In 1950, the great actor, producer and Yiddish theater impresario Maurice Schwartz closed down his Yiddish Art Theater in New York. Demand for Yiddish theater had waned. That same year, what were believed to be the last Yiddish language feature movies to be made were released. They were Josef Berne’s “Catskill Honeymoon” and Joseph Seiden’s “Monticello, Here We Come!” While Yiddish theater would haltingly continue, Yiddish cinema seemed over.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, three film students — Josh Waletzky, Sally Heckel and David Greenwald, put Yiddish language in their short films in effort to resuscitate a once vibrant film genre in Poland, the U.S.S.R. and the United States, beginning an effort that continues today with creation of numerous Yiddish shorts along with cooking, fitness and music videos, many posted on YouTube. Then just over 30 years after the presumed demise of Yiddish cinema, a feature narrative was produced by an unconventional Belgian filmmaker who felt that the only way to tell his story on film was in Yiddish. It marked a new beginning.
The release of Keith Thomas’ “The Vigil” marks 50 years since the start of the renaissance of Yiddish cinema. Numerous filmmakers in Europe, Israel and North America have turned to Yiddish as the suitable and correct language for their films and I expect there to be many more. Here are ten for your consideration.
1) “Brussels-Transit” (1981)
Samy Szlingerbaum, whose Holocaust survivor parents found themselves homeless and stateless after World War II, made their way to Brussels in search of a safe home. They were not welcome. This young filmmaker who came for several months with his friend Chantal Akerman to New York to learn from some of the most creative experimental filmmakers in the world, returned home to Belgium to put his parents’ story onto film. The motion picture is largely a compilation of avant-garde moving images with Yiddish narration, the only feature film he directed. Screened at festivals around the world, it was chosen to have its New York premiere at the Museum of Modern Art as part of its prestigious New Directors/New Films series. Tragically, Szlingerbaum died of AIDS a few years after.
2)“Az Men Git, Nemt Men” (Giveaway, 1983)
The early Zionist leaders saw no place for Yiddish in the establishment of a Jewish state and Yiddish was soundly rejected as a language and culture. When the first Yiddish sound movie opened in Tel Aviv in 1930, the theater was smoke-bombed and the film was only allowed to be screened with sound turned off. Though efforts to create Yiddish theater over the years had been thwarted, the arrival of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants and a new generation of Israelis invested in multiculturalism rekindled interest in Yiddish culture. Israeli director Alfred Steinhardt and writer Michael Greenspan brought together a number of actors, including the incomparable Yaakov Bodo and Yaakov Alperin, and created the first Israeli Yiddish feature. Five years later, Yiddishpiel theater was created with public and private funding.
3) “Solomon and Gaenor” (1999)
Paul Morrison is a Jewish psychotherapist living in London who also makes documentary films. While doing research for a documentary series, “A Sense of Belonging” about British Jewry, he discovered that there was a Jewish community in Wales. He also found that there were antisemitic riots in South Wales in 1911 and this became the centerpiece for a “Romeo and Juliet”-type romance between a Welsh man from an Orthodox Jewish family, and a church-going woman from a neighboring town. Morrison wanted a realism that was reflected in religious, cultural, and language disparities between the Welsh-speaking family of Gaenor and Yiddish-speaking family of Solomon. He saw inclusion of Yiddish language as “an act of reclamation for him.” The film was an Academy award finalist for Best Foreign Language motion picture. He has since made another Jewish-themed film, “Wondrous Oblivion” and is working on a third, “The Leningrad Gig.”
Yiddish language became a centerpiece for the early work of French writer/director Emmanuel Finkiel. He was fascinated by the world of Yiddish speakers, a world in which he grew up, and made his first film, a 38-minute short, “Madame Jacques on the Croisette,” shot in Cannes. The film, which won France’s academy award, a César for best short film, spurred him to audition Yiddish speakers for what would be his first feature. That film, “Voyages,” mostly in Yiddish, focused on the lives of Holocaust survivors and garnered Finkiel three more Césars. Most recently, Finkiel inserted a Yiddish lullaby sung by one his Yiddish-speaking actors in his film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ novel “La douleur,” released here as “Memoir of War.” Duras’ novel contained no such Yiddish singer.
5)“A Gesheft” (The Deal, 2005)
For years, Yiddish theater and cinema were treyf in the ultra-Orthodox world, though for most Yiddish was their mame-loshn, their mother tongue. That began to change a few decades ago, as Haredim began to mount not only shpiels for Purim, but Yiddish plays for basic entertainment. Two brothers, Mendy and Yakov Kirsh saw a way to use movies to teach midos — good character traits and love of Jewish tradition, and they put together a film about one of their own who goes rogue. The thrust was to push the notion that there was a way back into the fold for wayward Jews, teshuvah was available, no matter what indiscretions may have been committed.
6)“A Serious Man” (2009)
Going into the movie theater to see a Coen Brothers movie and watching a seven minute prologue set over a century ago in some Eastern European shtetl was quite a surprise. Even more noteworthy was that this mainstream film began with a quote from Biblical commentator Rashi, followed by a story unfolding with actors on screen speaking in Yiddish with English subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It was clear that the two brothers wanted to capture a realist picture of Jewish life at a bygone time. They chose three actors with strong Yiddish theater experience — Fyvush Finkel, Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson for the part, with Rickman helping to rewrite the Yiddish to make it more flowing. Whether this prologue set the stage for the rest of the film, set in 1960s suburban Minneapolis, is left for the viewer to consider.
7) “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” (2010)
Eve Annenberg met Lazer Weiss and Malky Weisz, along with a number of individuals who had left their Ultra-Orthodox world behind in Brooklyn and were hoping to find a place within the artistic community. Working together with them, she crafted a film about a graduate student trying with the help of these two to craft a Yiddish translation of the “Romeo and Juliet” story. As they work together, the two are introduced by this student to an author about whom they knew nothing, along with concepts like romantic love that were totally foreign to them. A film within a film unfolds as Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues become Satmar and Bobover Hasidim, with this intersection of worlds producing often comic moments together with classic tragedy.
8)“The Pin” (2013)
Canadian film director Naomi Jaye did not know a word of Yiddish before she embarked on her first feature. But after deciding she wanted to make a film about two young people trapped in a barn during World War II, she realized that they would only speak to each other in Yiddish, not Lithuanian. Finding no Yiddish-speaking actors with whom she was comfortable, she put out a casting call for foreign-language actors who were willing to learn a new language. Interestingly, with a scene reminiscent of Keith Thomas’s Yiddish horror film “The Vigil” made eight years later, the film begins with a man acting as a shomer, watching over a corpse. He realizes that the dead body is that of a woman with whom he fell in love fifty years early and this sets into motion the film’s narrative. Despite a strong Yiddish-speaking community and Yiddish taught in many Jewish schools across the country, this is the first and only Canadian feature-length movie shot in Yiddish.
Amos Gitai has established himself as one of Israel’s most important and influential film directors, with his work being touted at retrospectives at museums and festivals across the globe. As a trained architect, his films have often challenged the conventions of cinema language and style. He was inspired by Aharon Appelfeld’s part-autobiographical novel because of the novelist’s experiences trying to survive the war and how, as the writer told Philip Roth, “he removed the story of his life from the mighty grip of memory and gave it over to the creative laboratory.” Tsili is young woman hiding in the forests south of Czernowicz in the Ukraine, finding security in nature, when a young man discovers her. Only when he speaks to her in Yiddish does she realize that she remains safe. There was little doubt for Gitai that this film had to largely be in Yiddish. At a screening of the film at Stanford University, Gitai told students that “since Yiddish is on the verge of being extinct, I want to preserve its memory.”
10) “Menashe” (2017)
Four years ago, documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein made his first narrative film about a Hassidic widower who, refusing to remarry, has his son taken away from him. The filmmaker based the story on the precarious situation faced by widower Menashe Lustig who had moved back home to Brooklyn from England, only to have the local rabbi declare him an unfit parent. Lustig had already made a few short comedic YouTube videos and when approached by Weinstein to play himself, he agreed on the condition that the film would be a “kosher” movie, with no violence or the touching of women. Piercing that essentially impenetrable world of the ultra-Orthodox and shooting locally as surreptitiously as possible, this Yiddish-language movie made its way to the Sundance Film Festival. Most recently, Lustig had the role of Reb Shulem, the individual who shepherds Yacov to the home of the deceased, in “The Vigil.”
Eric Goldman is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University and author of “Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present.” He hosts “Jewish Cinematheque,” seen and streamed on JBS-TV.