Audrey Kupferberg: Broken Barriers | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Broken Barriers

Feb 27, 2020

Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most beloved stage and screen musicals of the last fifty-plus years.  You will recall, it’s a touching story of a poor dairyman, Tevye, and his wife and daughters, as they struggle to eke out a living in the Ukrainian village of Anatevka. Fiddler is based on the Tevye the Dairyman stories by the most famous of all Yiddish-language writers, Sholem Aleichem.  A portion of the stories involvies Chava, the daughter who is a reader and potentially an intellectual.  In the written story, Chava runs off to marry a handsome educated man who worships the writings of Maxim Gorky and longs to share his love and his knowledge with Chava.  But this man was born into the rites of his Church -- a non-Jew, so the issue of inter-marriage is the theme of the Chava story. 

Few fans of Fiddler have been aware of a 1919 silent feature film called Broken Barriers.  That is because it has been a lost film until very recently when the only known surviving material was placed for preservation in the caring hands of Sharon and Lisa Rivo at The National Center for Jewish Film.  This material was donated by the great-granddaughter of a producer of the film and granddaughter of one of the lead players. 

The credits for Broken Barriers, or Khavah, its original title, don’t include any prominent screen names of the period, and the director Charles E. Davenport is no D.W. Griffith.  Still, Broken Barriers is a major find, a vital piece of Ashkenazi Jewish culture that has not been available for about one hundred years!  It is the first screen adaptation of a Sholem Aleichem story. 

The film focuses on Khavah’s romance with her forbidden love, Fedka, and her decision to renounce her family and religion to join his world. Tevye, or Tobias as he is known in this movie, is unaccepting.  When he witnesses the two kissing, he runs at them with his horse whip.  In Tobias’ words, “Jew and Gentile are oil and water.”  Both families are distressed, but the Christian family is the one to accept the situation.  There may be underlying reasons, which later come to light in a scene between Khavah and her mother-in-law.

Early in the film, Khavah says, “Broken shall be the barriers that stand between me and happiness.”  She is a reader, a thinker, and she is an independent young woman of sorts, considering her time and circumstances.  Tobias, however, is unmoved by love as he makes plans to quickly marry her off to a young Jewish businessman.  

What is the outcome for these two determined young people?  The ending is surprising, as it is unique to this film!  For its place in Jewish culture and its connections to Fiddler on the Roof, Broken Barriers is a gem. The production values may not be grand, but this film is a treasure.

Broken Barriers recently has been made available for screenings at film festivals and other venues.  Those who have an interest in showing the film should contact The National Center for Jewish Film in Waltham, MA.  This group also restored the other significant version of the Tevye stories, a 1939 Yiddish-language film called Tevya starring the great stage producer/actor Maurice Schwartz. Tevya is on the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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