Yiddish Cinema

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Sat May 24 16:02:56 MDT 2003

*****   [Selected from the Rutenberg and Everett Yiddish Film Library 
of the National Center for Jewish Film]

* _Children Must Laugh_ (Mir Kumen On)
Poland 1935 63 minutes B&W English and Yiddish with English subtitles
Director: Aleksander Ford for the Jewish Labor Bund

Directed by Lodz native Aleksander Ford and financed by the Jewish 
Labor movement in Poland, _Children Must Laugh_ is one of the few 
surviving documentaries about Jewish life in Poland before WWII. 
This institutional film was produced to raise funds for the Vladimir 
Medem Sanitarium which, noted for its modern and spacious facilities, 
stood as the embodiment of health and enlightenment, in striking 
contrast to the grim images of urban Polish-Jewish poverty.  The 
sanitarium's theme song, "Mir Kumen On (Here We Come)," punctuates 
the film with a sense of hope and accomplishment.  The Bund's 
optimistic internationalism, exemplified by the children's endearing 
performances, permeates the film, creating powerful yet unintended 
ironies for post-Holocaust audiences.
* _Comrade Abram_ (Tovarishch Abram)
USSR 1919 18 minutes B&W Silent with English intertitles
Director: Alexander Razumni for the Mos-Kino Committee

One of a series of short Bolshevik propaganda films, _Comrade Abram_ 
focuses on Abram Hersh, a young Jewish pogrom survivor who became a 
factory worker and organizer in Moscow and eventually rose to 
leadership in the Red Army.  This short emphasizes Hersh's suffering 
and heroism as both worker and Jew, and promotes solidarity over 

* _His Excellency_ (aka Seeds of Freedom/Yevo Prevoshoditelstvo)
USSR 1928 76 minutes B&W Silent with English intertitles (Incomplete: 
missing one reel)
Director: Grigori Roshal

According to Director Roshel, the subject matter of this film was so 
delicate that the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment oversaw 
production of this film personally.  The film is based on the life of 
Hirsch Lekert, a shoemaker and militant Jewish Labor Bund member, who 
attempted to assassinate the Vilna governor in 1902 to avenge the 
flogging of workers who participated in a May Day rally.  Although 
the film was intended "as a tract against individualism,...a greater 
emphasis is placed on class struggle within the Jewish community." 
Bourgeois Jewish Zionists find themselves pitted against fellow 
Jewish proletariats and the government.

_His Excellency_ was the first Soviet-Jewish film to be produced 
after a demand by the Central Committee's Department for Agitprop 
that fictional films be made "...in a way that an be appreciated by 
millions."  In the tradition of brilliant Soviet directors Eisenstein 
and Pudovkin, _His Excellency_ features stylized cinematography and 
stars Leonid Leonidov, a star of the Moscow Art Theater, and in a 
small part, Nikolai Cherkasov, who would later play the lead roles in 
Eisenstein's _Alexander Nevsky_ and _Ivan the Terrible_.  With J. 
Untershlak and Tamara Edelheim as Hirsh and Rivele Lekert, and the 
Moscow Art Theater's Leonid Leonidov as both the Tsar's governor and 
the community's rabbi.

* _Jewish Luck_ (Yevreiskoye Schastye / Menakhem Mendl)
USSR 1925 100 minutes B&W Silent with English intertitles (Russian 
intertitles also available)
Director: Alexander Granovsky
Assistant Director: Grigori Gricher-Cherikover
Based on the Menakhem Mendl stories by Sholem Aleichem
Cinematography: Eduard Tissé, Vasili Khvatov
Original Russian intertitles: Issac Babel
Cast: Solomon Mikhoels, Tamara Edelheim, T. Khazak, M. Goldblat, Y. 
Shidlo, I. Rogaler, S. Epstein, R. Imenitove

_Jewish Luck_ was among the first Soviet Yiddish films to be released 
in the US during the 1920s.  Based on Sholem Aleichem's series of 
stories featuring the character Menakhem Mendl, _Jewish Luck_ 
revolves around the daydreaming entrepreneur Menakhem Mendl who 
specializes in doomed strike-it-rich schemes.  Despite Jewish 
oppression by Tsarist Russia, Menakhem Mendl continues to pursue his 
dreams and his continued persistence transforms him from schlemiel to 
hero as the film uncovers the tragic underpinnings of Sholem 
Aleichem's comic tales.  Notes _Village Voice_ critic Georgia Brown, 
"The movie's best intertitle, translated from Isaac Babel's Russian: 
`What can you do when there is nothing to do?'"

A dramatized version of the Menkhem Mendl stories was first staged by 
the Moscow Yiddish State Theater, under the direction of Alexander 
Granovsky, who later made this silent film.  _Jewish Luck_ features 
some of the finest artistic talents of Soviet Jewry during this 
period.  It has been speculated that the cinematography done by 
Eduard Tissé in _Jewish Luck_ inspired the filming of particular 
scenes in one of his later projects, Sergei Eisenstein's _The 
Battleship Potemkin_.  The original Russian intertitles were written 
by Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel, who later became a victim of the 
Stalinist purges in the late 1930s.

* _Laughter Through Tears_ (aka Through Tears/Skvoz Slezy)
USSR 1928 92 minutes B&W Silent with English intertitles
Director: Grigori Gricher-Cherikover

Like Sholem Aleichem, on whose "Motl Peysi, the Cantor's Son" and 
"The Enchanted Tailor" stories _Laughter Through Tears_ is based, 
director Gricher leavens pathos with humor in his earthy portrait of 
prerevolutionary shtetl life.  Motl's father dies, leaving him to 
survive on his own in a changing world while the tailor Shimen-Elye 
buys a she-goat which mysteriously changes gender each time its new 
owner stops at the inn between Kozodoyevka, where he purchased the 
creature, and Zlodyevke, where he lives.  In accord with 
then-official policy, director Gricher emphasizes the poverty and 
repression of Jews in Czarist Russia.  He capitalizes on the skills 
of the Moscow Art Theater's actors through close attention to facial 
expression and gesture.

* _Our Children_ (Unzere Kinder)
Poland 1948 68 minutes B&W Yiddish with NEW English subtitles
Directors: Natan Gross and Shaul Goskind
Cast: Nusia Gold, Shimon Dzigan, Yisroel Shumacher, Z. Skrzeszewska, 
N. Kareni, R. Stolarska, H. Kestin, Y. Videcki, A. Daniewicz, N. 
Meisler, I. Glantz, G. Czifdar. The Children: S. Goldbrenner, B. 
Grinspan, M. Tauman, I. Greenberg, S. Redlich, E. Zalkind, S. Koczer, 
C. Pretter, V. Lason

_Our Children_ "is not only among the first films about the 
Holocaust, it is also the first to critique its representation" (J. 
Hoberman, _Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds_).  In 
this, Poland's last Yiddish feature, comedy duo Dzigan and Shumacher 
play all the parts in a Sholem Aleichem story for an audience of 
children who survived the Holocaust.  But the children outdo the 
performers when they exchange roles and demonstrate the healing, 
liberating powers of song, dance and storytelling.  With children 
from the JDC-supported Helenowek Colony.

* _The Return of Nathan Becker_ (Nosn Beker Fort Aheym)
USSR 1932 85 minutes B&W Yiddish and Russian with NEW English subtitles
Directors: Boris Shpis, Rokhl M. Milman for Belgoskino
Cast: Boris Babochkin, David Guttman, Solomon Mikhoels, Elena 
Kashnitzkaya, V. Yablonski

The only Russian-Yiddish sound film produced in the Soviet Union, 
_The Return of Nathan Becker_ glorifies Soviet industrial 
productivity as it denigrates American capitalism and assimilation. 
Famed Yiddish author and poet Peretz Markish wrote the screenplay for 
this film about bricklayer Nathan Becker who returns home to Russia 
after twenty years in America.  The film depicts the shtetl way of 
life as primitive and grotesque and promotes a shift away from 
traditional Jewish values, reflecting the government's determined 
effort to reduce Jewish culture to "Communist in content and Yiddish 
in form only."  Neither Markish nor actor Solomon Mikhoels (who was 
also director of the Moscow Yiddish State Theater) survived the 
Stalinist purges.
* _Uncle Moses_
USA 1932 87 minutes B&W Yiddish with NEW English subtitles
Directors: Sidney Goldin and Aubrey Scotto
Based on the novel by Sholem Asch
Cast: Maurice Schwartz, Rubin Goldberg, Judith Abarbanel, Zvee Scooler

When poverty and persecution compel his Polish landsmen to leave 
their shtetl, "Uncle" Moses, the crude and lusty former butcher, 
welcomes them to the promised land of his Lower East Side clothing 
factory.  A master in the harsh new American system, with its 
fourteen-hour workday, Moses attempts to reconstruct the lost harmony 
of the shtetl community in the paternalistic order of his 
sweatshop...."[This is] the first Yiddish talkie engaged directly 
[in] the progressive currents of the day, political and aesthetic" 
(J. Hoberman, _Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds_).

_Uncle Moses_ stands as one of the finest examples of Yiddish cinema 
and is unique in its portrayal of a despotic Jewish factory boss who 
takes pleasure in seeing the "tables turned" by employing the former 
leaders and highly respected men of his shtetl as sweatshop tailors. 
Uncle Moses is a harsh man who uses his wealth and power to fight 
against unionization of his shop (by a young idealistic Jew) and 
manipulate women, especially the daughters of his workers.

_Uncle Moses_ "is a symphony of contradictions, which [Yiddish Art 
Theater founder] Schwartz orchestrates brilliantly" (Richard Corliss, 

* _Yosl Cutler and His Puppets_
USA 1935 18 minutes Yiddish with NEW English subtitles

This film is a performance of one of Yosl Cutler's solo puppet shows. 
A multi-talented artist, writer, poet, and Yiddish Art Theater 
designer, Cutler is probably best known as the cartoonist for the 
Jewish communist newspaper, the _Freiheit_.  These fanciful and 
slightly surreal sketches preserve his work with the marionettes he 
designed, built and brought to life.

<http://www.jewishfilm.org/yiddish1.html>   *****

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