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Art With a Schmear of Schmaltz

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

From a language its speakers often didn’t take seriously came a cinema so precarious it had no business existing at all, a beleaguered cinema that barely had the strength to survive its numerous trials. Yet the world of Yiddish film turns out to be paradoxically vibrant and emotional, an endearing mixture of comedy, sentiment and culture where mothers are venerated, children overfed and everyone yearns not for riches and celebrity but “a normal life full of joy.”

As J. Hoberman, author of the definitive “Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds,” points out, Yiddish movies had all the attributes of a national cinema without a nation to call its own. Though now often reduced to the joke-filled language of Las Vegas comics, Yiddish was once the lingua franca of a complex, sophisticated transnational culture that thrived in prewar Europe and America before disappearing, like Atlantis, almost without a trace. Producer Joe Green, interviewed in the involving documentary “The Yiddish Cinema,” laconically explains: “Six million of my best customers perished.”

In that brief window some 100 Yiddish films were made on a scattershot basis, mostly in the United States, Poland and Russia by long-forgotten companies with names like Sphinx and High Art. Many of them have been carefully preserved by the National Center for Jewish Film’s Rutenberg and Everett Yiddish Film Library and have been the subject of extensive tributes in London, New York, Berkeley, Boston and, at long last, Los Angeles.

Starting today, some two dozen Yiddish films, the classics as well as the rarities, the expected and the completely surprising, will be screening at two Laemmle theaters, the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. It is a rare chance, and one that probably won’t be repeated, to immerse oneself in the tam, the taste of a world that is no more, to get just a hint of a destroyed culture that has left these films for us to ponder, weep over and enjoy.

It was a world that was born of a division between religious and secular points of view, that echoed the stresses between the old civilization of Europe and the new one of America. Whom should you marry, how should you worship, what language should you speak, where should you live? Was it true, as a character in one film says, “better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew,” or was that just a convenient rationalization?

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One of the services these Yiddish films provides is an opportunity to see the physical world the Holocaust destroyed. Given when they were made, the European silents, especially films like “Laughter Through Tears” and “Jewish Luck” (which featured intertitles by Isaac Babel, cinematography by future Eisenstein d.p. Eduard Tisse and the film debut of the celebrated comic actor Solomon Mikhoels) can’t help but have a documentary feel.

Because these films were never intended to be shown to anyone who didn’t speak the language, they are also the equivalent of the home movies of a culture, enabling us to share intimately in the emotional life of that long-gone audience, to worry as they did about questions of love, loss and marriage.

And because Yiddish is above all a passionate, yeasty language, suited to conflict and confrontation, to scolding, pleading, finger-pointing and haranguing, emotional minimalists seeking “Remains of the Day"-type restraint had best look elsewhere. It’s the Yiddish cinema, after all, that gave us the story of a sweatshop girl jilted by the fiance she has put through medical school who’s then struck by the car that is taking him to the synagogue where he will be married to someone else.

Though Yiddish was fairly recently established as a literary language when these films began, an extensive literature existed that provided source material for numerous movie projects. It was a celebrated play by S. Ansky that produced what is generally considered to be the greatest of Yiddish films, “The Dybbuk,” praised by critic Parker Tyler in his “Classics of the Foreign Film” as “one of the most solemn attestations to the mystic powers of the spirit that imagination has ever purveyed to the film reel.”

Made in Poland in 1937 in a stylized, Expressionistic manner that’s been called “Hasidic Gothic,” “The Dybbuk” is haunting and atmospheric, a chilling supernatural romance that functions as a privileged glimpse into the past, to a time when rabbis regularly performed prodigious miracles, when spirits of the dead wandered the Earth and tampering with the supernatural inevitably led to the most dire results.

When two disciples of a rabbi tempt fate by betrothing their unborn children, they hardly imagine that one of the fathers will die and the other will forget his vow. So when the poor orphan son Channon and the wealthy daughter Leah (Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana, who later wed in real life) unknowingly meet and fall in love, Channon feels he has no choice but to die and enter Leah’s body on her wedding day as a dybbuk, a wandering spirit that can find no rest in the other world.

The Yiddish theater produced more than plots like “The Dybbuk.” Its epicenter, New York’s Second Avenue, was the breeding ground for stars who made the transition to films with their extensive international audiences securely in tow.

The Yiddish theater had no greater idol than Maurice Schwartz, a towering performer with an ego to match, an actor who justifies his reputation with his appearances in two Yiddish film classics, “Uncle Moses” and “Tevye.”

Released in 1932 and trumpeted as the earliest Yiddish sound film, “Uncle Moses” reveals Schwartz as an actor of effortless presence, with a rich, textured voice and piercing eyes under heavy lids. Playing a flamboyant sweatshop owner who is shocked to find that money can’t buy him love, Schwartz delights in his character’s multiple contradictions. And to see Uncle Moses cutting his fingernails with an enormous pair of scissors is to watch an actor who knew how to milk the smallest moment as if it were Hamlet’s soliloquy.

“Tevye,” which came out seven years later, was based, as were many Yiddish films, on the work of Sholem Aleichem, in this case the same group of stories that became “Fiddler on the Roof.” This is an older Schwartz, still commanding but, in keeping with the part of the celebrated philosophical diaryman, exuding wisdom and resignation. Singing, humming melodies, playing many of his best scenes to his horse, Schwartz’s Tevye is, once again, a man torn, this time between his love for his daughter Khave and his agony at her marrying outside the faith to a brawny Ukrainian peasant (played, in a nice reversal, by “The Dybbuk’s” Leon Liebgold).

Molly Picon, “the Sweetheart of Second Avenue,” was the Yiddish theater’s ultimate ingenue, an irrepressible pixie who had liveliness and spunk to spare. In 1923’s silent “East and West” she was in her prime, lifting weights and practicing boxing as a Yiddishe flapper.

By the time Picon made “Yiddle With His Fiddle” in 1936, she was 37, chronologically a bit old to play the gamin, but you’d never know it by her spitfire performance. Filmed in Poland, “Yiddle” featured Picon as a girl who masquerades as a boy so she can travel and play klezmer music with her father, stumbling into romance and stardom in the process.

With Picon singing her trademark “Oy mame, bin ikh farlibt” (“Oh mama, am I in love”), “Yiddle” was the first international Yiddish hit and led to a sequel, “Mamele,” where the always-game Picon reprised a role she’d done on stage a decade earlier.

The Yiddish series also offers a chance to sample the talents of two stage luminaries less often remembered today. “His Wife’s Lover” stars Ludwig Satz, an early sound version of Jerry Lewis, who plays a matinee idol who disguises himself as a rich old man to win a bet about the faithlessness of women. “I’m going to the place from which one can never return,” he says ominously at a key moment. “I’m going to New Jersey.”

“American Matchmaker” (“Amerikaner Shadkhn”) showcases Leo Fuchs, “the Yiddish Fred Astaire,” as a wealthy, tuxedo-wearing Mr. Big in the garment trade who can’t seem to find a wife. Disgusted after his eighth engagement falls through, he decides to learn what makes a good marriage by becoming a matchmaker. The film is fascinating for its glimpse of nouveau-riche New Yorkers trying to assimilate. “They put sleighs on their feet,” marvels a Yiddish-speaking butler about skiing lessons. “It’s a wonderful America.”

“American Matchmaker” was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a critically venerated B-picture virtuoso who made films in Ukrainian as well as Yiddish and turned out such English-language Poverty Row classics as “The Black Cat” and “Detour.” Two other films by Ulmer are featured, and they are, not surprisingly, two of the most sensitively directed of the series.

“Green Fields,” co-directed by the Yiddish Art Theater’s Jacob Ben-Ami, is an elegy to the virtues of the simple rural life, with a young scholar finding “the light of truth” among unsophisticated peasants. It stars Michael Goldstein, Helen Beverly and a very young Herschel Bernardi.

Ulmer also used Beverly in “The Light Ahead,” where she and David Opatoshu formed what author Hoberman calls “perhaps the most beautiful couple in the history of Yiddish cinema . . . their scenes have a touching erotic chemistry.” “The Light Ahead,” based on Mendele Mocher Seforim’s classic Yiddish short stories, which details a touching romance between a blind girl and a lame beggar, is one of the series’ most emotionally satisfying films.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from these efforts is what was known as shund, or trash, and one can’t leave Yiddish film without dealing with these take-no-prisoners schmaltzathons whose preposterous plot twists are exploited for all they’re worth.

The Laemmle series includes several prime suspects, including Moishe Oysher in “Overture to Glory,” a kind of Yiddish “Jazz Singer,” and the stately “Mirele Ephros,” known as “the Jewish Queen Lear,” that matches an ambitious daughter-in-law against a regal mother “with the head of a cabinet minister,” precisely the kind of woman who shouldn’t be trifled with.

Two of the best of these soap operas involve either mothers or mothering behavior. “Letter to Mother,” the highest-grossing Yiddish film of its time, called “arguably the most artful and shameless of Yiddish weepies” by Hoberman, tugs at the heartstrings with every astonishing frame of its story of lost children and found fame in the golden land of America.

Just as emotionally unrelenting is “Two Sisters,” starring Yiddish stage star Jennie Goldstein, an actress who knew how to suffer, in a story that the Center for Jewish Film surrenders to and calls a “Jewish General Hospital.” Goldstein plays the oldest of two sisters, forced to be a parent by her mother’s death, who sacrifices everything imaginable for her younger sibling. Eyes were not meant to be dry when she sobs, “I gave her my whole life, the best years of my life and just a moment ago, I gave her my soul.”

Of all the films scheduled for the Yiddish series, none is more powerful, or more surprising, than 1948’s “Long Is the Road.” Shot just after the close of World War II in Landsberg, a camp for displaced persons in Bavaria, this somber drama telescoped the previous decade’s experience of European Jews, from prosperity to Nazi-ordered ghettos to Auschwitz to those DP camps to the state of Israel, “our own land.”

Because it was made so close to actual events, “Long Is the Road” (considered by the Center for Jewish Film to be “the first feature film to represent the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective”) has a rawness and a pain that makes the line between drama and reality especially tenuous. Its also disquieting to realize that once the land of Israel was settled, those who came to live there embraced Hebrew and all but abandoned the language that had served them so grandly for a thousand years, a language that this wonderful series reveals in all its lively and irreplaceable glory.

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The Schedules

Here is a list of screenings at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869:

Today: “The Yiddish Cinema,” 11 a.m.; “Tevye,” 12:30 p.m.; “A Letter to Mother,” 2:45 p.m.; “Overture to Glory,” 5 p.m.; “The Light Ahead,” 7:15 p.m.; “The Dybbuk,” 9:30 p.m.

Monday: “East & West,” 5 p.m.; “Mamele,” 7:15 p.m.; “Yiddle With His Fiddle,” 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday: “Yizkor,” 5 p.m.; “Uncle Moses,” 7:15 p.m.; “Tevye,” 9:30 p.m.

Wednesday: “Yiddle With His Fiddle,” 5 p.m.; “A Letter to Mother,” 7:15 p.m.; “Mamele,” 9:30 p.m.

Thursday: “The Light Ahead,” 5 p.m.; “American Matchmaker,” 7:15 p.m.; “Green Fields,” 9:30 p.m.

Friday: “East & West,” 5 p.m.; “Jewish Luck,” 7:15 p.m.; “Yizkor,” 9:30 p.m.

Saturday: “Mirele Efros,” 1 p.m.; “Green Fields,” 3:15 p.m.; “Uncle Moses,” 5:30 p.m.; “Overture to Glory,” 7:45 p.m.; “American Matchmaker,” 10 p.m.

June 22: “The Dybbuk,” noon; “Yiddle With His Fiddle,” 2:45 p.m.; “Mamele,” 5 p.m.; “The Jolly Paupers,” 7:15 p.m.; “Our Children,” 9:30 p.m.

June 23: “His Excellency,” and “Comrade Abraham,” 5 p.m.; “Jewish Luck,” 7:15 p.m.; “Laughter Through Tears,” 9:30 p.m.

June 24: “Without a Home,” 5 p.m.; “Mirele Efros,” 7:15 p.m.; “God, Man & Devil,” 9:30 p.m.

June 25: “His Wife’s Lover,” 5 p.m.; “Uncle Moses,” 7:15 p.m.; “Two Sisters,” 9:30 p.m.

June 26: “Our Children,” 5 p.m.; “Long Is the Road,” 7:15 and 9:30 p.m.

Following are screening times for the Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811:

Monday: “Green Fields,” 2:30 and 7 p.m. “American Matchmaker,” 4:45 and 9:15 p.m.

Tuesday: “Overture to Glory,” 2 and 7 p.m. “The Dybbuk,” 4:15 and 9:15 p.m.

Wednesday: “The Light Ahead,” 2:30 and 7 p.m. “God, Man & Devil,” 4:45 and 9:15 p.m.

Thursday: “Uncle Moses,” 2:30 and 7 p.m. “Tevye,” 4:45 and 9:15 p.m.

June 23: “A Letter to Mother,” 2:30 and 7 p.m. “Two Sisters,” 4:45 and 9:15 p.m.

June 24: “Long Is the Road,” 2:30 and 7 p.m. “Our Children,” 4:45 and 9:15 p.m.

June 25: “Yiddle With His Fiddle,” 2:30 and 7 p.m. “Mamele,” 4:45 and 9:15 p.m.

June 26: “Mirele Efros,” 2:30 and 7 p.m. “Without a Home,” 4:45 and 9:15 p.m.


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