Yiddish Film

Produced in Poland and America, Yiddish film captured the diversity and richness of the Yiddish-speaking world.

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An elaborate, sophisticated production of a stage classic by Jacob Gordin, the film includes a marvelous depiction of a traditional betrothal. Sometimes described as "The Jewish Queen Lear," this tale pits the values of honesty, decency, and devotion to family against the human tendencies toward passion, weakness, and greed. A melodrama, the film makes a serious comment on women's roles and on mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations within the family context.

Drama & Tears

Perhaps the best-known Yiddish film produced in the United States is Tevye der Milkhyker (Tevye the Milkman, 1939), directed by and starring Maurice Schwartz. The film is based on the original stories of Shalom Aleichem and is the precursor to the great Hollywood adaptation of the same stories, Fiddler on the Roof (directed by Norman Jewison, 1971). Often cited as a film about "tradition," the film is actually about modernity and the decline of the traditional lifestyle, especially symbolized in the marriage of one daughter to a local (non-Jewish) Russian student.

Humor & Pathos

A third U.S. -produced Yiddish film classic is the romantic comedy, Grine Felder (Greenfields, directed by Jacob Ben-Ami and Edgar Ulmer, 1937), which tells the story of a yeshivah bocher [boy] who leaves the protected world of the religious academy to go out into the countryside searching for truth and for honest Jews who work the land. The honest labor of the peasant Jews who made their living from the land was a subtext, referring to the Zionist enterprise that was blossoming during the same period. Based on a play by Peretz Hirschbein, the film was a huge box office hit in 1937 New York.

jewish film quizCantorial Music

An interesting emphasis of a number of Yiddish films is the ambivalent relationship between tradition and modernity as expressed through the lifestyle choices of young cantors. One such film with this premise is Overture to Glory, starring Moishe Oysher as the cantor (U.S., 1940). This subject, however, was not unique to Yiddish films. A similar premise was the basis for an earlier film, produced by Hollywood--the first English-language talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927, directed by Alan Crosland), starring Al Jolson as the cantor who chooses the non-Jewish world of opportunity over the parochialism of the Jewish world.

A Whole World

In these and other Yiddish films, an entire range of the complexity of Yiddish culture (which included more than the poverty and superstition of the shtetl) is portrayed. This involved such salient features of Jewish life as strong family values, the savoring of ancient folkways, rich doses of humor in the face of hardship, and unbreakable ties to tradition.

These Yiddish films, largely based on Yiddish theater, were not made as documents of a dying culture. Rather, they were produced by savvy Jewish businessmen who understood the essentials of commercial filmmaking and whose goal was to entertain Jewish audiences. And these Jewish audiences loved the melodrama and humor of Yiddish stage and cinema.

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Paula Weiman-Kelman

Paula Weiman-Kelman is a freelance documentary filmmaker living in Jerusalem.