Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, with a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern NY and sponsored by Temple Sinai, presents a zoom panel discussion of the film Mamele, starring Molly Picon, on October 17 at 7 PM.
Mamele belongs to Molly Picon, “Queen of the Yiddish Musical,” who shines as mamele (little mother), the dutiful daughter keeping her family intact after the death of their mother. She’s so busy cooking, cleaning, and matchmaking for her brothers and sisters that she has little time for herself – until she discovers the violinist across the courtyard.
Mamele, shot in 1938 Poland and set in Lodz, is a musical comedy drama embracing the diverse gamut of interwar Jewish life in Poland, with its “nogoodniks” and unemployed, nightclubs and gangsters, and religious Jews celebrating Sukkot. It was the last Jewish film before the Nazi onslaught. Two things make it noteworthy: the incredible (as always) performance of Molly Picon and its timing vis–a–vis World War II.
Molly Picon was a true star with universal appeal across nations, languages, cultures, and religions. She was a bonafide scene stealer who could do it all – singing, dancing, musician performance, drama, but especially comedy. She was a key ingredient in the entertainment-based milieu of Jewish integration into the New World. Her persona was not that of a confused or discontented immigrant who couldn’t figure out America and modern ways, and who never mentally left the “shtetl “or the Lower East Side ghetto. She was a thoroughly American performer who, usually in humorous or musical ways, demonstrated ingenuity, pluckiness, female initiative, or good old-fashioned American “know-how” in her characterizations.
Molly was born in the New York in 1898 (d. 1992) to parents who immigrated from what is today Ukraine. While her native language was American English, she picked up Yiddish from her mother and the other immigrants in the neighborhood. She moved to Philadelphia while she still young and maintained some of the unique New York accent her entire life. Her early performing experiences were in Yiddish theaters which featured melodramas, musicals, and even translations of Shakespeare and other classics, all performed in Yiddish. Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Molly performed across North America, South America, Europe, and even Africa.
During World War II, she performed in refugee camps in Canada. At the war’s end, she and her husband sailed on a bare bones vessel to go to displaced persons camps and orphanages with the Jewish Labor Committee, performing in Yiddish to give these holocaust survivors hope and a few laughs as they awaited freedom to settle in Palestine and other places that would take them.
“Molly continued her efforts for those who had been broken by inhumanity,” says Phyllis Wang, Coordinator of Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, “working for The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, sold bonds for Israel and the Children’s Fund, and later continued her commitments to the new State of Israel.”
With the decline in demand for performing in Yiddish, she switched to English. For the rest of her life, she found well-written and most suitable character roles on Broadway and TV. She made enormous contributions to Yiddish and mainstream entertainment and served as an important bridge of understanding for Jewish immigrants to “Di Goldene Medina” (The Golden Land, America) to feel at home in their adopted homeland – as Americans.