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The Gems of Yiddish Cinema

Rokhl’s Golden City: Classic movies you can see on the big screen—and rarer curiosities you should seek out

Rokhl Kafrissen
May 22, 2019
Inset photo: 'The Dybbuk'
Inset photo: ‘The Dybbuk’
Inset photo: 'The Dybbuk'
Inset photo: ‘The Dybbuk’

For me, growing up there, Long Island was sui generis, a place with no history, a place filled with Jews but empty of Yiddishkayt. No one would ever confuse Long Island with Anatevka. Except that one time in the summer of 1939, when Maurice Schwartz needed an authentic looking substitute for a small Ukrainian town and decided to shoot his movie Tevye in Jericho, Long Island.

According to Eric Goldman’s still definitive Visions, Images, and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present, Schwartz, himself Ukraine-born, “felt that the topography of the region was almost identical to that of the countryside that Sholem Aleichem depicted. There, Schwartz attempted to recreate a Ukrainian shtetl.” That’s probably the nicest thing anyone ever said about Long Island.

I remember the first time I saw Schwartz’s Tevye. I was with my Yiddish class at Brandeis, in the library. My teacher was not much older than the students. She was sure we would love it and she was right. Despite having zero song and dance numbers, Tevye got you right in the gut, in large part due to Schwartz’s dramatic chops. Schwartz had established himself in New York in 1918 with his Yiddish Art Theater, a place where serious art would provide uplift, in pointed contrast with the wide variety of shund that tended to dominate the popular Yiddish theater.

Schwartz was an accomplished actor, but his transition from stage to film acting was rocky, as it was for many actors who had to learn how to act with their faces and not their hands. In 1926, Schwartz directed and starred in a movie about life on the Lower East Side called Tsebrokhene Hertser (Broken Hearts). The movie was a total flop, in large part due to Schwartz’s unfamiliarity with the medium. Tsebrokhene Hertser was also the last silent Yiddish film and the unlucky close of one of the early chapters in the history of Yiddish cinema.

Luckily for Schwartz, 13 years later he had another chance to make his mark on Yiddish film, this time during what Goldman calls the American Golden Age of Yiddish Cinema (1937-1940). Schwartz had wanted to shoot Tevye in Poland but had to make do with Long Island.

Schwartz’s Tevye—like the later musical adaptation, in English, of the Tevye stories, Fiddler on the Roof—has to be read as an American Jewish text. Goldman notes that at the suggestion that his daughters might join the church via intermarriage, Tevye tells a priest, “I would rather see them perish than see them betray our faith.” This is purely an addition of Schwartz’s. Goldman argues that “Schwartz centered his 1939 film on Khave’s story to emphasize the point that intermarriage is unacceptable to the imperiled Jewish community.” While intermarriage existed in Sholem Aleichem’s Ukraine, as a threat to the Jewish people, it had stiff competition from revolutionary politics, pogroms, and most of all, oppressive legislation that narrowed the economic basis of Jewish life to the meagerest stuff. On safe, welcoming Long Island, things obviously looked quite different.

I find it perversely tempting to locate the historic origins of the anti-intermarriage hysteria of my own youth not in some grim suburban synagogue meeting hall, but on a Yiddish movie set dressed as a Ukrainian shtetl, somewhere off Jericho Turnpike. It’s not quite true, of course, but it subverts the first act of my own narrative in a highly pleasing way.

You have the chance to see Schwartz’s Tevye on the big screen when Film Forum opens its retrospective, Jewish Soul: Classics of Yiddish Cinema. The six films on the program come from what Eric Goldman calls the two golden ages of Yiddish cinema, Polish and American. They are full-length narrative features with good production values and now, lavish new print restorations and modern subtitles.

Jewish Soul opens with perhaps the most famous Yiddish movie of all time, The Dybbuk. It started as one of the most famous plays of its time, touring for years with the Vilne Troupe, across continents and in multiple languages. The Dybbuk is so famous I hesitate to waste your time summarizing it here. But just to be safe, let’s say that two young men pledge that one day their children will marry. Years later the pledge is forgotten. One of the children, Khonen, arrives in the town where his promised bride, Leah, lives. Khonen arrives at the moment Leah’s father is finishing a deal to marry her to a wealthy suitor. Khonen attempts to use his kabbalistic power to thwart the match but dies in the process. He subsequently enters the body of Leah as a wandering spirit, or dybbuk. Leah is taken to be exorcised and dies in the process. The story is punctuated with breathtaking dance sequences. The sets and the staging are heavily influenced by German expressionism. While a bit overlong and at times slow and confusing, The Dybbuk is the sensual, spooky, aesthetic high point of Yiddish cinema. You owe it to yourself to see this new restoration as it was meant to be seen.

All six selections on the Jewish Soul program are excellent and worth your time. My only complaint is that focusing on the golden age films obscures the intertextual tradition that is key to Yiddish cinema. The golden age films were built on earlier silent Yiddish films, and golden age films themselves influenced and built on each other. For example, one of the most financially successful silent films was called Tkies Kaf (The Vow) (1923). It was about two young men who pledge their future children in marriage. The pledge is forgotten and, no, not a dybbuk, but the prophet Elijah intervenes. In 1932, Tkies Kaf took on a new life with the invention of the Yiddish compilation film. Compilation films used older silent films and added spoken narration in Yiddish, plus other elements. An enterprising producer took the silent footage of Tkies Kaf, added new elements, and released it under the names Dem Rebns Koyekh (The Rabbi’s Strength) and A Vilne Legend. Needless to say, the director of the original film was not consulted in this mercenary repurposing.

Then, in 1937, the original producers decided to remake a sound version of Tkies Kaf, in part spurred by the announcement of a planned film version of The Dybbuk. Competing versions of supernaturally tinged broken betrothal vow movies? This was the Fyre Fest zeitgeist of its day. Actors who had appeared in the earlier Tkies Khaf had to take distinctly different roles in the new Dybbuk, lest the two movies appear too similar. And today? Who has even heard of Tkies Kaf? Which is too bad.

Yiddish film is much richer when read within the broader history of the genre. The first Yiddish movie shot in Israel was 1982’s Az Me Git, Nemt Men (When They Offer, Take It). On the surface it’s an eye-boggling piece of Yiddish camp, complete with disco numbers and way too many leotards: 51-year-old Yakov Bodo plays a stuttering, smooth cheeked yeshiva bokher. He and his sleazy lounge singer brother get into a romantic farce with a wealthy American mother and daughter—the mother played by Rahel Dayan, second wife of Moshe Dayan.

Save for one YouTube clip that only hints at the movie’s kitschy heights, it’s almost impossible to see Az Me Git. Perhaps someone was trying to bury the evidence. Nonetheless, such a tantalizing mystery was irresistible. An enterprising member of the Congress for Jewish Culture youth auxiliary finally located a copy after a monthslong search. With some amount of trepidation, we had a private screening.

It was almost immediately clear why a curiosity like Az Me Git had been made, but you had to be familiar with the history of Yiddish in Israel. In the early 1960s, Yakov Bodo appeared in a new Hebrew-language stage adaptation of an old Yiddish Goldfaden operetta. The new musical was called Shnei Kuni Leml (Two Kuni Lemls) and featured lyrics by a hero of mine, Moshe Sachar. When that show was made into a movie, Mike Burstyn took on the twin leads of identical cousins, Kuni and Muni. Shnei Kuni Leml was an enormous hit and spawned two sequels, Kuni Leml in Cairo (actually shot in Cairo!) and Kuni Leml in Tel Aviv (1976).

While the disco numbers of Az Me Git are, shall we say, of their time, the themes of the movie are classic Yiddish theater: the split consciousness between the traditional and the secular, the marriage farce, the happy ending culminating in a bris. Though I don’t know for sure, I can imagine that with the success of the similarly campy (and similarly themed) Kuni Leml in Tel Aviv, old collaborators Bodo and Sachar must have thought, why not?

Why not indeed? Az Me Git isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but the songs are actually really good and it’s a fun watch. But I definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I hadn’t understood how it was repurposing established Yiddish theater and movie tropes. Watching Az Me Git also emphasized to me that it’s important for the Yiddish cinema “canon” to have room for Yiddish movies in Hebrew, like the Kuni Leml franchise.

In the last few years we’ve seen a mini-explosion of new films entirely or partly in Yiddish: Felix and Meira, Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, and Menashe to name a few. I asked Sara Feldman, preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University, what she thought these films had to say about the future of Yiddish cinema. Feldman teaches a course on Yiddish cinema at Harvard, one of few such academic courses in the world. She told me that “much of the current revival of Yiddish film is not conscious of its connection to classic Yiddish films, but rather emerges from a desire to portray the lives of contemporary Yiddish-speakers in Haredi communities. …” The weakness of these films is that so far, they have required outsiders to tell the stories of people in these communities, often layering a romantic or exoticizing gaze onto the narrative. Feldman thinks a new chapter will be opened when the tools of filmmaking get into the hands of people in those communities, especially women.

While I think telling the stories of the Yiddish-speaking Haredi world will continue to be an important thread in new Yiddish cinema, there are so many interesting ways that young filmmakers can engage with the classic Yiddish films. Where is the director who will create her own Dawson City: Frozen Time using what fragments we have of Yiddish silent films?

A new documentary about Dybbuk director Michel Waszynski has opened up an intriguing formal realm, more memory work than traditional documentary. The Prince and the Dybbuk tells the story of Moshe Waks, an ambitious gay Jewish man who transformed himself into a Roman Catholic aristocrat (sort of) named Waszynski. He was already Waszynski when he directed The Dybbuk in 1937. Yiddish actors on the set claimed Waszynski didn’t speak Yiddish and needed translators. The Prince and the Dybbuk is an impressionistic piece, guided both by the spooky ethos of his most famous film, and the elusiveness of the man himself. I have a couple quibbles with some of the film’s choices and its mix of fact and speculation, but overall found it to be one of the most exciting pieces of new “Yiddish” cinema in a long time, specifically because it was so deeply engaged with its own intertextuality. The future of the future will always be incomplete without the past of the past.

MORE: If you’re going to be in New York this summer, you must check out at least one of the films running during Film Forum’s Yiddish film festival, May 26-July 3 … The Prince and the Dybbuk will be screening as part of the New York Polish Film Festival, Sunday, June 2 … The larger-than-life story of poet Avrom Sutzkever is too big for just one documentary. In February I gave a rave review to Black Honey, the Israeli Sutzkever documentary. Now another Israeli documentary about Sutzkever is on the way. In Ver Vet Blaybn (Who Will Remain?) Sutzkever’s granddaughter Hadas Kalderon goes on a personal journey to understand the great Yiddish poet. Special sneak peek screening during the Yiddish Book Center’s Yidstock festival, Thursday, July 11. Tickets here … Probably the most comprehensive website for Yiddish film belongs to the National Center for Jewish Film. If a classic Yiddish film exists on DVD, it’s almost certain you can get it there The Dybbuk will also be screening in Rochester, New York, on July 3, and in Southampton, New York, on Aug. 9. Check the NCJF website for more updated listings of screenings around the world.

ALSO: The 7th annual Sholem Aleichem Yiddish Klezfest is coming up, featuring the music of Eleonore Weill and Ilya Shneyveys as well as the band Parnuse. Dancing led by Judy Sweet. Musicians are encouraged to bring an instrument. Contribution $10, kids free. Sunday June 2, 1:30-4:30 p.m., Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center, 3301 Bainbridge Ave., Bronx … The Eggrolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas street fair celebrates the multicultural Lower East Side. Golden City favorite Litvakus will be playing a set or two. Sunday, June 16, noon-4 p.m., Eldridge Street … The producers of the superb Oyneg Shabes documentary Who Will Write Our History are now fundraising for a new project. Vishniac will tell the story of the photographer who produced some of the most iconic images we have of prewar Eastern Europe … The Lower East Side Conservancy is offering a new walking tour called The Power of Place: The Lower East Side of Past and Present, June 30, 10:45 a.m.. Tickets here … Even as it seems to lose a bit of its historic character every day, the Lower East Side continues to experience a renaissance in Ashkenazi foodways. The brand new Michaeli Bakery at 115a Division St. is a spinoff of the rightfully celebrated Breads Bakery. Michaeli Bakery promises the same life-changing babka and breads, as well as rugelach, challah, and other scrumptious baked goods …The history of the Yiddish-speaking labor movement in America is tied up with that of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. An exhibit at the New-York Historical Society called Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism highlights the role of women in the ILGWU and labor activism. Through July 21.

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