The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema (Kino Lorber, NR)

Film is a mass communications medium, and attention often focuses on those films intended for the broad markets—in particular, the tentpole films that draw huge audiences and bring in the big bucks. But there’s another aspect of film that is at least as important—its ability to communicate to subgroups whose lives are never considered when the tentpole films are being planned. And because, given proper preservation, film is a lasting medium, non-mainstream films can offer later audiences, including those outside the initial target market, with a glimpse into worlds that no longer exist.

Case in point: the films included in Kino Lorber’s collection The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema, which were shot in Poland or the United States and released between 1935 and 1950. These films were selected to provide an overview of Yiddish cinema, so there’s a real range of quality as well as subject matter among them. Some, like The Dybbuk and Tevya, are legitimately good films, while others are mere programmers and some are better classified as “schond” (“trash”), the equivalent of mediocre television programs with no higher purpose than to entertain an audience with familiar tropes.

Michal Waszynski’s The Dybbuk (1937), based on the well-known 1914 play of the same name by Sholom Ansky (the pen name of folklorist and author Shloyme Zaynul Rapoport), incorporates Jewish folklore into a melodramatic story of star-crossed young lovers. It begins with two best friends, Sender (Mojzesc Lipman) and Nisan (Gerszon Lemberger) agreeing that, if one has a son and the other a daughter, those two children will marry. Tragedy intervenes, and the children—Lea (Lili Liliana) to Sender and Chanan (Leon Liebgold) to Nisan— grow up unaware of each other’s existence. Fate brings them together, but Sender wants a better match for his daughter, leading Chanan to invoke the dark arts, which turns him into the title spirit. To modern eyes, the acting in in The Dybbuk may seem stilted and the storytelling schematic, but naturalism was never the goal of this film. In fact, the first and last character you see on screen, Meszulach the messenger (Ajzyk Samberg), has a habit of appearing and disappearing without explanation, as well as issuing warnings which remain unheeded. The Dybbuk is distinguished by the expressionistic cinematography of Albert Wywerka as well as Waszynski’s direction and Henryk Kon’s soundtrack.

Aleksander Ford’s documentary Mir Kumen An (1936), was commissioned to raise money for the Medem Sanatorium near Warsaw, which cared for Jewish children and young adults stricken with or at risk for tuberculosis. It was banned by the Polish government as communist propaganda (which is pretty much what it is—the sanitarium was founded by the Labor Bund and life there is presented in the film as a proto-Kibbutz run by children), but a negative smuggled to France ensured its survival.  Mir Kumen An (“We Are Coming,” although the film was released in the U.S. as Children Must Laugh) is interesting today as a piece of benign propaganda, contrasting the stressful, unhealthy lives of the urban poor versus the sun-drenched, joyous life of the sanitarium. The film’s style is also noteworthy, as it relies heavily on montage and pantomime, a choice possibly dictated by difficulties in recording simultaneous dialogue in the field.

Edgar Ulmer, best known today for the film noir Detour (1945), also directed four Yiddish films. The last of those four, the 1940 Americaner Schadchen (American Matchmaker), is a low-budget (opening with stock footage is a dead giveaway) comedy about a rich and good-looking factory owner, Nat Silver (Leo Fuchs, a.k.a. “The Yiddish Fred Astaire”), who just can’t seem to get himself hitched. He finally decides to go into match-making himself, and you can guess what happens from there. Americaner Schadchen is one of the programmers included in this set—not a great film, but a Yiddish analogue to the many B-pictures cranked out by Hollywood at this time. Among other things, this type of film gave Jews the chance to enjoy a story featuring lots of suave, prosperous characters from their own ethnic group, while also touching on questions like assimilation versus tradition. As is true of many of the films in this collection, several songs somewhat improbably punctuate the action, a choice seen more often in European films of the day than in those from Hollywood.

Max Nosseck’s Overture to Glory (1940) is another programmer, this time starring Moyshe Oysher as Yoel Duvid Strashunsky, a cantor whose love of opera is considered shameful within his separtist religious world. You could call it “the Jewish Jazz Singer” (as Dave Tarras was “the Jewish Benny Goodman” and Gunther Schuller “the Leonard Bernstein of music”), as the two films share similar elements, but find a different balance among them. Oysher was a real-life cantor and well-known Yiddish theatre actor, and this film makes the most of his voice and presence, beginning with an opening scene of a religious service that runs nearly 10 minutes. Fine camera work by Don Malkames and Larry Williams complement the strength of Oysher’s voice, the latter being what really carries this film.

Maurice Schwartz’s Tevya (1939) is based on several stories by Sholom Aleichem. The same stories also served as source material for the musical Fiddler on the Roof, although matters take a different turn in this version (so call it “the Jewish Fiddler”). Schwartz stars as the loquacious milkman, whose daughter Khave (Miriam Riselle) has attracted the attention of a local Gentile boy, Fedye (Leon Liebgold), with whom she shares a love of books. She’s too young to understand the consequences of her choices, which arrive with a severity particularly startling if you’re more familiar with Sheldon Harnick’s gentler treatment of this material. Tevya, despite the melodramatic plot, feels surprisingly modern, thanks to naturalistic acting, lots of outdoor shooting (on Long Island), and a soundtrack by Sholom Secunda (who supplied music for many of these films, and is most often remembered today as the composer of the popular song “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein”).

Harry Thomashefsky’s The Yiddish King Lear (1935), based on a popular play by Jacob Gordin, sticks close to its origins in a touring production by the Yiddish unit of the Federal Theatre project. The story opens in Vilna in 1892, as wealthy merchant Dovid Moysheles (Maurice Krohner) celebrates Purim with his wife Khane-Lea (Fanny Levenstein), his comical servant Shamay (Edward Pascal), and a table of family and friends. Songs are sung, spirits are drunk, and gifts are distributed. The two eldest daughters, Etele (Jeannette Paskewich) and Gitele (Esther Scher), stick to the script and effusively thank their father, but the youngest, Taybele (Miriam Grossman), refuses hers, saying she doesn’t approve of personal ornamentation. Like their Shakespearean counterparts, Taybele doesn’t have much grasp of ceremony, while Dovid doesn’t have much self-awareness or insight, traits that combine with predictable consequences when he announces he’s giving up his wealth and moving to the Holy Land. Tears will be jerked, but ultimately The Yiddish King Lear comes down on the side of the modern world of secular education and science.

Joseph Seiden founded Judea Films, which produced the first Yiddish “talkies” in America, and played a part in five of the ten films in this collection: he’s credited as “production supervisor” for The Yiddish King Lear and as producer and director for Her Second Mother (1940), Motel the Operator (1939), Eli Eli (1940) and Three Daughters (1950). The last four films are pure schund, interesting not for their artistic merit but as examples of what captured the interest of contemporary audiences, and also because they preserve performances by a number of actors who worked in the Yiddish theatre.

Her Second Mother is a domestic melodrama in which an adopted child tries to save the family from disgrace after her sister becomes involved with a no-goodnik. It’s a real emotional roller-coaster ride, featuring fast-paced dialogue in Yiddish and English, broad stereotypes, and amazing coincidences, all presented so statically it might as well be a three-camera sitcom. Motel the Operator (1940) is a social issues melodrama about a sweatshop laborer (Chaim Tauber) who suffers a serious injury during a strike that leaves him unable to work. As the family descends into destitution, his wife Esther (Malvina Rappel) sees no option but to allow a rich family to adopt their child, before killing herself—and that’s just the first act. Seiden lays the emotion on with a trowel in Her Second Mother, the effects heightened by Sholem Secunda’s expressive soundtrack.

Seiden ventures out of the city in Eli Eli (1940), a melodrama about filial ingratitude. An elderly couple, Mendel and Hannah Shapiro (Lazar Freed and Esther Field, the latter billed as “The Yiddishe Mama”), are threatened with the loss of their farm if they can’t scrape up the mortgage payment by tomorrow. Surely their prosperous adult children will help? Ah, but just as their cynical neighbor Michel (Max Badin) predicted, it’s King Lear all over again, as Mendel and Hannah are forced to sell the farm and live separately, one with a daughter in Philadelphia and the other with a son in New York. Things get worse from there, until fate twists to provide a conclusion straight from the plot-o-matic. Seiden went to the well once too often with Three Daughters (1950), a comedy about a family that’s made good and moved to the suburbs, where they struggle to find a balance between traditional and assimilated values. Based on a play by Avraham Blum, this film is not so much bad as ill-timed, with little public interest for a film made in an irredeemably old-fashioned style. In fact, Three Daughters never had a theatrical release, going instead to the secondary market (community center screenings and such), which was the 1950s equivalent of direct-to-video today.

At the time the films included in The Jewish Soul were made, the target audience was comprised primarily of Ashkenazi Jews in or from Central Europe, and the films drew on material familiar to this audience. Given this “all in the family” context, some of the stereotypes contained in these films (such as the money-obsessed Sender in The Dybbuk) are less offensive than they might be if included, in, say, a Nazi propaganda film. To audiences today, when taken as a whole, these films provide a fascinating time capsule of a culture largely destroyed in the Holocaust. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber; individual titles are available for streaming through Kino Now. The collection includes ten films on five discs, plus a number of extras including four commentary tracks (two by Allen Lewis Rickman, one each by Eve Sicular and J. Hoberman), an alternative version of The Dybbuk, and an illustrated booklet including detailed information about each film, a preface by producer and Lobster Film’s founder Serge Bromberg and essays by actor and cultural historian Allen Lewis Rickman and journalist and historian Samuel Blumenfeld. The quality of the prints and audio tracks varies, due to the quality of the material available; several of the films are prefaced by detailed information about the restoration process.

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