Yiddish CinemaTHE ROOTS OF YIDDISH CINEMA
THE GOLDEN AGE OF YIDDISH CINEMA
IN THE UNITED STATES
THE GOLDEN AGE OF YIDDISH CINEMA
Yiddish cinema must be unique in the annals of world film history as the only manifestation of a major filmmaking enterprise not primarily associated with a "national" entity. We might say, at the very least, that Yiddish cinema was the first truly transnational cinema, but one which ironically and perhaps ultimately tragically lacked a foundation in a national setting, that is, in a nation or a unique, sovereign state. A transnational cinema without the national, Yiddish cinema represents the cinematic flowering of a people living in far-flung places on the globe, but who shared a culture that crossed boundaries of space and, as the years have gone by, of time. A true Yiddish cinema awaited the coming of sound, for its distinctive and defining characteristic seems intuitively to be the use of the Yiddish language. Nevertheless, as an expression of Yiddish culture (Yiddishkeit), one sees a burgeoning Yiddish cinema in the silent era, although it was indeed the sound cinema that created the masterpieces of this unique cultural and cinematic form.
Yiddish was the primary language of the Jews living in the Pale of Settlement in the contested territory on the border between Poland and Russia before World War II. While Jews all over eastern Europe typically spoke the language of the "host" country in which they lived, Yiddish was the connecting current of Jewish secular life, the mamaloshen (mother tongue) of the people. But it was more than a language, it was a thriving culture that produced a body of literature—novels, short stories, poetry, plays—and a veritable way of being in the world—a world marked by anti-Semitism, poverty, and hardship. As Jews emigrated in unprecedented numbers from eastern Europe beginning in the 1880s—primarily to the United States, but also to Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa—they naturally took with them this culture of Yiddishkeit.
Primarily, the silent Yiddish cinema was concerned with documenting Jewish life in the shtetlach (small Jewish towns), and it was largely the product of Soviet and Polish Jews rather than US producers. The screen-writer Henryk Bojm created such films as Tkies Kaf (The Vow or The Handshake, 1924), Der Lamedvovnik (One of the Thirty-Six Just Men, 1925), and In Poylishe Velder (In Polish Woods, 1928) that were set almost wholly in the Jewish villages in the Pale of Settlement and dealt variously with aspects of anti-Semitism, Jewish mysticism, and fading tradition. In the new Soviet Union after the Russian Civil War, things seemed very promising for Jews, and in this atmosphere the works of the gentle ironist Sholem Aleichem proved particularly popular for Yiddishkeit cinema in films like Der Mabul (The Deluge, 1925) and the masterpiece of Soviet Yiddish cinema, Yidishe Glikn ( Jewish Luck, 1925), which brought to life the author's beloved Everyman, Menachem Mendl. "Jewish Luck" is an ironic title, for everything this hapless but good-hearted man tries ends in failure. J. Hoberman compares the character, as embodied by star Solomon Mikhoels (c. 1890–1948), to Charlie Chaplin's lovable Tramp figure—an interesting comparison considering how often through the years Chaplin himself was claimed as Jewish. Many more films would be made in the Soviet Union throughout the silent era and into the sound era before the iron curtain of Stalinism fell on the region.
b. Sedikov, Russia (later Ukraine), 18 June 1890, d. 10 May 1960
If Edgar G. Ulmer is today the best-known of the Yiddish filmmakers, he notoriously did not speak Yiddish and his approach to the Yiddish cinema, polished and insightful though it is, lacks the raw power that one sees in the true masterpieces of Yiddish cinema, including Maurice Schwartz's Tevye der Milkhiker (Tevye the Milkman, 1939). One of many adaptations of Sholem Aleichem's beloved novel of the bedraggled dairyman and his attempts to marry off his numerous daughters, Schwartz's version is regarded by many as superior even to the blockbuster Broadway musical adaptation and subsequent film version, Fiddler on the Roof (1971).
Schwartz was a major star of the Yiddish theater long before the Yiddish sound film appeared. A founder of New York City's Yiddish Art Theatre in 1918, he always managed to combine commercial appeal with artistic pretensions. Schwartz brought major works of theatrical art to the Yiddish stage, from The Dybbuk to an adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. While on tour in Austria, Schwartz appeared in the film Yisker (Remembrance, 1925), which was a flop. Despite his inexperience as a film actor, he took to both starring in and directing Tsekbrokhene Hertser (Broken Hearts, 1926). An adaptation of a play already over twenty years old, Broken Hearts attempted to be both melodrama and social criticism. Perhaps it was too old-fashioned, despite its melting-pot ideology. When it was re-released with a dubbed Yiddish soundtrack some years later, the ending was changed to reflect a more downbeat and old-fashioned value system.
With Uncle Moses (1932), a film version of a novel by Sholem Asch, Schwartz helped usher in the prestigious Yiddish talkie. Updated from Asch's immigrant tale to a contemporary Depression-era setting, the film found Schwartz concentrating solely on his acting, bringing to life an anti-hero who is redeemed by love. If not a triumph, the film accomplished what its directors (Sidney Goldin and Aubrey Scotto) and star had intended. With his directing and starring role in Tevye, Schwartz found his greatest triumph, one for the ages. With a liberal use of location shooting on Long Island and a minimalist miseen-scène for the interiors, Schwartz accomplished something akin to the finest films of Oscar Micheaux—a film style that pays little heed to Hollywood norms, instead creating an approach that serves the material well on its own terms. A more downbeat (and scaled-back) version than the better-known Fiddler on the Roof the film holds on to its Yiddish roots with a passion that seems to foretell the events of the Holocaust.
In only its third year of existence, the National Film Registry in 1991 inducted Schwartz's Tevye. It was one of the very few non-English language films to be recognized by this Library of Congress board, which was established to preserve films deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important."
Tsekbrokhene Hertser (Broken Hearts, 1926), Uncle Moses (1932), Tevye der Milkhiker (Tevye the Milkman, 1939)
The rich Yiddish cinematic culture of the United States owes part of its success to the work of Edgar G. Ulmer (1904–1972), whose four Yiddish films—Grine Felder (Green Fields, 1937); Yankl der Shmid (The Singing Blacksmith, 1938); Di Klyatshe, also called Fishke der Krumer (The Light Ahead, 1939); and Amerikaner Shadkhn (American Matchmaker, 1940)—are reckoned among the classics in the canon. Ulmer's status is partly owed to the fact that he also worked in Hollywood and that his Yiddish films betray, despite their low budgets, the Hollywood style and technical stamp of approval. With their shtetl settings, the films had an ambivalent relationship to their New World origins. Considering the overwhelmingly urban nature of immigrant American Jewry, Green Fields's pastoral setting and homage to a life on the land speaks to just one of the ambivalences
that American Jewry was experiencing. Alternately, Ulmer's The Light Ahead critiques, through its expressionist settings and the prejudice meted out to its handicapped protagonists, some of the stifling attitude and backwardness of the shtetls that so many American Jews had happily abandoned. Ulmer's final Yiddish picture, American Matchmaker, may also show some ambivalence about being in America, but its humorous confrontation with many issues facing ever-assimilating American Jewry reveals a now-happy accommodation with life in the New World.
The bias in favor of auteur directors should not repress the importance of stars to the transnational Yiddish cinema. The superstar of the Yiddish stage, Maurice Schwartz (1890–1960), made his Yiddish film directing debut with Tsekbrokhene Hertser (Broken Hearts, 1926), but it was his importance as an actor that carried this film as well as Uncle Moses (1932), important films about ghetto life. Another superstar was Moishe Oysher (1907–1958), whose own life as a cantor and singing star was a rags-to-riches, Old World-New World drama in itself, cinematically retold in Dem Khazns Zundl (The Cantor's Son, 1927). The famous sound smash The Jazz Singer of 1927 might also have been called "The Cantor's Son," and it, too, wrapped itself around the Old World-New World dichotomy. But the very differences between these two films might be said to encapsulate the distinctions between mainstream cinema about Jews and the Yiddish cinema addressed solely to Jews. For in the Al Jolson film, the battle between Old World and New, between liturgical music and jazz (popular music), firmly comes down on the side of the New World jazz-singing career. Jakie Rabinowitz may sing the "Kol Nidre" on Yom Kippur, but he then leaves behind this heartfelt tribute to the old ways for the resolutely New World rendition of "My Mammy," trading his Jewish costume for blackface. Not so in the Yiddish film. Not only does the cantor's son cling to the religious music of his training, but by film's end he not only rejects jazz singing, but the New World as well, returning to live in the Old Country. Since the vast majority of immigrant Jews remained in America, this film, one of the most expensive Yiddish productions to date, clearly spoke to a rising dissatisfaction with America, but one which played out only on screen.
Clearly, as American Jewry became ever more successful, and the most cinematically minded turned not to the Yiddish cinema, but to Hollywood, the lure of the shtetl proved irresistible to an ever-decreasing Yiddish-speaking American Jewish audience, leading to Maurice Schwartz's bittersweet masterpiece, Tevye (1939). Driven out of his home in the Pale of Settlement and rejecting his daughter who has married a Russian, Tevye leaves, not for the United States, as in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), but for Palestine.
Less star-driven, though often featuring well-known players of the Yiddish stage, were those examples of popular theatrical melodramas transferred, usually with little money and less artistry, to the screen, but the kind of films the film industry needs to keep cash flowing into production and out of exhibitors' turnstiles. Generational potboilers like Der Yidisher Kenig Lir (The Yiddish King Lear, 1936), Vu Iz Mayn Kind (Where is My Child?, 1937), and Motl der Operator (Motl the Operator, 1939), although they may be read as fears of economic uncertainty in the New World or the shame of one's Old World roots, have more in common with the overheated Hollywood maternal and family melodramas of the same period. And although there are a number of films set squarely in the tenements of the immigrant generation, such a film was already old-fashioned by the 1930s. And so, unlike the powerful American Jewish literature and Yiddish theater of the turn of the century and into the 1920s, the Yiddish cinema in America tended more to the nostalgic, the melodramatic, or the sometimes surprisingly bitter.
The ever-precarious situation of the Jews in Poland perhaps unsurprisingly led to the production of what is unquestionably the most artistically important of all Yiddish films: The Dybbuk (1937). The number of Jews in Poland was approximately equal to the number in the United States, and although less prosperous, they remained closer to their Yiddish roots. Thus, the number of Yiddish films produced in Poland almost equaled those produced in the United States, and it might be argued that artistically, films like Yidl mitn Fidl (Yiddle with a Fiddle, 1936), A Brivele der Mamen (A Letter to Mother, 1938), and Mamele (Little Mother, 1938), certainly were the equal of anything the better-funded American Jews could produce. With charming star Molly Picon appearing in Yidl and Mamele, Poland had an international Yiddish star to compete with the likes of Maurice Schwartz and Moishe Oysher. But it was the no-star Dybbuk that gave Yiddish cinema one of its major contributions to world film. Based on the best-known of Yiddish dramas, the film attempts in every way to become its cinematic equivalent—the most artistic and prestigious of all Yiddish films. And it largely succeeds. Its expressionistic sets built in Warsaw combine nicely with location shooting in Old World Kazimierz (which had become something of the preferred locale for the European Yiddish cinema, the archetypal shtetl), and the acting was appropriately theatrical for this story of other-worldly possession and Jewish mysticism. A marriage arranged between friends for their children as yet unborn takes a tragic turn through the intervention of a cruel fate and the young man's unforgiving nature. When the girl's father rejects the young man, whom he does not know is the promised groom, the young man turns to the mysteries of the Cabala to seek redress. Dying amidst his attempts to conjure dark forces to come to his aid, instead his tormented spirit takes over the about-to-be-wed bride. Exorcism and death climax this dark, stylish, Yiddish version of the expressionistic nightmares that haunted the German cinema a decade earlier.
But it was not all doom-and-gloom in the Polish Yiddish cinema. Joseph Green's (1900–1996) Yiddle with a Fiddle was as charming a film as could be with its story of wandering klezmer musicians. Boyish Molly Picon (1898–1992) indeed plays a young woman who disguises herself as a boy as father and daughter become part of a troupe of entertainers. Acknowledged as a star vehicle for the thirty-seven-year-old superstar, the film was reckoned little more than a collection of favorite theatrical pieces fleshing out its episodic plot. The film's hugely optimistic ending seems to ignore rising anti-Semitic tensions in Poland, but its commercial success in Poland and across the globe bespeaks of an audience interested not in contemplating an ambiguous future, but in reveling in a nostalgic past.
Producer-director Green followed this smash success with Der Purimshpiler (The Purim Player, 1937), another story of wandering Jews, this time circus entertainers and jesters. Obviously little more than a reworking of Yidl, the film was a commercial disappointment. One theory brought up by J. Hoberman is that, besides the absence of Molly Picon, the film attempted to be too much of a crossover, removing some of the cultural specificity in its quest for a greater universality. A Yiddish film without Yiddishkeit seemed hardly the way to continue to produce a truly Yiddish cinema.
By the time a true Yiddish cinema appeared in the 1930s, many of the Jewish entrepreneurs of the cinema had already come, seen, and conquered the wider world of American film. For Hollywood—ruled by the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Carl Laemmle, and Irving Thalberg—was already Jewish, but with Jews whose interest in Yiddish and a Yiddish cinema was nil. In this respect the Hollywood moguls are typical of much of assimilating American Jewry. The sad fact of the matter is that Yiddish cinema declined due to the elimination of its primary audience. In the United States, Yiddish theater and cinema did not extend its audience beyond the immigrant generation. In eastern Europe the thriving Jewish communities and the culture of Yiddishkeit came to a different end in the unprecedented mass murder of six million Jews, including 90 percent of Polish Jewry. Though the occasional Yiddish film appeared after the war, including Israeli productions, Yiddish cinema disappeared with the destruction of the audience that gave rise to it.
Berkowitz, Joel and Jeremy Dauber, eds. Landmark Yiddish Plays: A Critical Anthology. Albany: SUNY Press, 2006.
Goldberg, Judith N. Laughter through Tears: The Yiddish Cinema. London: Associated University Presses, 1983.
Goldman, Eric A. Visions, Images, and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present. Studies in Cinema, no. 24. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983.
Hoberman, J. Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film between Two Worlds. New York: Schocken Books, 1991.