Remembering Molly Picon, Yiddish Cinderella
A sparkling gem of the New York Jewish Film Festival is the U.S. premiere of the restored Joseph Green-Konrad Tom’s 1938 Yiddish film “Mamele.”
Starring Molly Picon, the 5-foog-tall, 100 lb. phenom of Yiddish stage and screen, the film is set in Poland’s textile hub of Lodz, but was shot in just six weeks on a Warsaw back lot.
Picon’s character Khavtsi, a daughter of a ne’er do well widower, is dubbed “mamele” (little mother) as she tirelessly caters to a seven-strong, unappreciative and demanding family. A Yiddish Cinderella, Picon shops, schleps, cooks, cleans, dreams of love and is the ”go to” person when someone has a problem — be it romance, or rescuing a youngster caught up in a shady scheme.
The setting is urban, the young men and women are 1930s fashionably dressed. There is nightclubbing, drinking, double-dealing, and– a handsome sweet musician across the courtyard. As tireless as the Energizer bunny, Picon is so delicious and quirky, you want to give her a knip in bekl (pinch her cheek).
In a dreamlike montage, she morphs — in stages — from a dancing little girl to a frail 78-year old dancing with her fingers and bobbing her head. Picon also launches the hit song “Abi Gezunt” (as long as you are healthy) which has become a standard for Yiddish performers down the decades. As for the romantic finale — it involves a scene-stealing ketzele (kitten) which will have cat lovers purring.
In his invaluable 2011 reference “Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film — Past and Present,” film maven Eric Goldman, founder and president of Ergo Media, notes that in 1976, as curator at YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research) “my first task was to work with 35 mm nitrite prints” on preserving ‘Mamele’ whose original negative was lost in Poland during the war. It has been restored with new English subtitles, by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University.
Though I had seen “Mamele” as a child in Warsaw, my encounters with Picon included the 1979 Queens College Sholem Aleichem Festival at which she got a standing ovation as she walked down the aisle to her seat! In 1982 I visited her at her Lincoln Center apartment for a Forward interview where she greeted me with a headstand in the doorway having just finished jumping rope.
Changing out of her stretch pants, she insisted on dressing up for the Forverts photo. Covering her long career with her husband —fellow actor Joseph Kalish — Picon recalled meeting Chaim Weizmann at Baden Baden where she performed; her trips to Israel (where she adopted four children) and meeting Golda Meir and Henrietta Szold. She and her husband entertained survivors in DP Camps.
“People came to see me, who had seen my films all over Europe. They’d call out:” Molly! “Gedenkst”(remember!) Vienna!. Warsaw! Kishinev!“
Explaining her palpable appeal, Picon cited a French poet who, despite an entourage of young beautiful mistresses, kept introducing his old mistress. “His explanation,” said Picon “ was ‘she had my youth’— and I have the youth of all these people [worldwide].”
Picon succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 1992.