- Yiddish Film and the American Immigrant Experience
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 28, Numbers 1-2, 1998
- pp. 30-44
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Cohen !Yiddish Film and the American Immigrant Experience Joseph Cohen Hopkins High School Yiddish Film and the American Immigrant Experience Eastand West(Mizrekh un MayrevorOstund West). Directed bySidneyColdin and Ivan Abramson. Starring Molly Picon,Jacob Kalish and Sidney Goldin. Silentwith English andYiddish intertitles. Newstereo musicscore added 1991.Austria (1923), 85 minutes, B &W. 30 I Film & History Regular Feature | Films with an Ethnic Perspective American film director Edgar G. Ulmer - nicknamed "father of the new wave" because of his low budget films in several languages - had a production formula that made him one of the most successful directors of the 1930s and 1940s: he produced highly skilled films quickly and inexpensively. Working with a minute budget, Ulmer did not want to rent a portable electric generator to film scenes outside. Instead , he traveled the dirt roads of Sussex County, New Jersey to find a place fit for the set ofa rusticlooking shtetl, a European ghetto town. He finally found a suitable site - a raw plot ofland, complete with a lake and hills - but he also found that it was owned by a Catholic monastery, Shrine of the Little Flower. Ulmer and his staff were unsure - The Protocols ofthe Elders ofZion was just being serialized and Ulmer did not want to cause trouble. Yet the monks were enthusiastic and even played some parts of townspeople because they had beards. Then Ulmer discovered that a pro-Nazi German Bund camp and a nudist camp bordered the monastery. The monks guarded the site so the Bundists would not destroy the shtetl. According to Ulmer, when the film, Yankl der Shmid (The Singing Blacksmith), opened in October , the "entire Catholic clergy ofNew Jersey arrived in full regalia to the picture."1 This anecdote is a microcosm ofYiddish film in America - a genre that manifests both the reality and dreams of an ethnic group struggling to adapt to modern times. Yiddish, an amalgamation mostly of German, Hebrew , and Slavic languages, a combination ofJews' holy and native tongues, was the daily language of the mass of Eastern European Jewry. Unlike other modern "dead" languages (e.g. Latin and Esperanto), Yiddish was not so much a movement as a presence. As a culture surrounded the language, Yiddish became the vehicle for the artistic expression of secularization: to turn religious expression into sentiment, to communicate various taboos such as leaving home, ignoring religious observance anxd ritual, and intermarriage. Yiddish - as a migratory and international language worked : its use has dramatically been reduced to near extinction because the entry ofJews into the mainstream of society and their secularization process allowed Jews to speak the local language, as opposed to the Yiddish they grew up with in the isolated shtetls. Yiddish culture thrived particularly well in America, a land very distant (geographically, imaginatively, and spiritually) from the shtetl. Yiddish cinema especially thrived in the United States because the desire to integrate was a pressure - even a necessity. Yiddish culture had the secondary impetus of being transitionally useful: the mame loshen (the mother language) reminded an immigrant ofhis old family and friends. The apparent contradiction of the distinct Yiddish culture was that it facilitated integration and assimilation, not social separation and cultural isolation. With this knowledge of the Yiddish culture and language, this article shall focus on immigrants' transmission of social values through Yiddish film. The history ofYiddish films is short: only about 130 feature films and 30 short films were made in Yiddish between 1910 and 1941. A single Hollywood company often produced more English films in a few years. Yet Yiddish film, a minute sliver ofAmerican history, is important to examine as a window to the experience ofimmigration to the United States and how immigrants "fit in" with their new national culture . The experience ofYiddish speakers had an extra dimension: a major theme ofYiddish culture was the promotion of a non-religious, secular view ofmodern society. Indeed, many Yiddish cultural leaders were openly anti-religious and anti-establishment. The theme of assimilation and the associated loss or renunciation of religious tradition was a major presence in much ofYiddish artistic expression, more so than in other immigration populations in the US; thus, the Americanized media-culture ofYiddish speakers is the ideal subject...