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A tale of horrors joins a Yiddish film renaissance

It’s been a long time coming — a horror film set in a Hasidic section of Brooklyn, where much of the dialogue is in Yiddish. Films that deal with the supernatural are certainly no stranger to Jewish lore and culture. Since the advent of cinema, there have been several films made about dybbuks, demons and golems, movies produced in Europe, Israel and the United States, movies in Hebrew, Polish, French, English, and now once again in Yiddish.

In his debut feature film “The Vigil,” film director Keith Thomas trains his camera lens on the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, where an OTD Jew (or “off the derech” — a term that refers to a Jew who has left the Hasidic world), is in search of a different life.

Over the last few decades, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world has drawn the attention of many North American filmmakers. In 1992, Sidney Lumet directed “A Stranger Among Us,” in which Melanie Griffith plays a New York City policewomen who ventures into a Hasidic world for which she is completely unprepared. Six years later, Boaz Yakin made “A Price Among Rubies,” where Renée Zellweger’s character Sonia felt constricted by the rules and restrictions of her Hasidic community. In 2003, Adam Vardy, in “Mendy,” took a close look at an OTD individual who struggles with his new life outside the community. In John Turturro’s 2013 “Fading Gigolo,” Turturro’s character Floravante falls for the widow of ultra-Orthodox rabbi. The following year, Maxime Giroux’s “Félix et Meira” focused on the complex romance between a French-Canadian man and Hasidic Jewish wife and mother who live just blocks from each other in the Outremont section of Montreal. In Israel, the television series, “Shtisel,” set in a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem will soon air its third season on Netflix.

In “The Vigil,” Keith Thomas focuses on Yacov, a young man who has chosen to break away from his Hasidic upbringing and is struggling with his Jewish identity. We find Yacov in the midst of an otherworldly tussle that takes place during the period after death when a body awaits burial. It is no mistake that the protagonist is named Yacov, after Jacob in the Bible, the patriarch who wrestled with the angels, for this man too is about to undergo a scuffle with transcendent forms.

After death, Jewish tradition calls for a “shomer” to watch over the body prior to burial. Reasons for this tradition go back millenia, when shomrim would stand guard to protect the body from being defiled by animals and vermin. But over the centuries, an additional motive was added, that of soothing the soul of the deceased and protecting against the ghosts of the unburied, something regarded as highly dangerous but noble. There was, as historian Hayyim Schauss noted, “the belief in transmigration of souls in which certain souls passed into another body after death.” Thomas’s “vigil” is the five hours that Yacov (played by Dave Davis) spends watching over the dead body of a Holocaust survivor supposedly laying at rest in his home, in the company of his deceased’s widow who suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in her own world.

But they are not the only ones in that house.

Yiddish language and culture has enjoyed an unlikely renaissance, particularly with Yiddish cinema. Contemporary moviemakers have brought Yiddish dialogue back to the screen in countless films made in France, Israel, Canada and the United States. Much of this is because of a growing interest in delving in the closed world of the Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox Jew.

What began over a century ago in Poland as a means to record Yiddish theater off the stage and circulate it to movie houses across Europe, had become a full-fledged industry in Poland and the United States by the late 1930s, where it flourished in the years prior to World War II. At the same time, film producers in the United States set their sights on a Yiddish-speaking immigrant audience who sought a nostalgic look at a world left behind in Eastern Europe as well as the complexities of adapting to a new life in the “Golden Land.” But that would come to a halt by 1950, the same year that Maurice Schwartz’s acclaimed Yiddish Art Theater in New York would close its doors.

American Jews were beginning to view themselves differently. Having largely recovered from the trauma of World War II, Jews in America, both native and foreign-born, were finding it easy and comfortable to be just as American as their Gentile neighbors. A Yiddish picture, with its language and plot generally tied to an Eastern Europe of a bygone era, was of little interest. The Holocaust had shattered the illusion of nostalgia for the “old country.” A decimated European Jewry was trying to recover and American Jews, more than ever, wanted American culture. Over the next 30 years, Yiddish movies screenings were mainly relegated to nursing homes and senior residences.

In 1980, Belgian filmmaker Samy Szlingerbaum made a Yiddish language feature-length narrative, “Brussels-Transit,” about his family’s experience as refugees after World War II. Heavily influenced by avant-garde and experimental filmmaking of the time, his film would provide a stark contrast to the Yiddish movies made between the world wars, where European Jewish life and culture were generally extolled and where happiness was often connected with the nostalgic concept of returning home to the shtetl. The film provided an incisive study of Jewish homelessness and a postwar European Jewry in search of new identity.

The film’s production coincided with a growing trend toward more authentic and realistic use of language in films. Yolande Zauberman’s “Moi Ivan, Toi Abraham” (1993) about a friendship between a Jewish child and an older Christian boy, set in a 1930s Polish town, included Yiddish with Polish, Russian and Romany. In Paul Morrison’s 1999 Oscar-nominated British film “Solomon and Gaenor,” characters speak in Welsh and Yiddish. French filmmaker Emmanuel Finkiel focused on the lives of elderly Yiddish-speaking Jews who come together on the Promenade in Cannes in his short film “Madame Jacques sur la Croisette” (1996). Brazilian director Cao Hamburger used Yiddish to show the disconnect between generations in his moving 2006 film, “O Ano em Que Meus Pais Sairam de Férias” (The Year My Parents Went on Vacation).

In 2009, Joel and Ethan Coen presented a 7-minute prologue, set in a 19th-century Polish shtetl, to open their film “A Serious Man,” with the three characters speaking Yiddish. The next year, Eve Annenberg placed a tragic Shakespearian love story in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community and made “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish.” Four years ago, filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein made a docu-narrative, largely in Yiddish, about a Hasidic widower who, refusing to remarry, has his son taken away from him. It starred Menashe Lustig playing himself. and Lustig is now back in “The Vigil,” playing Reb Shulem, the individual who shepherds Yacov, in Yiddish, to the deceased’s home.

When relating a story set during the Holocaust, Canadian Naomi Jaye chose Yiddish for dialogue in her 2013 film “The Pin,” the story of two young people experiencing loss and love during World War II. The next year, celebrated Israeli director Amos Gitai adapted Aharon Appelfeld’s Hebrew novel “Tsili” about a young girl living in the shadow of the Holocaust, with the protagonists speaking Yiddish. Gitai told a group of Stanford students that year, “Since Yiddish is on the verge of being extinct, I want to preserve its memory.”

But when it comes to movies being made about Hasidim whose native tongue is Yiddish, preservation is not at issue, but rather use of a living language spoken throughout the world. As the characters do speak Yiddish, is it not correct to have them speak that language on the screen? We have seen that Yiddish has gained greater use in movies these past two decades, with “The Vigil” being only the latest film to do so. Yiddish is not just a language of the Holocaust, the past and the elderly, it is an expressive language that is finding its way into countless movies, particularly where the lingua franca of the protagonists.

In the classic Polish-made 1937 Yiddish film classic, “The Dybbuk,” a malevolent spirit leaves the body of a yeshiva student, deprived the love of his “bashert” — his intended, only to take over her body and spirit. The yeshiva student is not content with the life of his yeshiva community and searches for new meaning outside, eventually leading to his death. His spirit will need to be exorcized from her body, with tragic consequences.

In Thomas’s “The Vigil,” Yacov has also left his traditional Jewish life and is trying to come to grips with a dissimilar world where men are not matched with women, but rather ask them out for a date. He, like Honen, the protagonist in “The Dybbuk,” is left between two worlds. When asked to watch a dead body those five hours before the undertakers come, Yacov understands that he is there to protect the soul of the deceased, lingering in an anomalous state, at a time when the body is believed to be vulnerable to evil spirits. Indeed, we watch in terror, while Yacov encounters a “mazik,” a mischievous spirit whose only intention is to cause spiritual injury. Does Yacov have the tools required to not only protect the deceased, but himself? Can he last the five hours?

As Keith Thomas tolx me: “Here’s a guy who is broken in some ways and that brokenness has led him to leaving the community. He’s left; he’s in a new world, and he’s dealing with it. Now he has to go back and that’s a crazy place to put somebody.” That “crazy place” is where we join Yakov for his “vigil,” battling not only the force of a mazik, but struggling with a long history of Jewish enchantment with the supernatural and beyond.

Eric Goldman is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University. His revised and expanded book, “Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present,” was published in 2011 by Holmes and Meier Publishers. He is host of “Jewish Cinematheque” on JBS-TV.

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