Yiddish Cinema


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

Maurice Schwartz as Ezra, Herod's advisor, in Salome (William Dieterle, 1953).

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.

Rebecca Weintraub and Maurice Schwartz in Tevya (Schwartz, 1939), the film that inspired Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971).

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