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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Four Yiddish Film Clips Everyone Should See

Someone sent me an email requesting that I write another blog post about Yiddish. At first I was honored to find out that someone was reading my blog often enough to care what topics I was covering and to make a request. My second reaction was panic. Panic? How you ask, does someone who spends more time thinking about, dealing with and blabbing on about texts/films/people in Yiddish than any other subject become panicked by the prospect of blogging about Yiddish? Well, actually for exactly that reason. I’ve got too much to say about Yiddish to easily mold it into a series of blog-posts. Blog-posts should generally be short (although mine usually aren’t). Plus, I’ve been using this blog as way to write about all the non-Yiddish aspects of my life and especially to provide a record of my semester abroad to consult in three or four decades when my memory needs prompting.

Furthermore, I’ve already written a ton of material about Yiddish, specifically five articles on different topics (three ideological, two research related) and I have another dozen outlined. And because I’m planning on publishing these articles, I can’t (and don’t want to) cover the material on my blog. On the other hand, as I am writing this blog in large part at the request of friends and one of them requested a post on Yiddish, I feel I owe him/her said post. All of this raises the question; what can I write about that’s related to Yiddish that I’ll never cover in a published article in a print publication?

In the end I chose Youtube. The world’s greatest collection of unfiltered human memory also contains thousands of films in Yiddish and tens of thousands on Jewish topics. But most of those films about Yiddish are in Yiddish and hence unintelligible to the vast majority of people reading this blog. So I took an afternoon, watched a few hundred films and weeded out the films in Yiddish with English subtitles which I felt that the largest number of people would enjoy and perhaps learn something from (don’t worry, they’re not the least bit didactic). These are films which will appeal to Jews who don’t speak any Yiddish, Yiddish speakers who don’t know anything about the topics covered, as well as non-Jews who have no particular interest in Yiddish and are just interested in various cultural and artistic topics. I elected to highlight films in Yiddish specifically to promote them (as much as this hardly read blog promotes anything) and also so that Yiddish speakers unfamiliar with them could hear interesting varieties of cultured (and purposely-uncultured) Yiddish.

Although the thing I most like about Youtube is all of the original content which is made specifically for Youtube, three of the four clips that follow are excerpts from professionally made movies. This was basically unavoidable. At the present juncture I am the only person in the world making original film clips for Youtube in Yiddish with English subtitles. There are another seven or eight people exclusively making original Yiddish films for Youtube but they are not subtitled. Hence the vast majority of the films in Yiddish with translations are excerpts from professionally made documentaries. I have chosen not to highlight any of my own films because I will be doing lots of things with them on this blog in the coming months.

Beyle Schaechter Gottesman
is one of the great living links in the chain of Jewish cultural tradition. Born in Vienna in 1920, she grew up in Czernowitz Ukraine (later Romania). After surviving the Holocaust, she moved to America in 1951 and has lived in the Bronx ever since. Her poetry and song-writing career began when she contributed to Yiddish language children’s magazines and edited the writings of the students at her children’s own afternoon Yiddish school in the Bronx. Poetry for adults, as well as ballads and reworkings of traditional folksongs brought wide acclaim but she remains most proud of her songs and poetry books for young readers.

I’ve had the pleasure of having several long conversations with her and talking to her about her work and her creative process. She’s a warm person with a soft welcoming presence who prefers not to talk about herself too much but to hear other people’s stories. Despite her sometimes self-effacing nature, or perhaps because of it, Schaechter-Gottesman has served as an unparalleled mentor to two generations of Yiddish singers from diverse backgrounds, as well as a resource to traditional singers working in other languages. Her songs have been covered by practically every major non-Hasidic Yiddish singer and are taught and sung around the world. Her son Itzik is a folklorist and expert in Yiddish song as well as an editor at the Yiddish edition of the Forward (Forverts). Her granddaughter Esther is a Yiddish singer and teacher as well (there’s a wonderful clip of them singing together and her reciting an English translation of one of her grandmother’s poems on a BBC documentary on Yiddish that can be heard here at the 3:50 mark).

Her brother was the Yiddish linguist/professor Mordkhe Schaechter whose children and grandchildren are all active in the Yiddish cultural world (naming them all with proper bios would take up another four paragraphs so I’ll have to cover them in a later blog post.)

Gottesman’s poetry is multilayered and rhythmic, often telling a simple story with clusters of meaning hidden in rhymed alliteration which are only discovered upon reading the poem (or hearing the song) a second, third or fourth time. In short, much of her poetry first appears deceptively simple but carries a weight that returns in waves of understanding hours and even days after reading it. Gottesman revels in capturing everyday experience and reflecting on it in verse. She has described her poetry to me as “physically rooted,” usually reflecting on physical sights, sounds and smells rather than esoteric emotions. Or rather, she uses ordinary physical imagery in order to reflect on higher level emotions. Her poetry jumps from rural towns in pre-war Europe to the hustle and bustle of New York (listen to the BBC clip) and everything in between. Her imagery includes flowers, car engines, angels, the moon and stars as well as machine guns. Her topics cover an equally wide territory, from ballads about the Holocaust to her haunting “Ballad of September 11th” from children’s songs about geese to comical reflections on New York City traffic and everything in between. Her most famous song is probably her ballad (harbstlid: song of autumn), a reflection on growing older.

Gottesman won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005 for lifetime achievement. This is the highest honor an artist can receive from the US government, and it marked the first time that an artist working in Yiddish received the award. Here’s an interview she conducted with them in 2005:

Shimon Dzigan
(Lodz 1905-1980 Tel Aviv) and Israel Shumacher (1908-1961) were the greatest Yiddish comedians of the 20th century. Popular theater and film stars before the Holocaust, the duo escaped to the Soviet Union during the war where they ended up being interned in a Soviet Gulag. After returning to what was left of Jewish Poland, Dzigan became convinced that humor would provide an effective therapy for traumatized Jewish Holocaust orphans. The duo lead ground breaking role-playing psychotherapy for Jewish children in orphanages outside of Lodz (1947-1950) and made a docu-drama feature movie about their experiences (undzere kinder: our children). The movie was unfortunately banned and forgotten until recent years. The two restarted their comedy act in Israel, adapting their old routines to reflect the different political and social reality in Israel. They soon left Israel for Argentina due to the government ban on Yiddish theater. When they returned the ban had loosened somewhat and the duo remained successful despite the fact that none of their material was played on the radio due to Yiddish radio being illegal (news and emergency announcements were permitted in Yiddish but there were no dramas or comedy on the radio as there was in English, German, or Arabic). After Shumacher’s early death, Dzigan continued with a solo-career which culminated in his being the first Yiddish entertainer to perform (with subtitles) on Israeli TV in the late 1970s. The introduction to this show, as well as the skit itself, highlight Dzigan’s approach to Jewish humor. Both Dzigan and Shumacher were amateur folklorists who re-adapted the work of popular Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem as well as routines they learned by interviewing people.

Outside of the Jewish world their film Our Children has gained prestige among film historians as well as psychologists and historians of the Holocaust for being the first film to realistically portray posttraumatic stress in children and for being the first film to criticize how the Holocaust was presented in popular media. Here's a summary of a workshop at a psychological conference based on the film:

Yale Strom’s Film The Last Klezmer may be my single favorite film made about Eastern European Jewry (and that’s saying a heck of a lot). The film follows the incomparable Leopold Kozlowski as he struggles to make sure the title of this movie becomes a misnomer, i.e. to pass on the legacy of Klezmer music he grew up with before the Holocaust to a group of devoted (mostly non-Jewish) students in Krakow. I spoke with Yale recently in Israel and am happy to report that Mr. Kozlowski is still performing and teaching in Poland. This clip is self-explanatory.

Despite the turmoil of the past seventy years, the high quality New York Yiddish newspaper the Forverts (largely supported by its much more widely read English language sister-paper The Forward) soldiers on in New York under the editorship of a new generation of Yiddish scholars and writers. I originally subscribed to the paper out of loyalty to the language but now read it for the articles it publishes covering issues and perspectives which don’t appear in any other paper. Among the columns I most enjoy are the political coverage of Israel and the contemporary science articles. They also run frequent “dispatches” from Jewish communities around the world, something the paper has been doing since it was established in 1897. (As several young readers have complained to me, the paper is at times heavily weighted down in scholarship on Eastern European Jewish history, articles which would be better suited to appear in a historical review or scholarly journal if such a thing still existed in Yiddish but this will of course be a boon to Jewish historians in a generation or two, albeit only those few literate in Yiddish). This film covers the daily operations of the newspaper. The version in Yiddish has more than 130,000 views. The version in Yiddish with English subtitles curiously enough only has a little over 700.


  1. Hi Jordan, thank you for making reference to our conference on Undzere Kinder:

    Please note he link on your blog does not work because of a blank space after the .htm.

    Best, Maurice Preter MD

  2. Dr. Preter, thanks for responding to me and correcting the web address. I was very happy to hear about the conference. How did it go?

  3. Our Nov. 2007 workshop at Yivo was a special event in the reception of Unzere Kinder and more generally, in the study of the massive traumatization and developmental disruption caused by the Shoah. I am still hoping to edit the footage we have and to create a documentary video of the conference.

    Best, Dr. Preter