by Sarah Schulman
Cut, no. 31, March 1986, p. 42
As a marginal population living within the boundaries of hostile dominant cultures, prewar Jewish life was rarely recorded on film. Because of the nature of assimilation, Jews who worked in the motion picture industry produced works in the language and sensibility of that particular country. Yiddish, the language of Jewish daily life, was the cultural transmitter of a working-class society with little access to the means with which to preserve their lives on film. Yet, between 1910 and 1941, 130 feature films and 30 shorts were made in Yiddish, a language of the Diaspora.
A stage actor, Joseph Green (nee Greenberg) traveled to America in 1923 with the Vilna Troupe. He stayed to play small parts in Hollywood films and worked for four years with the famous Maurice Schwartz Yiddish Arts Theatre in New York City. He was hired to dub an Italian silent JOSEPH IN THE LAND OF EGYPT in Yiddish. The film was so successful with audiences in Canada that Green, who was paid with a print, decided to bring it to Poland, a land of three and a half million Jews who had never seen a Yiddish talkie. Pre-war Poland was the home of a rich and diverse Jewish society that had grown culturally and politically for centuries. As late as 1937 there were 27 Jewish daily newspapers, over 100 weeklies and 58 monthlies, of which 70% were in Yiddish.
Green decided to produce a feature as a vehicle for Molly Picon, a prominent stage comedian. He wrote a musical, YIDL MITN VIOL (YIDDLE WITH A FIDDLE). Presented recently in New York City as part of a Yiddish film festival, this unassuming movie was revealed as a treasure chest of Jewish history. Filmed two years before the Nazi invasion, it contains images of the self-perception of Eastern European Jewry prior to the Holocaust.
The story is an old one, told in ancient Greece, by Shakespeare, and recently in VICTOR/ VICTORIA. A young woman and her father can no longer support themselves, so they take to the road as klezmirim, traveling musicians. Klezmer music, sometimes called "Jewish Jazz," was a secular folk music in Eastern Europe. Because life on the road is not safe for a girl, Yidl dresses as a boy, fooling the other musicians with whom she works and travels. As can be predicted, she falls in love with the violinist, reveals her true gender, and the two live happily ever after.
The story opens in the shtetl, one of the many Jewish peasant towns that existed throughout Europe. We see Yidl playing her fiddle in the marketplace, trying to earn enough money for a roll and herring. Fortunately for the historian, the street scenes were filmed in the Polish town of Kazimiert featuring the inhabitants. Green uses documentary footage of real shtetl life as the backdrop for the story. This gives the filmgoer an opportunity to see an unselfconscious view of a disappeared world. There are clusters of old men arguing in long beards and religious garb. Younger men, with uncovered heads, lead scrawny horses and rickety wagons of potatoes on mud streets. Market scenes provide information about what people wore, the kinds of dishes they ate from, the types of structures they lived in, and the body language of their interactions.
Later, as our heroine moves on to Warsaw, the difference between rural and urban Jewish life are strikingly clear. In Warsaw, Jews look like Poles. We meet concert promoters, society ladies and cultured theatre-goers who all speak Yiddish. In fact, this film's only acknowledgement of the outside dominant society is that signs on the streets and buildings are in Polish. There is no mention or insinuation of anti-semitism, although Poland has a long and constant history of Jewish oppression. The picture painted by this film is that Jews of all classes and life conditions survived in a secure but separate inner sphere. Underlying this, of course, is the knowledge that most of the people who appear in this film as actors, extras and in real life footage were to be exterminated within a few years of the film's completion.
YIDL MITN FIDL provides even more information about Jewish folk culture. The klezmerim play in shtetls throughout the countryside, enabling the audience to enjoy a substantial offering of this unfamiliar music. In one scene, the band is hired to play at the wedding of a rich older man and his young bride. It is an arranged marriage and, as is often the case, the sorrowful bride loves another. To help her escape, the musicians play lively dance music to create a diversion. The wedding party calls out for the bubba, the bride's grandmother, to do a dance from her youth. Thus, we have a rare recording of dance steps as well as the costumes of the Jewish rural upper-class.
The detail I found the most interesting in YIDL MITN FIDL was the surprising information about Jewish aesthetic standards. We are told that the bride is "the most beautiful girl in the village." She is large-boned, plump, with big features and kinky hair. This is a pre-Americanization image of Jewish beauty. Today, an assimilated Jewish woman who looks like this would think of herself as unattractive. I recently noticed an ad for the novel Rivington Street, a fictionalized history of Jewish women on the Lower East Side. The book was released in a mass-market paperback version featuring a cover painting of a woman resembling Jacqueline Bisset as Rachel Cohen. I'm sure that the women on whom the character was based look nothing like this post-immigration representation of Jewish beauty.
YIDL MITN FIDL had enormous success throughout Europe, playing in Vienna, London, Paris, Belgium, Holland and Australia. In Palestine, it was dubbed in Hebrew as part of the anti-Yiddish campaign. It was also the first Yiddish feature to play major theatre chains in the United States like United Artists and Loews. As Yiddish enjoys a new popularity among younger Jews and among scholars and linguists, public interest will make it possible for more treasures to be revealed. The revival of Yiddish film gives us a visual connection to this rich, working-class culture and can contribute to inspiring a commitment to everyday experience that has fueled the fire of so much radical imagination.
For more information on Yiddish film see Judith N. Goldberg's Laughter Through Tears: The Yiddish Cinema (Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 1983).