Kino Classics has just released a ten- film BluRay set of Yiddish language feature films. The titles come from the heyday of Yiddish film production, the late 1930s. When I first heard of the release, I assumed it featured the restorations of The National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, but I was mistaken. These are restorations completed by Serge Bromberg at Lobster Films, along with the Museum of Modern Art, the Deutsche Kinemathek, and the Fillmoteka Narodowa in Warsaw.
It’s quite an exciting collection, including the two most significant Yiddish films, The Dybbuk and Tevya, three other outstanding titles, Motel the Operator, Eli Eli and Mir Kumen On , as well as five low-budget pictures of lower quality but rare. All have very readable English subtitles written by Allen Lewis Rickman, a Yiddishist who appeared in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. Also there are many extras.
Two of the most noteworthy films were made in Eastern Europe just before Hitler moved into Poland. Mir Kumen On is a documentary – the only documentary in the set. It shows the progressive treatment given to sick children at a sanitorium in Poland. The filmmaker, Aleksander Ford, was a native of Kiev, Ukraine, and his skillful editing reminds viewers of the city symphony style documentaries such as Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. Tragically, most all the children seen in the film were murdered by the Nazis within a couple years of the making of Mir Kumen On.
The Dybbuk is a classic of the Yiddish cinema, a fine art film shot in Poland. The direction is by Michal Waszynski, a prolific filmmaker from Russo-Poland. I cannot think of another film that is so rich in a mystical kind of Ashkenazi Jewish folklore. Based on the famous 1914 play by S. Ansky, The Dybbuk tells the tale of two friends who plan the marriage of their unborn children, something unacceptable to their religion. Years later, the children suffer from that error. The boy, a Yeshivah bucher (scholar) is so desperate to marry his beloved that he turns to the dark arts, the Kaballah. As a result, his cherished sweetheart is plagued by demons with which only the strongest-willed rabbi can crush.
The other films were produced in the New York and New Jersey area. Tevya tells the story of a poor milkman and his wife and daughters. Yes, it’s a version of Sholem Aleichem’s tale which became Fiddler on the Roof. Coming along when the suffering of European Jews was extreme, this version focuses on the antisemitic elements of the story. Tevya stars Maurice Schwartz, the founder of the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York City, an expressionist actor, a great actor, known as the Olivier of the Yiddish Theater.
Motel the Operator is a heartfelt melodrama of a poor Lower East Side garment worker, his wife and their sick baby. If it doesn’t make you cry, well I don’t know…. The Yiddish King Lear also is a tear-jerker, a story close to the Shakespeare drama based a significant Yiddish theater piece from 1892 by the esteemed playwright Jacob Gordin. It’s a film where the content far excels the horrible production values. American Matchmaker is a comedy starring Leo Fuchs, known as the Yiddishe Fred Astaire. Unfortunately, The image quality is unacceptable. Eli Eli is worth noting for the beautiful cantorial singing of Moishe Oysher.
I started studying and preserving Yiddish films in the late 1970s when I was at The American Film Institute, along with Sharon Rivo at The National Center for Jewish Film. The first time I heard the voice of my late husband Rob was on a phone call around 1980 when he interviewed me about Yiddish films for a magazine article he was writing. I love these films, and even though a few of the ten titles neither are of good quality image-wise nor in original content, each title in the Jewish Soul collection has meaning to me. Each holds a share of Jewish essence, Yiddishkeit.
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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