Yiddish Cinema


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.

SEE ALSO Diasporic Cinema ; Poland

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.

David Desser

Other articles you might like:

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: