival, as the old print I watched is way too shabby for a film that truly deserves not just to be seen, but enjoyed.

Everyone in the Berdichevski family eventually leaves home, whether voluntarily, or by force. The first person to depart is the father, Dovid, setting the story in motion. He is ashamed at his failure to support his family economically. He leaves for America, where he believes he will be able to prove himself. We later see him peddling goods from a cart, none too successfully. It’s important to note that the reason for Dovid’s departure is purely economic. There are many historical reasons Dovid might not have been able to earn a living, but curiously, the movie suggests that his chronic unemployment owes more to a psychological tendency toward leydikgeyer’s syndrome (the desire to loaf around with your friends) than anything else.

In the story of American Jewish immigration, two great forces are understood to have been at work, sweeping Jews from Europe to North America, and elsewhere: economic necessity and anti-Jewish oppression. In popular media, however, the complex events pushing Jews to immigrate often get boiled down to one word: pogrom. But not every form of anti-Jewish oppression, or even violence, is a pogrom.

More importantly, pogroms don’t cause immigration, or at least not in the way it’s portrayed in pop culture, as when An American Tail’s Fievel Mousekewitz and his family flee Shostka in the immediate aftermath of a pogrom that destroys their home. Immigration was expensive; it took time to gather the funds necessary for travel. Men usually left first and sent for their families once they were established, a long-standing pattern that historians call chain migration. At the risk of demanding too much realism from a cartoon about mice, it’s unlikely a traumatized family that had just lost their home would have the strength or resources to make such an expensive journey, especially with all family members going at once. At further risk of putting too much weight on Fievel’s delicate, two-dimensional shoulders, I’d argue that the Mousekewitz story says as much about the stories American Jews tell as it does about Jewish immigration.

A still from ‘Jews of the Wild West,’ shows Jewish cattle rancher Robert Lazar Miller with his grandson at the Denver Stockyards, 1932
A still from ‘Jews of the Wild West,’ shows Jewish cattle rancher Robert Lazar Miller with his grandson at the Denver Stockyards, 1932Beck Archives, Special Collections, University of Denver Libraries via JTA

The grand story of Jewish immigration is the subject of a new documentary at the New York Jewish Film Festival, Jews of the Wild West. In pop culture, to arrive in the United States is to arrive in New York City. Both the Berdichevski and the Mousekewitz families set out for New York. Jews of the Wild West offers a welcome intervention into this New York-centric narrative. For example, we meet the descendants of the Jews who entered the United States not through Ellis Island, but the port of Galveston, Texas. Between 1907 and 1914, 10,000 Jews arrived at Galveston, part of an engineered attempt to shift Jewish immigration away from New York and the East Coast.

If the quintessential pop culture Jewish immigrant is from somewhere within the Russian Empire, Jews of the Wild West turns our attention to the earlier, but overlapping, waves of German-speaking immigrants from Central Europe. It is within their ranks that we find Levi Strauss, who leaves his home in Bavaria in 1847 to follow his older brothers to New York, and later, points west. Strauss partners with another Jewish immigrant, Jacob Davis, to perfect and market reinforced work pants, giving birth to perhaps the most iconic piece of wearable Americana: blue jeans.

Not every immigration story found a pot of gold, or bucket of copper rivets, at the end of the rainbow. Dovid Berdichevski takes off for New York on a whim, but he is unable to change his essential nature. His business fails and we see nothing more of him, as he dies off screen. In Jews of the Wild West, we learn about the disastrous Cotopaxi experiment, in which a number of Jewish families were brought to the Colorado Territory to work a new agricultural settlement. It failed within two years, but many of the former Cotopaxi immigrants found new homes in the West.

Obviously, a documentary has to be entertaining and of relatively short length. It cannot do the work of scholarship, nor should we expect it to. Nonetheless, I was baffled by certain choices made by the filmmakers. The word “genocide” comes up not once, but twice, just in the first 15 minutes. One of the film’s talking heads tells us that the idea of building something was profound for these Jews, who had been living under “genocidal oppression” for hundreds of years. What, when and where, exactly, was this genocidal oppression? The Russian Empire did indeed set many oppressive regulations upon the Jewish population, but perhaps out of pure spite, the Jews continued to increase.

During the segment on Levi Strauss, we learn that in the mid-19th century, a set of laws in Germany greatly restricted what professions Jews could practice, as well as their ability to marry without legal permission. While these “Matrikel” (registration) laws were absolutely cruel and oppressive, a movie title card makes the astonishing claim that the Matrikel “was a tool of genocidal oppression aimed at stopping Jewish population growth through restrictions on Jewish marriage.” This is simply not true and I find the film’s ahistorical use of “genocide” disturbing. Do words have meaning or do they not? As I’ve written before, the bitterest irony of Jewish immigration to the United States lies in the fact that when Jews were actually targeted for genocide in the 1930s, the doors of immigration remained firmly shut to them, effectively condemning millions to die.

Probably the weakest part of the documentary is the way some of the talking heads strain to offer upbeat, often highly politicized conclusions about the meaning of Jewish immigration, rather than letting the audience do so for themselves. The movie tells us that Jewish immigration to the West allowed Jews to express themselves, and their humanity, to its fullest, whether that was through entrepreneurial genius, cattle trading, or playing a part in the Western mythos of outlaws and fast shooters. But those opportunities came at a price. In Colorado, for example, would-be Cotopaxi settlers worked land obtained through the Homestead Act. That land was only available due to the dispossession of Native Americans, which “preceded homesteading by several decades.”

If Jews benefited from the relative lack of antisemitism in the United States, as the movie takes pains to tell us, it was because they found themselves in a new racial ecosystem where ethnicity mattered far less than skin color, as the movie doesn’t tell us. The Jewish embrace of whiteness offered tremendous opportunity and security, but it had costs in both the loss of Jewish distinctiveness and in Jewish participation within a system of staggering racial inequity. You cannot tell one story without the other, though many obviously try.

Indeed, telling the “happy” story of Jewish immigration requires one to only look in certain places. While Jews enjoyed unlimited entry to the United States for some time, the end of WWI saw the rise of nativist rhetoric. Jews were once again subject to highly racialized legislation and the political will to legally restrict or end their immigration grew into the 1921 Emergency Quota Act. Legal Jewish immigration to the United States was effectively over. A brivele der mamen’s story of Jewish immigration had to be set in the years around WWI, as such immigration had already ended many years before the film’s 1939 release.

Meshane mokem, meshane mazl. The story of Jewish immigration to the United States is one of immense luck, as well as crushing misfortune. We all know the stories of families who desperately tried to escape Europe and find entry to the United States in the 1930s and ‘40s. Europe’s Jews were not passive in the face of genocide. The story of Jewish immigration to the United States is a story of America, and American racism, as much as it is a story about Jews and Jewish triumph. As Jews, and Americans, we ignore its complexity at our own peril.

WATCH: A brivele der mamen will be at the New York Jewish Film Festival, Jan. 15. In Yiddish with English subtitles. Screening with a newly restored 35 mm print and a Q&A with Sharon Pucker Rivo and Lisa Rivo, NCJF directors, afterward. Buy tickets here. Jews of the Wild West also screens on Jan. 15 at the NYJFF. More information here.

ALSO: On Jan. 22 the JW3 in London will host an in-person Yiddish Open Mic Café with a virtual option for those outside London 6:30 p.m. U.K. time (1:30 p.m. EST) Yiddish teacher Sima Beeri will speak about her new cookbook, And What About the Taste? More details here … On Jan. 26, friend of the column Vivi Lachs will present a lecture for YIVO as part of the Queen Mary University of London AHRC project “Making and Remaking the Jewish East End.” Her provocatively titled talk, “Good Goy, Bad Goy,” will consider stories from the London Yiddish press where non-Jewish characters made appearances and explore “what these portrayals say about the relationship between East End Jewish immigrants and their gentile neighbors.” More details here … Jan. 26 is also the early bird registration deadline for the second Yiddish Sof-Vokh, May 5-7, 2023, at Wortley Hall, Yorkshire. Yiddish Sof-Vokh is “a weekend of total immersion in Yiddish! A celebration of Yiddish in the UK including workshops, conversation, music, walks, poetry and activities for children.” More info here … On Feb. 16, Julie Enszer will be in conversation with poet-activist Irena Klepfisz in celebration of Klepfisz’s new volume of collected work, Her Birth and Later Years. Co-sponsored by YIVO and Workers Circle. More information here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.