Film retrospective

Yiddish film season brings back the best, and worst, from old country and new

In NY through July 3, six newly translated and restored movies give up-close look at Jewish life and culture in prewar Europe and America — and even the schlock is worth watching

  • Still from 'Tevya.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
    Still from 'Tevya.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
  • Still from 'Overture to Glory.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
    Still from 'Overture to Glory.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
  • Still from 'Mir Kumen On.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
    Still from 'Mir Kumen On.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
  • Still from 'Her Second Mother.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
    Still from 'Her Second Mother.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
  • Still from 'Dybbuk.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
    Still from 'Dybbuk.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
  • Still from 'American Matchmaker.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)
    Still from 'American Matchmaker.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

NEW YORK — Forget the Avengers, forget Godzilla. The true king of the summer box office in 2019 is Tevye the Dairyman.

Well, at least he is in Lower Manhattan’s art enclave Film Forum during the upcoming retrospective “The Jewish Soul: Classics of Yiddish Cinema.”

Six newly polished translations have emerged from mists of time (thanks in no small part to translator Allen Lewis Rickman) and will screen from Sunday May 26 to Wednesday July 3. The movies, restored by Lobster Films of Paris and presented by Kino Lorber, will undoubtedly make their way around the arthouse circuit after the run. DVD releases are en route as well.

I’ve watched all six and can’t overstate how much everyone should celebrate the endeavor. The movies are diverse in their genres, and all are worth watching. Even the one that’s terrible. We’ll get to that. First let’s look at the list.

“The Dybbuk” (1937) is a spooky, supernatural tale shot in Poland and, most would agree, the greatest achievement in Yiddish movies from a purely cinematic point of view. It’s chilling and creepy — the story involves spiritual possession from beyond the grave — but also evokes the “old world” in nuanced, tactile ways. More than a documentary could, it opens a window to how the prewar shtetls told rich stories to one another. It is an absolute must-see.

“American Matchmaker” (1940) is my second-favorite, a sharp and elegant romantic comedy with music, set in a posh, make-believe New York where a wealthy man (Leo Fuchs, “the Yiddish Fred Astaire”) is a serial bachelor. Tired of romantic rejection, he changes his name (from Nat Silver to Nat Gold!) to become the Bronx’s most elite matchmaker. Hijinks ensue. “American Matchmaker” was directed by Edward G. Ulmer, who later made the cult noir sensation “Detour,” beloved by cinephiles everywhere.

“Tevye” (1939) is similar in broad strokes to what we know from “Fiddler on the Roof,” but is a much more severe story. “Overture to Glory” (1940), starring Moishe Oysher, is a loose biopic of a brilliant Jewish cantor who succumbs to temptation when lured to sing in the Warsaw opera. (The story was the inspiration for “The Jazz Singer.”) “Her Second Mother” (1940) is lowbrow junk, a soap opera picked up from the Yiddish stage and plopped down inelegantly in front of a camera. It’s at times painful to watch, but as a record of popular entertainment from the day it has few equals.

And finally there’s “Mir Kumen On” (1936), the only nonfiction work in the bunch. This newly restored film has been making the rounds and is a fascinating time capsule. It is a propaganda film about a Bundist health camp, made for fundraising purposes, but it is unmatched in capturing footage of prewar Yiddish culture.

Yiddish translator, actor and director Allen Lewis Rickman. (Courtesy)

Actor-director-dramatist Allen Lewis Rickman has been hard at work creating the new English translations. (“I’ve never been busier in my life,” he tells me via telephone, “but luckily my apartment is just one block from Bellevue.”) Rickman has a host of theater credits to his name, and has also appeared in films like Lazslo Némés’ “Son of Saul” and the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” speaking Yiddish.

Our conversation about “The Jewish Soul: Classics of Yiddish Cinema” below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You started as an actor. How did you fall into this aspect of your career?

I have been trilingual from a young age. I heard Yiddish at home from my parents, then I taught myself to read and write Yiddish, and I’m also fluent in Hebrew.

I’ve been translating for a good while, mostly with stage. I did an arthouse movie twenty years ago called “2by4.” I acted in it, but also helped translate dialogue into Yiddish. Then I did it for the Coen Brothers. That’s my wife [Yelena Shmulenson] and me in the first scene with Fyvush Finkel. The first pass of the Yiddish in that scene was rudimentary, so when I got cast I re-translated it.

But for stage I had been directing shows at Folksbiene for a stretch. I not only adapted the script, I wrote the supertitle translations. This led directly to doing movies.

There are different dialects in Yiddish, but most of these movies were made in the United States. Do the dialects play a factor here?

These were mostly standard “stage Yiddish.” Sometimes you come across a situation where one character has a dialect meant to slightly make fun of them, if they are supposed to be from somewhere else, but it doesn’t leap out at you.

Yiddish is famous for having individual words that, in another language, would take a paragraph. Did that cause problems with this project?

Always. With the expressiveness of Yiddish you find ways to deal with it. Part of the craft of writing titles is the factor of length. The word count must be shorter than the spoken language; we read slower than we hear. So we already have strictures. Also, it can’t just be academic translation, it has to sound like spoken language. So you make compromises.

Where it comes into play in Yiddish is when you have phrases based on a religious reference. Yiddish idioms are full of this. There’s an expectation that anyone who spoke Yiddish back then knew the basics of Torah stories. In modern secular America you can’t even expect audiences to know who Moses was. So it gets tricky.

For example, there’s a cliché where you might say [speaks quickly in Yiddish] and this means “oh, here he is, the second day of the holiday!” Now, what this is is a reference to is a holiday like Sukkot or Passover that have two days at the beginning. Originally there was only one. So a two-day holiday where you can’t work or drive, or do many other things, it can make life a little difficult. So this is a metaphoric way of saying sarcastically “oh, here he is, just what I needed!”

Now, go translate that directly in few enough words that can fit on the frame.

The Yiddish word that might be shortest but has the most flexibility is “Nu.”

That or “Feh.”

I noticed a lot of Nus in these films. Can you estimate different ways you’ve translated that word?

Many. “Well” and “and” and “so” and “yes” and “therefore.” Probably others.

A certain name comes up in one of the comedies – how would you explain to someone who knows no Yiddish who Moishe Pipik is?

He’s “Joe Schmoe.”

Oh, wow. That’s… really concise and perfect.

If I wanted to give you a direct translation it’s “Morris Navel.” But that’s not Moishe Pipik.

Still from ‘Dybbuk.’ (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

Let’s talk about the films one by one. For this version of “The Dybbuk” you mainly did a quality control check?

Yes, for that they had a recent translation that I looked at, and it was very good. It’s among the best known films; it’s certainly the best known play. But that film and “Tevye,” which is superb, are the most well known.

If you only know Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof,” the film is quite a different take. It’s not the same happy-go-lucky story.

Not at all. This is much more authentic. I’ve recently done – and continue to do – a theater piece called “Tevye Served Raw” which does precisely what Maurice Schwartz did, going back to Sholem Aleichem’s original stories.

“Fiddler” is a bastardization of Sholem Aleichem. It’s watered down and Americanized, by Americans with an American agenda. It’s a wonderful musical and has many lovely scenes about a healthy, positive family. It’s incredibly popular in South America and Japan because it is about family and tradition. But it is so different from the shtetl that Sholem Aleichem knew.

I’ll give you an example. When “Fiddler” was translated into Yiddish in the 1960s the term “tradition” was turned to “da’as Toyreh.” This is exactly right. Tradition is custom, it’s the way you cook your gefilte fish, but for Jews in the shtetl their lives revolved around religion, not customs. For the current revival, Sheldon Harnick, the last of the original creators still with us, insisted they do not say this, that they say “tradition.”

The storyline with the intermarriage is very different. In the Americanized version they are like two nice kids from Scarsdale who want to get married and poor ol’ bigoted Pop can’t understand it. In Sholem Aleichem’s world, it was a time of pogroms. This was much deeper than an offense, it was a betrayal; it was going over to people who were the enemy. It’s depicted in the movie as it was in reality.

Funny that the movie really does feel as if it is from the shtetl, considering they shot it in Long Island.

But not Americanized at all. Not one particle.

Still from ‘Tevya.’ (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

“Fiddler on the Roof” is a worldwide success. Did any of these films get seen by non-Yiddish audiences?

You can only find a few examples of awareness. Graham Greene, the novelist, was also a film critic in London in the 1930s, and he wrote a review of “Yiddle With Her Fiddle” as if it were any other foreign language movie. A book that came out in the 1950s from Citadel Press, which published oversized books about movies, had one on best foreign films, and it had something on “The Dybbuk.” That’s about it in terms of awareness beyond the immediate audience.

Despite that, all of the films originally had English subtitles. The subtitles for “American Matchmaker” are hilariously “de-Judaized.” I guess they thought they might be able to pass it off as a typical romantic musical comedy, but everyone is speaking another language for some reason.

Still from ‘American Matchmaker.’ (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

“American Matchmaker” is very funny and still quite watchable today.

Edward G. Ulmer is a fascinating director, and there’s a lot of myth about him. There’s a story that he maybe stole the head of Universal Studios’ nephew’s wife, and was blacklisted. I don’t know how true that is. But his film “Black Cat” with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff was a huge hit for Universal, then he never did another. He did a number of very low budget productions. Something definitely happened there. He made four Yiddish movies, an all African-American cast film, a film in Ukrainian.

There’s a real sophistication to the comedy in “American Matchmaker” that you don’t see in other Yiddish films. It really taps into the Fred Astaire – Ginger Rogers vibe of late 1930s glamour.

It’s the Jewish version of that world, for sure, and there aren’t too many other examples of this kind of comedy.

There’s a funny thing about Yiddish theater. People discuss and remember the respectable writers but of course 98% of what the common people saw was more like 1970s television. I’ve read a lot of it and the truth is that there are no good Yiddish comedy playwrights. None! Everyone associates Yiddish with humor, and, yes, there’s plenty of humor. But comedy plays? The equivalent of George S. Kaufman or Ferenc Molnár? There’s nothing.

Still from ‘Her Second Mother.’ (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

This leads us to an interesting film from a historical and sociological perspective but, I’ll be honest, is a really tough movie to sit through: “Her Second Mother.”

The director was Joseph Siden, the most prolific Yiddish filmmaker, who had zero ambition in terms of artistic achievement. He had no film sense. He set the camera up, told the actors to do their lines, he got it in the can as quickly as possible then he threw it into theaters as quickly as possible.

Now, I love “Her Second Mother” but you have to go into it with the right mindset. You have to say “This. Is. Garbage.” Watch it like “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Maybe “Plan 9 From Second Avenue.”

It’s a little surreal how the movie shows a New York City where everyone speaks Yiddish. Now, in certain communities, sure, but here they are uptown and in courtrooms. Was this meant as a type of wish fulfillment for the audience? Or was he thinking –

No! That’s just it! There’s no thinking whatsoever!

There’s no attempt to present a reality. It’s just a series of clichés and tropes. More absurd than them speaking Yiddish is the district attorney telling the judge he wants to argue in chambers, not in a courtroom. It’s because Joseph Siden didn’t want to spend money on extras! Do it with four actors – done!!

Still from ‘Her Second Mother.’ (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

The comic relief there, Yetta Zwerling, she has something of a catchphrase, but I couldn’t quite make it out. Is she saying “go bupp!” or something?

Yes, “you can bust!” like you can explode, you can burst from the tension. She’s speaking English.

Oh, wow. The accent was so thick I didn’t know what that actually was.

It was English.

Like “you could plotz!”

Well, that’s what plotz means! That’s the literal translation.

“I can bust!” Wow.

I should have put in a subtitle of plotz as an in-joke.

Still from ‘Overture to Glory.’ (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

All of these films feature music but “Overture to Glory” is the one that puts it front and center. Is it a story that people would have been familiar with back then?

Well, it’s based on a true story, but not too many details are known about the real Vilner Balebesi. But he existed, the cantor that went to sing in the Warsaw Opera. It was certainly the inspiration for “The Jazz Singer.”

The cantorial music would have been a big draw for the film. But two things impress me about this movie. First, Moishe Oysher is a really good actor, and he’d already starred in “The Cantor’s Son,” which was also a riff on this theme. Second, the music is perfectly selected to fit dramatically into the movie, whether the chant just before the Neilah – the highest stakes! – or the Kol Nidre. It’s quite brilliantly done, and previous versions have left translations of the songs out.

Still from ‘Mir Kumen On.’ (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

A totally different film is “Mir Kumen On,” which I’ve written about before. It was a fundraising film, a staged documentary, financed by Bundists looking to promote their children’s sanatorium. As a time capsule from a lost era, it is extraordinary.

It’s Poland in 1935, 1936 and you look at these kids and you cannot help but wonder what happens to them later.

It’s a very sweet movie. But there are also scenes at the beginning, where they show the conditions in the cities, that mean a lot to me. My father was a Holocaust survivor from Poland and had a first family; he had kids who were killed in the Holocaust. So it’s one of the few windows I have to his world.

You also got to translate Walt Whitman from Yiddish to English in this movie.

True! But the Walt Whitman means less to me, honestly, than the ordinary speech of the kids. The little pieces of ordinary life.

“The Jewish Soul: Classics of Yiddish Cinema” runs at Film Forum May 26 – July 3. Tickets can be bought online. The forthcoming DVDs will be released by Kino Lorber.

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