“If you live long enough,” celebrated Yiddish-language novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “you see everything.” Even, as it turns out, the first-ever Blu-ray boxed set presenting a fascinating selection of films in that Nobel Prize winner’s native tongue.
Brand new from Kino Lorber is the five-disc compilation “The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema,” a collection that includes everything from an impeccable 2K restoration of 1937’s dazzling “The Dybbuk,” the odds-on choice as the best Yiddish film ever made, to more modest but still involving efforts “Eli Eli,” “Overture to Glory” and the wonderfully titled “The Yiddish King Lear.”
If Yiddish-language films have escaped your notice up to now, that is not necessarily a surprise. As Serge Bromberg, whose Paris-based Lobster Films oversaw these restorations, has written, “The entirety of Yiddish cinema is, at most, a hundred films shot mainly in Poland, Russia and the United States between 1930 and 1950.”
More than that, these films were mostly not intended for prime time. Intensely, unapologetically Jewish, rich with shared cultural references and inside jokes, they were never supposed to be shown to anyone who didn’t speak the language.
Taken individually and as a whole, they are more or less the home movies of a culture, enabling us to share in the emotional life of a bygone world, to worry as its members did about questions of morality and marriage, love and loss.
Yet, despite numerous obstacles, the passion and talent involved could result in films so exceptional that their quality in effect universalized them. These movies were in fact so widely appealing that, in the course of his restorations, Bromberg discovered elements in archives around the world, including Germany, Poland, France, Israel and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Bromberg began this project by restoring two acknowledged classics and a highly unusual third film. New subtitles were commissioned to better capture the spirit and nuances of the original Yiddish, and when older titles had been burned into the print, they were hidden behind subtle gray boxes on which the new titles were written.
Most care was understandably lavished on the exceptional “Dybbuk,” directed by Michal Waszynski (who improbably ended his career producing for Hollywood director Anthony Mann) and praised by critic Parker Tyler in his “Classics of the Foreign Film” as “as one of the most solemn attestations to the mystic powers of the spirit that imagination has ever purveyed to the film reel.”
Stylish and atmospheric, infused with an unnerving air of legend and dream as well as a feeling for ill-fated romance, “Dybbuk” tells what happens when two friends tempt fate by betrothing their unborn son and daughter.
But when one father dies and the other forgets his vow, the son feels he has no choice but to die and enter his betrothed’s body as a dybbuk, a wandering spirit that can find no rest in the other world. It’s as spooky as it sounds.
More down-to-earth but no less compelling is 1939’s “Tevya,” based on the same Sholem Aleichem stories that became “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was written and directed by its star, Maurice Schwartz, a legend of the Yiddish theater who was every bit as much of a force of nature as those three credits implies.
Here Schwartz plays the philosophical dairyman of the title, given to talking to God and conversing with his horse with equal fervor, someone torn between his love for a daughter and his despair that she is falling for a brawny Ukrainian peasant.
The last of Bromberg’s three key restorations is 1935’s “Mir Kumen On,” literally “We’re on Our Way” but sometimes titled “Children Must Laugh.”
A partially staged documentary in the manner of “Nanook of the North,” the film begins with wrenching shots of Polish urban poverty that makes “people suffer more than in Hell.” It then switches scene to a bucolic sanatorium where children are treated for tuberculosis and trained to be part of the proletariat. “Tomorrow runs toward us,” the children confidently sing, unaware that that tomorrow will be darker than they imagine.
Although these three films are the heart of “Jewish Soul,” when Kino Lorber got involved in the project it thought about something bigger, something more of a piece with two earlier projects, “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” and “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.”
“The more films we can present, the more comprehensive we can be, the deeper we can dive,” says Bret Wood, Kino Lorber’s producer of archival releases. Through his sources, Bromberg was able to procure another seven films for the box, up to and including audience-friendly works made simply to be enjoyed by their entertainment-hungry intended viewers.
Some of these films had an aspirational element, like 1940’s “American Matchmaker” starring Leo Fuchs, sometimes known as “the Yiddish Fred Astaire.”
Here Fuchs plays a tuxedo-wearing Mr. Big, “one of the richest men in the garment business” who “sleeps alone like a night watchman.” Disgusted after his eighth engagement falls through, he determines to learn what makes a good marriage by becoming a matchmaker himself. It’s interesting both for its mixture of Yiddish and English and for tangy lines like, “A family curse can cross the ocean without getting its feet wet.”
Evoking universal themes in a particular Yiddish-speaking way were 1935’s “The Yiddish King Lear,” based on the celebrated Jacob Gordin play about a wealthy businessman who trusts his relatives with his riches, and 1940’s “Eli Eli,” which, like Leo McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow,” focuses on parents who can’t depend on the kindness of their children.
Most universal of all are stories of romance and relationships, of different generations seeing the opposite sex in opposing ways. Titles like “Her Second Mother” and “Three Daughters” don’t shrink from lines like, “My enemies should have such a son-in-law,” sentiments that both provide a window into a world that is no more and demonstrate how close it can sometimes feel.