- Book Review Index
Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film—Past and Present, by Eric A. Goldman. Teaneck, NJ: Holmes & Meier, 2011. 272 pp. $35.00.
During the brief period before the Second World War in which Yiddish cinema thrived, filmmakers produced dozens of works in a variety of genres including comedy, melodrama, musical performance, and documentary, for the entertainment of Yiddish-speaking audiences across the Jewish diaspora. Although Yiddish cinema descended rapidly into obscurity after 1950, our knowledge of the art form has developed significantly over the past several decades, with the discovery, restoration, and digitalization of increasing numbers of rare movies. Yiddish films typically depicted issues of contemporary Jewish life including immigration, assimilation, family, and religion; while many offered nostalgic representations of the shtetl and the “old country,” a number also portrayed America as a land of opportunity for the Jews of Eastern Europe. In this new edition of Visions, Images and Dreams, film historian Eric A. Goldman has revised and updated his groundbreaking study of Yiddish cinema, first published in 1983. His book is a valuable trove of information about the context in which Yiddish film developed, the people involved in its creation, and the stories behind individual works.
For Goldman, the common denominator of Yiddish film is its language, a bond that connects movies produced in Poland, Russia, Austria, the United States, and elsewhere. Goldman uses more thematically-defined criteria to characterize Yiddish silent film: made for the entertainment of Yiddish-speaking audiences, work in the genre had as its intent to “stimulate and reinforce Jewish identity” and to “insulate Jews from assimilation and external change” (p. xvi). He organizes the book chronologically and geographically, beginning with “precursors” before the First World War in the United States and Eastern Europe, and tracing the development of Yiddish film from postwar silent and sound pictures through its demise after 1950, the year that “marked the end of an era” (p. 140).
The subject matter, stories, scripts, and dramatic techniques of Yiddish theater served as the foundation for the Yiddish cinema. Some of the earliest Yiddish silent movies were filmed productions by famed Yiddish theater troupes, and many stage actors made big names in Yiddish cinema. Chapter 1 introduces the earliest creators of Yiddish cinema, such as Sidney M. Goldin, who earned the title of “Dean of Yiddish cinema” for identifying the idea of targeting a particularly Jewish viewership during the silent era and into the first years of film sound. Chapter 2 addresses silent film after World War I, examining movies produced in Austria, Poland, Russia, and the United States, with a series of descriptive case studies of films including Mizrekh un Mayrev (1923), Tkies Kaf (1924), and Tsebrokhene Hertser (1926).
Chapter 3 explores the brief but important development of Yiddish film in the Soviet Union between 1925 and 1933 and discusses the impacts on subject matter and storytelling of changes in Soviet policies regarding Jewish life and the arts. Goldman examines the work of prominent participants in the Yiddish moving picture, including Isaac Babel and the Moscow State Yiddish Theater’s director Aleksandr Granovsky and actor Solomon Mikhoels. Chapter 4 focuses on the United States between 1929 and 1937, to study how Yiddish film was employed to construct a Yiddish-speaking cinema audience among Jewish immigrants in America. The chapter looks in particular at the work of producers Joseph Seiden and Henry Lynn. Many of these movies were based on Yiddish plays, skits, and vaudeville acts; also popular were recordings of cantorial singing and sound films created by dubbing narration and speech onto compilations of repurposed clips from earlier silent films
Chapters 5 and 6 address the “Golden Age of Yiddish Cinema,” the period between approximately 1936 and 1940, in which the genre met with the greatest success and exhibited some of the most significant artistic innovation, particularly in Poland and the United States. Among the prominent Golden Age films produced in Poland are Der Dibuk (1937) and the four films Joseph Green produced in Poland between 1936 and 1938, Yidl Mitn Fidl, Der Purimshpiler, Mamele, and A Brivele der Mamen. American Yiddish films from this period include Edward G. Ulmer’s Grine Felder (1937) and Der Zingendiker Shmid (1938), and Maurice Schwartz’s Tevye der Milkhiker (1939). The Golden Age came to an abrupt end with the onset of World War II and the destruction of the European Jewish communities that served as actors and audiences for Yiddish cinema. Chapter 7 considers the five years after the war, in which survivors returned to the genre to create a small number of works. Among the most compelling of these is Lang iz der Veg, made in the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp, and depicting the horrors of life in the concentration camps, as well as survivors’ hopes for the future and the difficulties they faced in finding loved ones. After 1950, Goldman explains, Yiddish cinema dwindled significantly, with the decline in use of the language and the increasing assimilation of American Jews.
The Epilogue surveys the more recent revival of interest in Yiddish film, examining the work of archivists in the preservation of older Yiddish movies, and of filmmakers in the production of new works. This study concludes with transcriptions of informative and moving interviews Goldman conducted during the 1970s with directors Jacob Ben-Ami and Joseph Green, producer Ira Greene, and actress Molly Picon. It also offers a comprehensive filmography of the genre, listing the titles of extant and lost Yiddish films and known details about the movies’ cast, crew, and production. The book is liberally appointed with still-frame images of movie sequences and behind-the-scene photos of production that provide an enticing picture of the contents and contexts of Yiddish cinema. Visions, Images and Dreams is an essential starting-point for any scholar of Yiddish film and a valuable resource for scholars of modern Jewish culture.
Joshua S. Walden
University of Oxford