- Book Review Index
Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds, by J. Hoberman. Updated and expanded edition. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010. 432 pp. $39.95.
J. Hoberman’s authoritative work on Yiddish cinema boasts many strengths. It is impeccably researched and is brimming with fascinating behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Hoberman provides thorough background on key films, actors, producers, and directors associated with the Yiddish cinema. At times he must resort to speculation, while admirably trying to fill in the gaps that stem from the missing documentation, lost films, and incomplete prints that are an unfortunate component of Yiddish cinema’s reality. Hoberman relies heavily on contemporary reviews, which are helpful in understanding the films’ reception at the time of their production and initial screenings. It is somewhat surprising how little film analysis Hoberman offers himself, but his reliance on reviewers can be attributed in part to the sad fact that some of the films simply lack extant copies.
The book is structured more or less chronologically, with most chapters focusing on trends within a time period as well as on a particular geographical region where Yiddish cinema once flourished, especially Moscow, New York, Vienna, and Warsaw. In each case, Hoberman offers ample relevant historical and socio-political context, elaborating for instance on the reach of antisemitism or on the ramifications of censorship at a given time and place. He emphasizes the recurring themes of Yiddish film—such as generational conflict, intermarriage, immigration and assimilation, the “old” versus “new” worlds, and mistaken identity—while distinguishing the films by pointing out essential differences contingent on the locations and dates of their production. Hoberman also elucidates the complex relationship that Yiddish film has had with the history of Zionism and with international socialist movements.
Despite the great amount of detail that the author includes, his relatively short chapters and generally concise plot summaries contribute to the volume’s readability. The abundant accompanying photographs and film stills increase its appeal further. Yiddish terms are usually, although not always, glossed within the text, and additionally there is a glossary toward the back of the book (however, this feature is not pointed out to the reader in the foreword or the introduction, so some readers might miss out on this useful resource altogether.) The method of citing sources quoted within chapters in a separate section in the back (“Notes on Sources”) may cause the reader some confusion. It would have been helpful if these notes also referenced the page numbers where the sources are cited within Bridge of Light, rather than only providing lists of the bibliographical information for sources from each chapter.
One of the most significant functions of Bridge of Light is its exploration not only of the intricate interconnectedness of the history of Yiddish cinema with that of the Yiddish language, literature, and theater, but also of Yiddish cinema’s place within modernism and within film history in general. The volume also implicitly addresses the question of what Yiddish cinema actually is, and how it might be defined. Yiddish cinema can be considered a subset of the much larger realm of Jewish cinema, yet it is not always clear which films belong in which category. Some films belong at least marginally to the Yiddish tradition, although they contain very little Yiddish (in some cases only in songs); others entered the Yiddish film canon later in their existence, for example the silent films that became faryidisht when turned into Yiddish talkies after the onset of the sound era. Hoberman also addresses the role, or perceived role, of Jewish cinema in general, beyond its entertainment value. At times, it has been used as a political tool against antisemitism, for example, or as propaganda for workers’ movements; at other times people have argued for filmmakers’ social responsibility to combat prevalent Jewish stereotypes through cinema.
The volume comes with a DVD documentary on Yiddish cinema, narrated by David Mamet. While this is a nice complementary feature, viewing the DVD after reading Hoberman’s tome reinforces how a sixty-minute film can only scratch the surface of this vast field. However, viewers will enjoy the smattering of clips from some of the most important Yiddish films, including A Brivele der Mamen, Der Dibek, and Yidl mitn Fidl. One highlight of the documentary is the less than flattering commentary about Edgar Ulmer, director of the very successful Grine Felder (1937), from actors who had been in his films.
The updated version of Bridge of Light contains a new chapter, “Backward into the Real Past, Forward into Endless Time,” which includes interviews conducted by Hoberman as late as December 2009. This impressive book remains a must-have for anyone who teaches courses on Jewish cinema. It is a handy reference volume for scholars in the field, providing a comprehensive overview of the topic as well as extensive information about numerous films and the major players of Yiddish cinema. At the same time, its readability and narrative style will make it an enjoyable read for anyone who is intrigued by the “national cinema without a nation” (p. viii), as Stuart Klawans characterizes Yiddish cinema in his foreword to the updated edition of Hoberman’s great scholarly achievement.
Jennifer Marston William