The Yiddish Cinema Virtual Discussion

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, with a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York and the sponsorship of Temple Sinai in Saratoga, presents a Zoom panel discussion April 10 at 7 p.m. of The Yiddish Cinema, narrated by David Mamet

Yiddish cinema, nurtured by way of Yiddish literature and theater, flourished between the two world wars in the 1920s and 30s. The film traces the history of the genre and the language, discussing the Holocaust’s decimation of European Jewry, Stalinist suppression of Jewish culture, and the New World’s demands for assimilation.

“Though the world of Yiddish film was largely destroyed by the Holocaust and the decline of Yiddish in the United States,” says Phyllis Wang, Coordinator of the Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, “it would demean these films to see them purely as nostalgia of a lifestyle that is no more. In addition to helping today’s Jews reflect on their roots, these films provide insight into the richness of another cultural world.”

Using interviews, archival photographs, and film clips from The National Center for Jewish Film’s Yiddish feature films, it achieves a comprehensive view of its subject, and assigns equal importance to music and tradition, comedy and tragedy, actors, and directors. The film is narrated by David Mamet and directed by Rich Pontius.

An industry of firsts, Yiddish cinema began in early Yiddish theater in Russia, which, in turn, was rooted in Yiddish literature. This created an inherently Jewish industry that encapsulated international Yiddish culture before its ultimate demise in the middle twentieth century.

Produced across the globe under a wide range of political and occupational circumstances, Yiddish films uniformly struggled to find proper financing and distribution. Additionally, many of Yiddish pictures have been lost and only recently resurrected by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. As a result, there is not a finely detailed or extensive history of the industry.

Adapting with the newest forms of technology and changing political and societal beliefs in the early twentieth century, films in Yiddish were produced and distributed in Poland, the Russian Empire/Soviet Union, and, most prominently, the United States. Each region provided a unique outlook and style to Yiddish film. The genre also acted as a parallel for Yiddish culture and Jewish history.

The Yiddish movie was a phenomenon of modern times, spawned by the success of the young century’s technology in 1927, the talking picture, and strangled, in large part, by the century’s technological ability to murder en masse most of those who spoke the language in Europe. The linguistic assimilation of immigrant offspring in America completed the cycle.

Yiddish films produced from the 1920s to the 1940s in Poland and the United States reflect a wide spectrum of Jewish life – rich and poor, educated and illiterate, traditional and assimilationist. These films capture the atmosphere, concerns, values, and myths of the Yiddish experience as well as the unique flavor and nuances of the Yiddish mameloshen (mother tongue).

The entire range of Yiddish culture complexity is portrayed. This involved predominant features of Jewish life such as strong family values, the savoring of ancient folkways, rich doses of humor in the face of hardship, and unbreakable ties to tradition.

With the extermination of Eastern Europe’s Jews, Yiddish culture lost the bulk of its audience. In the US, the Americanization of the immigrants’ children and their exodus from the East Coast’s crowded neighborhoods to suburbia contributed to its demise. In the Soviet Union, most Jews voluntarily shunned Yiddish in favor of cultural and linguistic Russification already in the 1930s; their children were raised speaking Russian, and state-led purges destroyed the remaining Yiddish institutions.

Yiddish films were not made as documents of a dying culture, Wang said. Rather, they were produced by savvy Jewish businessmen who understood the essentials of commercial filmmaking and whose goal was to entertain Jewish audiences. And the Jewish audiences loved the melodrama and humor of Yiddish stage and cinema.

A panel discussion on zoom is scheduled for Sunday, April 10 at 7 p.m. Registration is required in advance at sjca.sjcf@gmail.com.  Once registered, you will be sent the link to see the film (available a few days before the discussion) as well as the link to the zoom discussion.

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