Trailblazing Yiddish Action Flick Makes Waves

By Anthony Weiss

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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In December 2005, two Orthodox brothers from Monsey, N.Y. — Yakov and Mendel Kirsh — released “A Gesheft” (“The Deal”), the first Yiddish feature film to come out of the ultra-Orthodox world, and one of very few Yiddish movies made since 1950. The movie was carefully constructed to include nothing trayf, or unacceptable — no cursing, no serious violence and, above all, no women.

However, it appears that not everybody is a fan.

Despite the brothers’ attempts to project a scrupulous image for the film — they even named their production company Kosher Entertainment — “A Gesheft” attracted the ire of at least one anonymous objector. The person, or persons, published an advertisement in two Orthodox Yiddish newspapers, Der Blatt and Der Yid, denouncing the movie as a corrupting influence.

The advertisement, published in Yiddish and unsigned, warns community members that not only does the film “contain non-kosher and forbidden material, it is also an opening to the Yiddish Theater, which caused a great catastrophe for Judaism in the ‘Enlightened’ countries where it crept in.” The advertisement goes on to say, “We must fight this with all our might, because if we are quiet now, we will all see each other in the theater, God forbid.” The same text also appeared on posted fliers in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn and in Monsey.

Producer Mendel dismissed the advertisement as the work of “real fanatics.” His brother, Yakov, who wrote and directed the film, said he found the advertisement surprisingly weak. “I expected a signature,” he told the Forward. The brothers said they had seen no follow-up and that nobody had approached them personally to raise the same objections.

The DVD cover of the film does offer the warning, “Suitable for Adults.” Yakov explained that the film “has some scary stuff,” including a kidnapping, a woman who dies of fright (played by a man whose face is covered with a sheet) and a car crash. “It’s not for small children,” he said.

Samuel Heilman, a sociologist of American Jewry at Queens College, said that the advertisement drew on old fears in the ultra-Orthodox world. “The idea of Yiddish theater is a throwback to when Yiddish was a part of the mainstream. That secularist, socialist, Yiddishist world was the diametrical opposite of Hasidism.” Heilman noted that the Yiddish word for “enlightened” used in the advertisement — maskilic — is a pejorative term in the ultra-Orthodox world, the opposite of “religious.”

He also suggested that the prospect of a theater could be perceived as another, more direct threat to the morals of the community. “If you get a group of people, men and women, sitting together in a dark room, it doesn’t take too much imagination to guess what could happen.”

Chaim Waxman, a sociologist at Rutgers University, suggested that the movie might be particularly threatening to some ultra-Orthodox Jews because it is in Yiddish. “People might think if it’s in Yiddish, that makes it kosher.”

According to film critic and Yiddish film historian Jim Hoberman, a Yiddish film industry did flourish in the early part of the 20th century, in the United States and in Poland, but the films were all for a secular audience. Though not hostile to religious Jews, as Yiddish theater often was, the films had little religious content. World War II destroyed the Yiddish film industry. “By 1950, it was pretty much all over,” Hoberman said. Only a few scattered Yiddish films have been made since then, none of them by ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Waxman said that the appearance of an Orthodox, Yiddish film was part of a significant change in the Orthodox world in recent years as the community has come to embrace a variety of cultural products, including music, fiction and even theater, that would have been eschewed by generations past.

The brothers were raised as Vishnitzer Hasidim. Yakov still considers himself a Hasid, though he is now unaffiliated, and Mendel, though Orthodox, does not consider himself a Hasid. Yakov is a bookkeeper for a construction firm, while Mendel works in real estate. They spent $30,000 of their own money on the film and estimate that they have earned back half, having sold about 1,500 copies.

Yakov said he was influenced by some mainstream American movies, including “Braveheart,” a film by another director whose work has created controversy with its exploration of religious themes: Mel Gibson.

Though neither of the Kirsh brothers had any interest in Yiddish theater or in Yiddish cultural history, the film’s editor, Roland Millman, is a Yiddishist who previously had produced two other films in Yiddish — “Shvitz!” a fitness video, and “No Shmaltz,” a cooking video. Millman suggested that the advertisements phrased the objections in terms of Yiddish theater — long dead, in a commercial sense — because they had no other way in which to talk about the threat. For his part, Millman would be quite happy to see a revival of Yiddish theater, but he sadly noted, “I don’t think they have much to fear.”

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