A new film opening this week in New York and Los Angeles is in a language most people — including the film’s director — don’t speak. Filmmaker Naomi Jaye didn’t know a word of Yiddish before making “The Pin,” but her artistic vision called for dialogue exclusively in mammeloshen.
“The Pin,” a love story set against a Holocaust backdrop, is the first Canadian cinematic narrative drama in Yiddish (with English subtitles). An intimate art house film with languid pacing and a deliberate style, it takes place almost entirely in a barn somewhere in Eastern Europe during the war. The exact time and place are undisclosed, and even the names of the two main characters are unknown.
The barn scenes are a flashback in the mind of an elderly shomer, who is asked to watch over a deceased woman’s body overnight until a woman attendant can prepare it for burial the next morning. The shomer recognizes the corpse as the young woman he met while hiding in the barn, and with whom he fell in love before the two were permanently separated and left unaware of each other’s fates.
Not only does Jaye, a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s Directors’ Lab and a successful director of short films, not know Yiddish, she also has no direct relation to the Holocaust. Her grandparents were in England and South Africa during the war years. However, the film did emerge from the director’s family history. In the film, the shomer takes a pin and pricks the hand of his long-lost love. Jaye’s grandmother Leah, like the girl in the barn, had a fear of being buried alive and had asked her son, the filmmaker’s father, to prick her hand with a pin after she had died.
Jaye, 40, was uncompromising about authenticity and insisted on making the film in Yiddish despite the difficulties she faced in drumming up financial support for the production. Eventually, Daniel Bekerman of Scythia Films came on board as co-producer, and shooting began in April 2012 in and around Hamilton, Ontario.
“I am astounded by their performances,” Jaye says of the young actors who play the main characters. “Neither of them knew Yiddish coming in to the film, and by the end they were texting one another using Yiddish words.”
‘Neither of them knew Yiddish coming in to the film, and by the end they were texting one another using Yiddish words’
Considering that it would be next to impossible to find young Canadian actors fluent in Yiddish, Jaye decided to issue a casting call for young actors who were speakers of Eastern European languages. “I figured they would be able to get their mouths around the Yiddish words,” she explains.
Milda Gecaite, 24, scored the role of the young female lead. An actor and dancer, she immigrated to Canada at age 16 from Lithuania and hadn’t even heard of Yiddish before auditioning. The first audition was in English, but then when she got a call back, she was asked to perform a section of dialogue after learning it from a video recording and a transliteration. “I thought, ‘No way am I going to be able to do this,’” she recalls.
Grisha Pasternak, the 22-year-old Ukrainian-born actor who played opposite Gecaite, was also caught off-guard by the Yiddish. “I knew that Yiddish was a language, but that’s about it,” he shares.
Both took up the challenge and impressed Jaye with their ability to properly mimic the sounds of the words and make the dialogue’s meaning clear through their expression. The two took several months of intensive language lessons with Yiddish teacher Ana Berman and worked on learning and memorizing Jaye’s script, which had been translated from English by York University Yiddish professor Gloria Brumer.
“I learned it by ear. I used a layered approach,” Gecaite says. “First I worked on the pronunciation, then I learned the meaning of the words, and at the end I added in the emotions and the acting.”
“Yiddish sounded familiar to me,” Pasternak notes. “I recognized similar roots as in Ukrainian and Russian and I could make linguistic connections.” Still, he admits he faced a steep learning curve and felt somewhat restricted by the lack of opportunity to occasionally ad lib.
Gecaite was surprised to hear words her grandmother had used in speaking to her when she was a little girl, like shpatzir (to walk around, or take a stroll).
Native Yiddish speakers invited to watch advance screenings of “The Pin” were impressed. “I thought it was really well done,” said Sol Hermolin, of Toronto’s Yiddish Vinkl, a decades-old group for Yiddish speakers. “I thought the actors had Yiddish backgrounds. I only found out that they didn’t after I saw the film.”
According to Hermolin, the Yiddish was so well acted, that he was able to focus completely on the film’s drama. “It was so tense. I wanted to find out whether the young couple would survive,” he says.
Pasternak is amazed by how it all came together. “I was surprised by how it turned out. I don’t usually like to watch myself on screen, but this time I got pulled in to it and forgot it was me up there,” he says about watching the finished film.
The actor was fairly familiar with Holocaust history from his studies in Toronto public schools, but he did do some additional brushing up on the subject by watching movies like “The Pianist,” the 2002 critically acclaimed film by Roman Polanski.
“The Holocaust is outside the world of the barn,” he says about “The Pin.” “It informs the characters’ decisions, but the film is really more about the survival, the desperation and the desolation of these young people. My character doesn’t know the whole Holocaust experience, the camps and the torture. All he knows is that his parents have been killed.”
Although it is unclear exactly where the film is set, Gecaite felt it was important to find “a true place I could connect to,” in preparing for her role.
“It was happening all over Eastern Europe, does it really matter exactly where it was?” she asks. For her, it made sense to focus on her native Lithuania.
Gecaite did not know about Jewish history and culture in Lithuania before embarking on this project. “I wanted a more in-depth picture of what was happening in my country at the time. My ancestors were probably connected in some way,” she suggests.
She ended up going to Vilnius right before shooting on “The Pin” began. There, she visited a Jewish center and met some people who helped her out with historical background and suggested specific readings. “I’m glad I learned this for myself,” she shares.
“I went through an internal battle; I am Lithuanian, but here I was trying to assimilate into to another culture that could be upset with me,” she reflected about playing a Jewish girl and speaking Yiddish.
The making of “The Pin” was an intense personal journey for everyone involved. Jaye is “one hundred percent” glad she made the film. But would she do it all over again? “Maybe not, because it was so hard,” she admits. “Every step of the way was a hundred times harder than I expected.”
But then again, being a trailblazer is usually never easy. Perhaps the fact that “The Pin” was screened at The Cannes Film Festival and has gained distribution is a sign that we may see more new Yiddish films in the future.
And will Jaye finally learn Yiddish herself? “I would be interested in learning,” she says. “It’s an extremely expressive language. It’s very alive.”