Using Yiddish As Her Map, A Filmmaker Finds a Couch

By Pearl Gluck

Published April 25, 2003, issue of April 25, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In 1995, the documentary filmmaker Pearl Gluck traveled to Hungary on a Fulbright grant to work on a film on the power and origins of Yiddish storytelling in the chasidic tradition. In the end, instead of making a documentary about storytelling, she produced “Divan,” a chasidic story in the form of a documentary — about her great-grandfather’s couch. It premieres this month at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Yiddish is a map. Those with an ear for it can identify your roots by the Yiddish you speak — whether it’s from Poland, Hungary, Ukraine or Coney Island. My own Yiddish is from Rohod, Hungary, where Yiddish might not have been a primary language, but it was certainly prevalent in the northeastern region where most of the Hungarian chasidim lived. This is how I explained to the Fulbright Commission, which requires individuals to speak the language of the country they are studying, why it was sufficient for me to speak Yiddish (and not Hungarian) to conduct research on chasidic storytelling in Hungary.

The Fulbright Commission took a chance and awarded me the project. I was able to get around in the Jewish landscape of past and present-day Hungary, but in the end I needed to learn Hungarian anyway: My Yinglish (Boro Park Yiddish) was packed with English, and their Yiddish, unmoved for 50 years, was peppered with Hungarian. There were times when an interviewee and I, both of us native Yiddish speakers, could barely understand each other.

I was determined to research in situ, in the region where the stories originated and were told. I wanted to take an ethnographic look at my own heritage. In my case, that meant going to the chasidic landscape of northeast Hungary. I often found myself thinking of shirayim, the leftovers from the rebbe’s plate coveted by his chasidim. If my personal history was the rebbe and the landscape was the plate, then the stories on that plate were the shirayim.

Northeast Hungary was a hotbed of chasidic life from the turn of the 18th century until the close of World War II. The wine trade attracted Galician Jews from Poland, and they migrated south with their rich chasidic heritage and their Yiddish. This was one way Hungary accrued another “ethnic” language to add to its collection of Saxon German, Serbian and Romani dialects, while Yiddish faced a new influence of its own: Hungarian.

Unlike the Polish chasidic sects, Hungarian chasidim still keep their local language vibrant and integrate it into their traditions and language, and much more surprisingly, into the chasidic lore. The signature chasidic song in Hungarian is the famous “Szol A Kakas Mar,” rumored to have been bought from a Hungarian peasant by the first chasidic rebbe of Hungary, Reb Isaac Taub of Kalev (Yiddish for the town of Nagykallo). “Szol A Kakas Mar” is a traditional love song about a bird waiting for its love to redeem it from the lonely forest, an obvious theme for a people separated from their true love, God.

While conducting oral histories in Hungary, my chasidic past began to haunt me. The ruptured trajectory of my own family kept returning. I was raised to get married, have children and build an ultra-Orthodox home. But from the age of 15, I found myself attracted to a less traditional route, and broke away to attend university. In awe of the ruins of the Hungarian Jewish landscape, I turned the camera inward. When I finally got to my great-great-grandfather’s house and saw the famous couch upon which the Kossony rebbe slept, I saw the medium for understanding my own complex relationship with my chasidic legacy. The couch became a magical homage to the rebbes, a sacred memory object, and a concrete tool for a personal and communal cultural archaeology.

Thus, “Divan” emerged. En route to the ancestral divan, I encountered a colorful cast of characters, and the entire tale is framed by formerly ultra-Orthodox men and women in the process of actively reclaiming their Jewish culture, some even through Yiddish. “Divan” is a visual parable that crosses chasidic family heritage with the attempt to culturally re-upholster a couch.

It is ironic that only after stepping out of the chasidic community of my youth was I motivated to revisit my own Yiddish culture. And it’s only after I left the path, as it were, that I found another path paved with literary and secular Yiddish works.

I have two other scripts of narrative films in the works, both written partly in Yiddish: One focuses on the secular world of the Yiddish theater, and the other is nestled in the Carpathian Mountains in the inter-war period. If I took one of the main characters from the first and put him in conversation with a main character of the second, even though both would speak “fluent” Yiddish, these characters would not necessarily understand each other.

Precisely this phenomenon is what attracts me to the terrain of Yiddish, and it is why these projects represent what I think it means to keep a language alive.






Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.