Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Culture

Film Forum’s Yiddish Film Series Speaks To The Jewish Soul

New York’s Film Forum set itself a real challenge in naming its series on Yiddish Cinema something as definitive as “The Jewish Soul.”

Who could agree on what that soul looks like — and how could any lineup do justice to its ancient nature? While not comprehensive, the six films, presented by Kino Lorber from May 26 through July 3 in new restorations by Lobster Films and with new subtitles by Yiddishist and actor Allen Lewis Rickman, broach many of the concerns of mid-century Jews and Jews today.

Intermarriage? It’s covered in 1939’s “Tevya” directed by, written by and starring Yiddish Art Theater founder Maurice Schwartz in the title role. The film, the first non-English movie preserved by the National Film Registry, focuses on Sholem Aleichem’s dairyman’s daughter Chava, who marries outside the faith. This version of the story — whose production overlapped with Hitler’s invasion of Poland — is less ambiguous than Sholem Aleichem’s, having Chava return to her family and faith and renounce her Christian husband in no uncertain terms. It’s sure to stir that old conversation about Jewish continuity.

Familial duty also gets it due in Joseph Siden’s 1940 Second Avenue-style entertainment, “Her Second Mother,” about a young woman (Esta Salzman) who confesses to a crime she didn’t commit to save her adoptive family from disgrace. It gets a happy ending and some laughs courtesy of the feuding, catchphrase-loving Kupperman clan (Jacob Zanger and Yetta Zwerling) who sing tunes by “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn” composer Sholom Seconda.

Also in the mode of musical comedy is Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1940 film “American Matchmaker,” which addresses the perennial question: “When will you settle down with a nice Jewish girl?” Nat Silver (Leo Fuchs), giving up on love, decides to try his hand at the shadchen business and ends up finding his match along the way in the form of a free-spirited client.

Max Nosseck’s 1940 film “Overture to Glory” is a darker riff on “The Jazz Singer.” A young cantor from Vilna (Moyshe Oysher) leaves his wife and young child for the secular world of the Warsaw opera, meeting fame and fortune at a great personal cost. Filmed in the thick of World War II, the film’s extensive cantorial segments read as an elegy for a disappearing world.

Taking its cue from German Expressionism, Michal Waszynski’s “The Dybbuk” from 1937 adapts S. Ansky’s popular play about a young woman (Lilli Liliana) possessed by the spirit of her dead lover. With ghoulish sequences, including a danse macabre, the film established Waszynski as a capable heir to his old mentor, F.W. Murnau.

Perhaps the most interesting film on the program is also the shortest, Aleksander Ford’s early work “Mir Kumen On (Children Must Laugh)” from 1936. With a cast of children who would grow up to be Bundists — many taking part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — the film shows daily life at an idyllic tuberculosis sanatorium for the children of Jewish workers. With sequences that owe a debt to the Soviet School of Montage, the hour-long feature was banned in its native Poland as communist propaganda. It’s an 83-year-old picture that presents that most timely of talking points: Socialized medicine.

Best viewed with relatives of different generations, Film Forum’s series is sure to provoke spirited debate, an essential form of nourishment for the Jewish soul.

A previous version of this article shortened Sholem Aleichem’s name to “Aleichem.” As a two word pseudonym, Sholem Aleichem is the correct attribution.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected].

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.