Ladies’ Tailor and the End of Soviet Jewry

Leonid Gorovets’ 1990 film Ladies’ Tailor opens like a documentary, with the shot of a notice posted in Kiev on the day before the infamous massacre by the Nazis at Babi Yar:

On Monday, Sept. 29, 1941 at 8:00 a.m., all Jews of the city of Kiev and its surroundings are to report to the corner of Melnikovaia and Dokterivskaia Streets (by the cemeteries). To be taken along: documents and valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Jew who does not follow these instructions will be found and shot. Any citizens who enter apartments abandoned by the Jews and take their goods will be shot.

The notice itself shines brightly, in contrast to the amber hues of most of the movie, the action of which takes place in the hours from an autumn afternoon to morning the next day. Verisimilitude, however, is only one—and perhaps not the most important—impetus for the dark lighting choice in what turns out to be a highly symbolic, even allegorical study of the dark days of Soviet Jewry. As realism gives way to symbol, we are inclined to ask why Gorovets (and Aleksandr Borshchagovsky, on whose play this film is based) should choose a ladies’ tailor as his hero doomed to Nazi destruction. Indeed, we might ask if this is principally a Holocaust film at all. Although the tailor’s Yiddish affect and the remnants of his Hebrew ritual could still be found in war-torn Kiev, his milieu had essentially died much earlier in Soviet history, so that the Nazis killed many more Jewish engineers, teachers, and trolley drivers than Tevyes, tailors, and traditional Jewish tavern-keepers. In Ladies’ Tailor, the director takes a figure reminiscent of the Sholem Aleichem world of the early 1910s, rather than the Soviet Union in the 1940s, and, [End Page 180] as we will see, propels him 30 years further ahead, to the mass Jewish emigration of the 1970s and 1980s.

At the outset, it is important to state that Ladies’ Tailor is not a great film. The symbolism is often forced, the pace slow, the characters stock. Indeed, Gorovets is indebted as much to the socialist realist films of his youth—with their clear-cut villains and heroes—as he is to the Western film world in which Ladies’ Tailor is principally marketed. (The Russian film industry virtually collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. And as the free market took over distribution, foreign blockbusters monopolized ex-Soviet screens.) This film, however, invites careful scrutiny not for its aesthetic value but for the picture it creates of a specifically Soviet Jewry. Accustomed as we are to images of the Holocaust, Western viewers will approach this film with assumptions regarding the horrific end of European Jewish life. By emphasizing the unique “never again” quality of the Holocaust, however, we may fail to place it within a specific historical and geographic context. Gorovets, whose Jewish family obviously survived the “final solution” on Soviet soil, does just this. Ladies’ Tailor evokes the more distant past of Russian or, more specifically, Ukrainian Jewry. It then compares the fate of Jews to that of other Soviet citizens, and it shows the Nazi horrors to be only one of the destructive forces to overrun Kiev in the past 70 years. Like Vasilii Grossman’s more sophisticated but still socialist realist-influenced treatment of the period in the novel Life and Fate, Ladies’ Tailor places equal blame for the horrors of this century on Stalin as on Hitler. Gorovets thus has a distinctly glasnost-era perspective on his country’s fate.

Finally, and most important for this article, the filmmaker looks back on what he shows to be the pathetic remnants of Soviet culture from a future and outside vantage point. Gorovets’ view of the legacy of Soviet Jewry is filtered through his own decision to emigrate from the USSR to Israel shortly after the making of the film. Ladies’ Tailor thus becomes as much about the fate of the Soviet Union following the modern-day exodus of its Jews as it is about those European Jews that Hitler hoped to exterminate. Gorovets shows a continuity from pre-revolutionary to post-Soviet Jewry, despite our assumptions of its “end” at Babi Yar. But why a ladies’ tailor, not an engineer or a filmmaker? As we will see, Gorovets presents stereotypical Jewish tailoring as the connecting thread through the crude cultural fabric of the intervening Soviet years.

The second scene of the film shows its hero, the grandfatherly Isaac, standing in a darkened room lit only from behind by a high window. He chants “El maleh rahamim,” the traditional Jewish prayer over the dead. But over which dead? Does he pray for his wife, whom we later learn had [End Page 181] died just as the Germans invaded the Soviet Union? Or does Isaac mourn presciently for the entire Jewish population of Kiev—soon, as he surmises, to be shot? Just as Gorovets expands time by evoking an earlier period with the very image of a Jewish tailor, here he suspends his hero in a dark, thus seemingly endless space, evoking the endless continuum of Jewish suffering, past and future.

Having packed a traveling bag with scissors, tefilin for his morning prayers, and other assorted items, the old man is next seen peering through a glass door as we, and he, hear the march of soldiers’ boots. The glass clearly evokes Jewish vulnerability, underlined in just a few moments as Isaac passes a group of Jews squatting before German soldiers; he watches as an older man is caught, his pants are pulled down, and the man is shot. Isaac’s own bowler hat is blown off and caught beneath one of those threatening German boots. 1 Yet the hero’s opening stance behind glass has another meaning as well, for the Jews are not only archetypal victims but also, as Andrei Siniavsky has suggested, humankind’s historical memory. 2 Isaac’s role as witness to history reinforces both the distinction and collapse of time periods evoked in the film: Jews were there in the pre-revolutionary past of Jewish folklore 3 and are here in the horrific and all-too-real present of the film. And the future? The film proceeds to show us where the Jews will be and what an empty Soviet world they will leave behind.

The premise of Ladies’ Tailor is fairly simple: the announcement that the Jews of Kiev are to gather at the train station for transit is met with varying degrees of disbelief, the two extremes represented by Isaac’s daughter Sonia and his daughter-in-law Ira. The first packs for relocation to a happier place; the second remains convinced they are headed toward certain death. During their last night, Isaac and his family interact with three others—one Jewish, two not—and then leave the next morning on a march toward inevitable slaughter at Babi Yar.

Isaac, himself sardonically aware of the family’s fate, is not registered to live in the Kiev apartment with his grown daughter, but he chooses to disobey orders and spend his last night together with her and his pre-adolescent granddaughter Masha, who live also with Ira and her infant son. In a poignant scene of dislocation, the building’s janitor blocks Isaac’s entry to his family’s apartment:


Why have you dragged yourself here? Don’t you know the order? You have to leave from your place of registration. Where are you registered, old man?

Isaac (pointing to the sky):

There. [End Page 182]


Stop that talk. I ask you, where are you registered?


A long way away, in Belaia Tserkov. There, at my wife’s grave.

This dialogue reinforces our association of the tailor with folkloric heroes of Sholem Aleichem’s day. Traditional Jewish humor is mournful and resigned; most viewers will have no problem seeing a fiddler on the roof just beyond Isaac’s raised finger. Moreover, the dialogue yet again suspends the hero in time and space. The substitution of soulful attachment to his dead wife for an official residence permit transports him between earth and heaven, life and death, present and past.

Isaac enters the apartment to overhear the arguing of Sonia and Ira, both missing their husbands at the front and secretly fearing them dead. Like her father, Sonia combines gentle humor with her anguish, when, for example, she describes a former lover: “totally ‘meshugena,’ like our papa.” Listening from the hallway, the fond fool himself smiles meekly.

As Isaac’s daughter frantically prepares for the journey that she asserts they will survive, a family of non-Jews arrives to take over the apartment, having been displaced from their own home by German bombs. We have already witnessed a scene of disaster as Kievans scrounge through burnt-out buildings and lost belongings, and a little girl pilfers Isaac’s cart, since her need for it—so the also needy tailor reasons—is greater than his own. We have also read on the original deportation notice that anyone illegally entering or looting an apartment made vacant by departing Jews will be shot. This family has legal papers from the City Council, but they nonetheless cannot move in; the tailor and his family have not yet themselves lost their home. Both families find themselves in a kind of legal limbo.

The janitor Anton informs the newcomers gruffly: “You’ve come too early. Tomorrow they’ll be off to their Palestine.” The janitor may not have known that traditional Jews often went to Palestine to be buried and to await there the coming of the promised messiah, but Gorovets surely must. Isaac’s family prepares for departure to some brighter, super-worldly place, not only from this cruel land. The early arrival of new inhabitants turns the apartment into a kind of no-man’s land, where human time is transitional and no one feels fully at home. But the incoming inhabitants’ temporary homelessness only reinforces the permanent visitor-status of the Jews in Russia and Ukraine. Departure for them signifies death (“they’ll be off to their Palestine”), but it also recalls previous periods of wandering that prove rather than deny the Jews’ historical vitality. At one point Isaac compares this hasty departure to another that led, albeit after 40 years, to the promised land. Sonia offers [End Page 183] to sew him a cover for his suitcase. He answers: “When Moses led the Jews through the desert, they had neither suitcases nor covers.”

Rather than making the new arrivals wait all night in the rain, the Jewish tailor invites them in for the remaining hours of transition. His granddaughter makes friends with the young boy, and the entire usurping family, consisting of grandmother, boy, and pregnant mother, ultimately warms to the Jews. At first aloof and unsmiling, they help see off Isaac’s family with blessings and gifts the next morning. 4 Such is the impact of the Jews’ hospitality.

In an intertwined subplot, Isaac’s Jewish neighbors also make ready, killing their last chicken and using up fuel oil, for there is no longer any reason to save. Like Isaac, their grandmother watches history pass in the courtyard through knowing eyes. Indeed, she has no other role in the film except as observer of the mad events of Soviet life and Nazi occupation. The adolescent daughter of the family has been flirting with German soldiers, as she clearly does with all men, including the ladies’ tailor himself. Although her brother, David, chastises her, he himself has a Gentile girlfriend he must leave behind. He goes to say goodbye, promising that he will send for her once ensconced in “Warsaw.” But David dies as he returns to his family’s apartment in the dark, shot after curfew. The viewer suspects that David knew all along that he was not going to safe haven, for in an ultimate act of love he will not allow his girlfriend (who is also the daughter of his professor) to accompany him, despite her protests and packed suitcase. David’s premature funeral provokes the central scene of the film, when, as discussed below, we see how Isaac orchestrates the comfort of the dead as well as the living, and of the non-Jews as well as the Jews.

In this world of sexually mature adolescents, pregnancy, and babies (even Sonia’s young daughter gets her first menstrual cycle while bathing for the “journey”), the only adult married man present in the film is childless. This is the crude and unattractive janitor, Anton, who mistreats his gentle wife Nastia and can produce no heir. Anton takes advantage of the vulnerable Jews who want to sell items to prepare for the journey, and he steals the incoming family’s cart so that the Jews will be sure to have none. His history, however, turns out to be almost as horrible as the Jews’ near future, and he is forced in the film to stand for the entire fate of the Soviet Union, itself on the brink of extinction in 1990, the year of the film’s release. Like the good-looking and loving David, Anton is felled by a German bullet at the end of the movie for being where and when he should not be. Only an empty courtyard and fallen leaves are left behind after the departure of the Jews. [End Page 184]

Anton’s last name is Gorbunov, derived from the word for hump or hunchback (gorb, gorbatyi), although he is not so much physically as morally deformed. He has a medical certificate excusing him from military duty, 5 but it becomes clear that Anton’s real illness is his lack of soul, the symptom of which is his rude treatment of his wife as well as of the Jews. His soullessness contrasts directly with Isaac’s kindness, and his fears—he awakens in a panic when he hears gunshots—highlights the tailor’s magnanimous ability to joke in the face of death: “It must be Budenny’s cavalry arriving,” Isaac remarks upon hearing those same shots, perhaps the ones, in intertwined chronology, that kill David. S. M. Budenny was the commander of a Cossack regiment during the Revolution and Civil War, known to many from the Red Cavalry stories of the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel. 6 The Cossacks, of course, are the archetypal enemies, rather than saviors of the Jews, and again are evocative of the pre-revolutionary Jewish life of pogroms as described by Sholem Aleichem as well as Babel. The anachronistic image of a horseback army clattering in to liberate the urban Jews of Kiev from Nazi power lends comic relief to what Isaac, too, knows is a tragic situation.

The film provides a genesis for Anton’s illness along with the diagnosis. We learn that the janitor’s family members were kulaks, so-called rich peasants during Stalin’s collectivization campaign of the late 1920s, although many kulaks were rich only in the ownership of a single cow or a few chickens. The kulaks were rounded up and shipped to Siberia, if they were not simply robbed (their belongings “collectivized”), starved out, or killed on the spot. In this way, Stalin took over the entire countryside, causing the death of tens of millions of his own people, a catastrophe in fact dwarfing Hitler’s genocide of the Jews. Anton cannot forgive the government officials who carried out this horror, and he equates them with city-dwelling “Jews.” He berates Nastia, who has brought clean linens for Isaac’s family, and reveals his lasting disease:


You feel sorry for them. You fool. You have forgotten how your own people were kicked out. Barefoot children pushed into the snow. No kulaks were liquidated from the towns. They were living just fine in the towns.


I remember it all. Our Lord will forgive them. Otherwise, how can we go on living?

Anton (looking aside):

They say peasant wives have lots of kids. If you could have picked up with a Jewish husband, you’d go away.


But you love me, don’t you?


Love you? I never said anything of the kind.


You don’t need to. I can see into your soul.


Into my soul? A watchman needs no soul. [End Page 185]

We find out exactly what kind of watchman Anton is later in the movie. When the Russian woman accuses him of stealing her cart, he sends Nastia out in the rain to retrieve it—still mistreating his “fool”—and himself tells the story of his past. Having been sent to Siberia, Anton found work as the guard of a prison camp. In fact, he might have first been in the camp himself, for Soviet viewers of the film all know that many former inmates, unable to return to their original homes, merely moved from inside to outside the gates. Despite a rifle in their hands, these freed prisoners were barely better off than their still-jailed comrades. Anton tells the story of a fight between political and common prisoners, provoked by the authorities. The guards, Anton among them, were ordered to soak the prisoners with water, despite sub-zero temperatures. In the morning, those same guards were ordered to chop up—not chop out—the bodies, so that they created blocks of ice containing intertwined arms and legs and heads: “petrified jellied meat,” recalls the former watchman. Having told this grisly tale of inhumanity in which he was forced to participate, Anton falls into an epileptic-type fit. Despite our aversion to this obvious antisemite, we must understand that his “hunchback,” his lack of soul, of gentility, and of humanity, indeed have cause. As late as 1990, the Soviet Union continued to suffer from the illness it had inflicted on its own citizens.

But perhaps inadvertently, Gorovets here follows Marxist ideology (as well as a trend in late Soviet film) that releases individuals from moral responsibility. 7 How can anyone expect to remain hale and kind after experiences such as Anton’s? Can he be guilty of his own illness? Not even the individual Stalin is to blame; he is never mentioned. Instead, historical forces sweep up and bury the humanity of its Soviet victims.

Nonetheless, the peasant Nastia has avoided Anton’s soulless fate, and her soulful or, rather, spiritual role in the movie is signaled in an early scene when the family is gathered in the kitchen. She has brought clean linens for Masha, the granddaughter, despite the ridicule of Anton (“She’s a born servant. She’ll serve you for nothing”). Only Isaac recognizes Nastia’s true spiritual value:


Let me kiss the hand that has prepared my granddaughter for the journey. Or would it be better if this old man got down on his knees before you?

Nastia (approaching Isaac):

Grandpa, please don’t. Here. [She moves closer.]


You are life, Nastia. But I have such fear for you.


Mind your own business, old man. Don’t forget what you are.


I haven’t forgotten. We are all people, only you are blind. Still, your eyes were sharp enough to spot this gem. [End Page 186]

And with this, Isaac kisses Nastia’s hand.

Indeed, Isaac has “not forgotten,” just as Nastia “remember[s] it all.” In establishing Nastia, like Isaac, as spiritual witness to history, the meaning of the lighting symbolism of the movie becomes clear. Only she among the non-Jews is repeatedly bathed in light. The movie is quite dark, just as the pace is slow and the background music is ominous—true to the “dark” setting of the Holocaust period. Like in the second scene described above, lighting tends to come from a single source placed behind the actors: a window, a lamp, a candle. By this choice, and despite the Jewish subject matter of this film, the director repeatedly creates Christian-like icons of his heroes, so that Nastia, her head surrounded by a halo of light, is not only victim but saint. She is thus directly connected to Isaac, who is virtually always backlit and often seen peeking from behind a curtain, as though framed by what are called in Russian the “clothes” of an icon.

Anton, in contrast, blocks out the lamp light when he enters to chase out the visitors and calls young Masha a “little Yid” when she defends them. Indeed, the Russians in the film almost always remain in the dark. This symbolic choice is most strikingly shown in the scene on a dark staircase when David speaks to his Gentile girlfriend. He is lit, but she is shown only in silhouette until the very last moment after he has departed and we are allowed to see her crestfallen expression. Her face then becomes an oval of light, another innocent victim.

Yet light in the movie does more than signal victimhood: Nastia is not only victim but blessed saint, and Isaac stands not only to die with his people but also to witness history. Light in the movie consistently accompanies gentility. The Russians stand in a dark and rainy doorway; Isaac invites them in and lights a lamp. He jokes with the boy while the glow from a light fixture behind him shines through his sparse hair. And he stands in a bright kitchen to offer warm tea along with gentle humor to the Soviet newcomer, despite her silent severity. The luminous and backlit Jews act as a proverbial “light unto the goyim.”

Music also flows from the Jews: Masha plays the piano and teaches the Russian boy to play a tune. Strangely, the Jewish scenes with music are several times followed by a scene of two German soldiers walking through deserted Kiev, one playing a harmonica. In retrospect we realize that this same harmonica plays on the soundtrack behind the opening shot of the deportation notice, and echoes again as David leaves his girlfriend. On one level, the German music is a prelude to rifle shots, those that ring out as the two central families sit for tea and those that will rise to crescendo the next day. The popular harmonica music of German destruction thus mocks the high culture of the Jews’ piano (Sonia says, [End Page 187] “If only we could take it on the train”) and the grace of their invitation to those who will displace them from their home.

On another level, however, the music links rather than contrasts the Jews and the Germans. Masha’s piano has a clearly readable German-language trademark, and the music she learns to play, like the music most young pianists play, is largely drawn from a nineteenth-century German repertoire. Seemingly heretical in a Holocaust film, music here shows the shared cultural values of the Jews and Germans, rather than their distance. (The film takes a humorous view of this affinity in a different cultural realm as well. Trying to convince Ira that the Germans mean the best, Sonia declares: “Papa says that Germans are quite decent people. Their language is a distorted Yiddish.”) From this point of view, German and Jewish music together create a contrast to the bleak silence of the world of war-torn Kiev, further distancing Isaac and his family from the harsh non-Jewish Soviets. The monotonality of the latter group marks a lack of culture and civility, represented by the unkempt and dehumanized Soviet Anton.

Isaac himself sings twice, once in the beginning with his chanting of “El maleh rahamim” and again near the end, at David’s funeral. Because of the upcoming deportation, David must be buried in the obscurity of night, outside the traditional Jewish cemetery. But the Jews fulfill their traditions nonetheless. Isaac chants the kadish prayer while the Jews and their guests, now ensconced in the family, hold candles, reinforcing the connection between light and holiness. David’s image retreats into the darkness, and his funeral serves as catalyst for a dream-like sequence: Isaac sits alone in the dark, framed by the light of his candle, as the soundtrack plays what sounds like Christian liturgical music. He slowly stands with his candle and illuminates the baby in its cradle, as though thus blessing the continuum of Jewish life. The tailor then picks up his scissors against a dark background and holds up the candle to illuminate the picture of his wife high on the wall, another icon. Dreamily, he envisions a stream of people dressed in white—the deceased David? his wife after her funeral? the Jews of Kiev? angels to heaven?—marching into the distance. 8 A candle flares, and the flame rises above the illuminated head of Isaac as if he, too, were shining light, an icon in the dark.

Isaac raises both arms as though on a cross, walks through an opening in a curtain, and goes to the Russian woman with a request: “I want that you should have a tailored suit. This is my whim.” We had learned earlier that Isaac the tailor had never sewn his late wife a tailored suit. In the scene to follow, accompanied by klezmer music and lit from behind by a window now glowing with early morning light, Isaac performs a dance-like, [End Page 188] highly sensual and surreal scene around his former wife’s surrogate as he measures her for the suit.

As the dream-dance sequence ends, the sound track, too, becomes completely silent and the camera pans deserted courtyards, streets, and rooftops of Kiev, passing to the empty sky and descending on the cross and statue of St. Vladimir that overlooks the city. Vladimir baptized ancient Rus in the year 988, uniting warring pagan kingdoms into what was to become the great Russian empire. His statue in this shot, a millennium later, can therefore represent the whole of Ukrainian and Russian history as well as the patron saint of Kiev. Harmonica music comes in under the picture, and we watch the two German soldiers walk silently through the deserted streets toward us, pass us by, and walk away.

With our own historical perspective, we assume that the emptiness signals the coming destruction of a large percentage of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union, then the highest in the world. We know that the Holocaust put a final nail in the coffin of Old World shtetl life. No more traditional Jewish tailors in tsitsis and peyis will dance to bitter-sweet klezmer music. No more Jewish patriarchs will chant kadish, and no more Jewish boys will be buried in ancient Jewish cemeteries.

The central symbol of the film, however, is not nails and coffins but the scissors that stand for Isaac’s talent and his creativity. After the funeral, Isaac holds scissors in one hand, candle in the other. Indeed, the hero of this film is not just any Jew but a ladies’ tailor who sews suits to help women look stylish. Like the light and music of the movie, the hero’s very profession is connected to culture—and indeed to non-Soviet culture, for in Russian a tailored suit is called “strictly English” (strogo angliiskii kostium). Ironically, Isaac’s connection to the shtetl of the past is at the same time his connection to modern civilization outside the crude Soviet Union. To reinforce this interpretation of tailoring, Isaac explains the use of a three-piece suit to his young visitor; the vest is not so much for warmth, he tells the young Soviet boy, as to make the wearer feel well-dressed. Anton, on the other hand, is repeatedly shown in an old t-shirt or bare-chested under his dirty jacket.

Isaac wields the advantage of his “cosmopolitan” scissors. In response to Anton’s greedy eagerness as the Jews prepare to depart and his inability to wait to “requisition” their goods (as Anton’s were once requisitioned by the Soviet authorities he equates with the Jews?), Isaac delivers one of his typically ironic lines: “We’ll take along as much as we can. And all the rest? All the rest I will cut up during this long night. What a clever people we are, no? It could have been a short, summer night!” Of course Isaac spends the long night entertaining guests rather than [End Page 189] destroying property, but his humorous threat implies that after this autumn deportation, the Jews will leave behind them only worthless pieces. Nothing will remain whole in their former home.

It is almost immediately after this statement that we learn of Anton’s own lack of wholeness: the absence of his soul as well as his inability to father a child. Almost cruelly, the camera then focuses on the plump, naked, and obviously uncircumcised grandchild of Isaac, and a new theme of cutting is introduced (circumcision in Russian is obrezanie, from the root “to cut”). The old man and his daughter-in-law discuss the difficulty of circumcision in a war setting, but the decision to forgo this central ritual points more to the increasing secularization of Jewish life in the Soviet Union than to war-time deprivation. Ira, herself, is only half-Jewish, a fact we learn from a discussion of the word “Lithuanian” in the nationality category on her internal passport. One parent must have been Jewish, the other Lithuanian. Under Soviet law, the daughter had a choice of nationality once she reached maturity. As Soviet Jews increasingly intermarried, they cut themselves off more and more from the fabric of traditional Judaism. Unlike Sonia, Ira never speaks Yiddish in the movie, although she does seem to understand it.

Yet the film suggests that more will be cut away than the knowledge of how to chant the mourners’ kadish or perform ritual circumcisions when Isaac takes his scissors (and the tefilin he packed) to the grave. The tailor’s “whimful” request to make a tailored suit for his non-Jewish guest ends on a curiously marked statement: “I’ll cut it out, and someone else will sew it for you. After all, they can’t take all the tailors out of Kiev.” Or can they? Isaac can cut out the fabric, but who will be left to put it all back together again? Jewish circumcision cuts away the foreskin, but the Jewish community as a whole then sees the child into productive and reproductive adulthood: brit milah, bar mitzvah, the marriage hupah, and childbirth again for brit milah.

Even more important, claims this film, the Jews restore wholeness not only to Jews but to the entire world in which they live. Isaac teaches civility to the usurpers of his home. He confirms the inherent goodness of Nastia. Isaac’s granddaughter teaches the non-Jewish boy to play the piano, just as Isaac had taught him the civilizing meaning of a three-piece suit. David teaches his Gentile girlfriend about the sacrifice of love. And they all invite the newcomers to share in the chanting of kadish over David’s body, a prayer that connects the generations of Jews around the world through life and death. In Ladies’ Tailor, the enlightening candles and music of the traditional Jewish home include others into their warmth. Who will light them, who will sing when the Jews are gone? [End Page 190]

Even so, the film is about more than the passing of a traditional, supposedly warm and homey Jewish era of earlier European history. The film is also about the future, about those very babies in cradles and the children to come from the unions of all the Mashas and Davids and the sisters of Davids so ready to create the next generation. What of them? The Nazis did not, in fact, wipe them all out, and neither, for better or for worse, did secularization erase their own sense of belonging to the Jewish people. If they did, how could we explain the existence of Gorovets, a Russian-Jewish filmmaker, and of his partly Jewish cast and crew? Soviet Jewry amazingly survived both Hitler and Stalin. Ironically, it is Anton, the symbol of a mutilated Soviet history, who dies in the film with no heir.

Anton’s wife Nastia, who so desires a baby, pleads with Ira to leave her uncircumcised (and thus presumably not endangered) son behind. She will take care of him and bring him back to his natural mother when danger has passed. Sadly, Ira knows her son will perish with her, but she cannot give him up. Nastia persists and joins the march along with the tailor’s family, pleading for the life of the child. Such longing for a child is perhaps selfish (but no more so than Ira’s own need to keep her child close), although her saintly image established in the film mediates Nastia’s private need, so unfulfilled by Anton. A righteous Gentile, Nastia marches with the Jews to the very end.

As the march continues on to the corner of Melnikovaia and Dokterivskaia streets (ironically, as the deportation notice tells us, “by the cemeteries”), another woman also pleads to join the family. Over and over she calls out to those who pass, asking to be taken along. On the plane of realism, the woman is too old to walk herself, and she simply asks for assistance in fulfilling the German order. But the director takes her plea out of the diegetic score of the soundtrack and transforms it into a voice-over behind the picture. For several more minutes, a younger female voice repeatedly intones: “Take me with you. Take me with you.”

It is this background chant that most clearly alerts the viewer to the underlying allegorical meaning of Ladies’ Tailor. Gorovets uses the younger voice to change Borshchagovsky’s simple Holocaust play into a more contemporary drama. The Jews continue their march, now to the sound of German singing, still interlaced with the plea “Take me with you.” Anton comes running, calling for Nastia, as Jews in carts, wheelchairs, and litters pass on—the physically disabled but, unlike the janitor, spiritually whole Jewish people. Anton calls out: “But she is not a Jew,” and is shot. The camera shows again the empty courtyard, with its [End Page 191] leaves falling in the wind. But suddenly, the trees have no more leaves, and Anton is no longer present to sweep out the courtyard, his seemingly futile, Soviet-style job throughout the film. Instead, we see the leaves burning, superimposed on typical Holocaust images of piles of hair, glasses, gloves, shoes, and toys.

The film does not end on this bleak message of the Nazi crematorium, however. Instead, the march continues, this time shot not from the side but from the front. The line of people tramps up a steep hill, including Isaac’s family members with Nastia at their side. In the background below and behind them we see now not Kiev of the 1940s, but modern cars and busy traffic. We hear horns and see again leaves blowing in the wind. For several minutes the march continues upward toward the camera, positioned at the top of the hill. Thus Isaac’s family has been transported not to slaughter at Babi Yar but forward in time to the Jewish emigration of Gorovets’ own experience, marching upward as they “make aliyah” through the hills of Jerusalem. 9 The movie, we understand, is not so much about death as it is about a new exodus to the promised land.

Leonid Gorovets himself immigrated to Jerusalem shortly after shooting Ladies’ Tailor. 10 With this fact in mind, we must understand that in his last Soviet film he asks more than what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust. After all, we already know the answer to this question, and we are reminded of our foreknowledge with the clichéd shots of burning hair, shoes, and dolls. Instead, Gorovets asks what will happen to the Soviet (or soon-to-be ex-Soviet) Union once the Jews all leave—now, he predicts, for good. Who will be left to sew together the fabric of a society so deformed by the horrors of Stalin and the Gulag that its remnants are blind to their saints and steal from their own neighbors? Who will play music? Who will soften a rude comment with a joke? Who will place his own pillow beneath the head of a pregnant woman, even if that woman has come to displace him from his home? It is not the Jewish part of Soviet Jewry that will die, for the Jews endure through history, living outside it in an eternal connection to the past and the future, as Isaac does in his candle-lit but wall-less room. It is the Soviet part of the equation that will be left empty and diseased when its civilized Jewry, its “soul,” is removed, for once and for all.

The picture is not all bleak. We know that the Jews left behind two important items, besides the graves of David and Isaac’s wife. In the courtyard by their home, Isaac, Sonia, Ira, the baby, and Masha gather with the new family before leaving on their march. Isaac turns tenderly to the woman for whom he prepared a suit in the wee hours of the morning. “I’ll never see you again.” Then, humorously realizing the [End Page 192] metaphor: “I lost my glasses during the night.” “You won’t be able to work without your glasses,” she responds, not realizing, as we might, that he has left behind not only his livelihood but his whole humane way of seeing the world. He will not need them now, but she, who will be living in his abandoned home, can find the glasses and put them on. In addition, Sonia immediately announces: “I’ve lost my head, I forgot the sewing machine. I could earn some money with it.” We know, as she refuses to admit, that there will be no money to earn in the pit of Babi Yar. Regardless, the machine, like the glasses, is left behind for the new family to learn to use. Having received the light and warmth of Isaac, perhaps they now can piece together the remnants of their own mutilated world.

Yet the success of this transfer is by no means guaranteed: does she find the glasses? can she operate the machine? And, of those who stayed to witness, some say even to participate in the horrors of Nazi occupation, we know only that they peopled an increasingly fragmented and disillusioned Soviet society until its collapse the year after this film was released. Isaac is played movingly in Ladies’ Tailor by the famous actor Innokenty Smoktunovskii, known for his starring roles in the Soviet versions of such films as Hamlet and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, shot precisely in that post-war, pre-collapse period of Soviet history. Isaac was the last major role of Smoktunovskii’s career, a kind of swan song for his admiring audience, just as the emigrating Gorovets, too, bids farewell. But Smoktunovskii is not Jewish. His participation in the film thus adds a extra layer to the ending of Soviet Jewry: “Take me with you,” intones the voice over the march.

Judith Deutsch Kornblatt

Judith Deutsch Kornblatt is Professor and Chair of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a member of the Center for Jewish Studies and the Religious Studies Program. She is currently completing a book on Jews in the Russian Orthodox Church.


1. The film, in general, is highly referential. This short scene seems intentionally reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, a perennial favorite in the Soviet Union and frequently associated with victimization of the “little man.” Although he denied the claim, Chaplin was often called a Jew.

2. As the narrator of the novella “The Makepeace Experiment” declares: “Perhaps the reason He has scattered them throughout the world is for them to show their toughness and enduring obstinacy, and for when we come upon them in the middle of our Russian stew to remember that history didn’t begin today and that no one can tell how it will end. . . . [F]rom under her black eye-lashes and her camel eyelids, the parched desert was looking out, glazed with loneliness, and waiting for something, and drawing you somewhere, so that there was nothing left for you except to sit down on the sand and weep inconsolably over historical memories” (Abram Tertz [pseudonym for Andrei Siniavsky], The Makepeace Experiment, trans. Manya Harari [Evanston, Ill., 1965], 49–50). See also Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, “Sinyavsky/Tertz: The Evolution of the Writer in Exile,” Humanities in Society 7, nos. 3–4 (Summer-Fall 1984): 135.

3. In fact, in A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), David G. Roskies convincingly argues that the folkloric milieu so artfully depicted by Sholem Aleichem was itself an invention of “modern Jewish revolutionaries, rebels, and immigrants who tried to salvage for a nontraditional audience forms of the culture assumed to be traditional” (5). It was an “invented tradition” (149). But, “so artful was the camouflage that wherever there are people who look to Yiddish as an authentic expression of yidishkayt, it is to these artifacts that they first turn” (5). Gorovets could be included here anachronistically, of course, in his own search for yidishkayt. Sholem Aleichem, says Roskies, was the “great reinventor of Yiddish folklore” (13), though he himself was a stockbroker from Kiev, heir to his father-in-law’s fortune (147).

4. The Russians relinquish their cart to help Sonia carry the family’s belongings to the train. Acting out a folk tradition, the Russian woman also suggests that they all sit for a few moments to ensure a safe journey, and she calls after the departing Jews that they will not wash the floors for two days, also a traditional superstition.

5. With his typical perspicacity, Isaac asks Anton what will happen when the Germans, having finished with the Jews, come for the antisemitic janitor himself. Anton replies: “I’m sick. I have a medical certificate.” Isaac responds sardonically: “The Germans have been hurrying about. So they ran across all of Europe just to check a certificate from Polyclinic #5?”

6. Although it is true that Budenny survived to be “resurrected” in World War II, his Cossack regiment by that time was purely ceremonial and comprised largely non-Cossacks in Cossack dress. For more on the image of the Cossack, and on Budenny particularly in the stories of Isaac Babel, see Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, The Cossack Hero in Russian Literature: Study on Cultural Mythology (Madison, Wisc., 1992).

7. See, among others, Nikita Mikhailkov’s film Burnt by the Sun (1994). I wish to thank an anonymous reader for the suggestion of this excellent comparison.

8. Gorovets may very well have been influenced in this dream scene by an important Jewish film of the glasnost era: Commissar (1967/87), directed by Aleksandr Askoldov and based on the 1934 short story “In the Town of Berdichev” by Vasilii Grossman, the author of Life and Fate. There, too, the main character has visions, most in a white tonality, one of which shows Jews marching to their death in a concentration camp. Just as Gorovets takes the Holocaust story of Borshchagovsky and hints at a later time in Soviet-Jewish history, Askoldov takes Grossman’s story of the Civil War and adds to it a reference to the later Holocaust. Askoldov, like Gorovets, takes advantage of the association of tailors and the Jewish shtetl in a seemingly unnecessary shot of a man setting up a sewing machine by the side of the road.

9. Steven Spielberg ended his 1993 film Schindler’s List with a similar march, but from a different perspective and with different meaning. His Holocaust-era Jews are filmed from behind as they flee over a field. The camera then shows a march of older people—the actual Jews who were saved by Schindler—as they lay stones on Schindler’s grave in Israel. Spielberg films them neutrally from the side and thus does not take advantage of the metaphor of aliyah, or “going up” to Jerusalem. He instead shows the leap to the future by switching from black-and-white to color film.

10. Govorets made a full-length film in Hebrew, Kafe im limon (1994) and several television features. For some of his reactions to his own aliyah, see the rather flippant interview in Kino-Glaz, no. 1 (1994): 20.