Produced in Poland and America, Yiddish film captured the diversity and richness of the Yiddish-speaking world.
Yiddish was once a vibrant language. It was the language of literature and political discourse and also the language of everyday life for the masses of Jews who lived for centuries in Eastern Europe.
The Yiddish films that were produced from the 1920s to the 1940s in Poland and the United States, reflect a wide spectrum of Jewish life--rich and poor, educated and illiterate, traditional and assimilationist. These films capture the atmosphere, concerns, values, and myths of the Yiddish milieu as well as the unique flavor and nuances of the Yiddish mameloshen [mother tongue]. As Jim Hoberman writes in his book Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds, "Drawing upon an established dramatic and literary tradition, yet employing a language virtually unknown to the Gentile world, this was not just a national cinema without a nation-state, but a national cinema that, with every presentation, created its own ephemeral nation-state."
Piety & Superstition
Perhaps the greatest Yiddish film ever produced is Der Dibuk (The Dybbuk, directed by Michael Waszynski), made in 1937 in Poland, before World War II. Based on the classic play by S. Ansky--written during the years of 1912-1917, when he traveled through the Pale of Settlement in Russia--the film documents the rich ethnographic life of the shtetl, the small, mostly Jewish villages of Eastern Europe. Although Ansky never lived to see his play produced, it became the most widely staged production in the history of the Yiddish theater.
Der Dibuk is a dark and melodramatic film with mystical themes that tells the story of young lovers who had been promised to each other. Many years earlier, two yeshivah students made an oath that their children would marry. In the meantime, one has died and the other has forgotten his oath. Now, years later, the daughter is about to marry someone else. But she is meant for another. The most memorable scene of the cinematic version is the haunting dance of the beggars, in which the beautiful yet melancholy bride finds herself dancing with death itself.
In a completely different style, Yidl mitn Fidl (Yiddle With a Fiddle, directed by Joseph Green and Jan Nowina-Przybylski, 1936), also produced in Poland, is a charming and humorous look at gender roles in the changing world of the shtetl. Starring the Yiddish film superstar Molly Picon as a dissatisfied young woman who dreams of studying Talmud in the man's yeshivah world, the film showed remarkable sensitivity and depth in exploring the roles of men and women in this milieu.
Another film about female roles, this one produced in the U.S., is Mirele Efros (directed by Joseph Berne, 1939). The main character of the film is Mirele Efros (played by Berta Gersten), the matriarch of a Jewish family who loses her control over the family to her new self-seeking daughter-in-law.