Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Shtetl Humor

Back before World War II (when Yiddish was a thriving language) it was standard practice for the great works of literature and song to be translated into Yiddish. The translators often boasted about how they had managed to improve on the original. There was even a Yiddish-language Western!

Up in the Jewish Alps, the comedians working at resorts in the Catskills often wrote parodies of popular hit songs. In the following clip, you can hear the great Borscht belt comedian, Mickey Katz (Joel Grey's father) singing "How Much Is That Pickle In The Window?"

Many years later, Conan O'Brien surprised Jennifer Grey (Katz's granddaughter) with a strange request. Yiddish humor -- backed by the sound of klezmer music -- quickly took over the airwaves (you can watch the clip here).  In the following clip from 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie, Julie Andrews sings in Yiddish.

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Several weeks ago, just prior to the opening night performance of My Fair Lady, Harriet Schlader walked out onto the stage of the Woodminster Amphitheatre and announced that, by popular demand, the 2012 Woodminster Summer Musicals season would open with a revival of Fiddler on the Roof. By a happy coincidence, the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival featured a handsome helping of Yiddishkeit with screenings of a new documentary entitled Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness as well as a restored print of 1939's Tevye.

Produced  and directed by its star, Maurice Schwartz (who was the actor-director of the Yiddish Art Theatre), Tevye takes a harsher approach to the story of the milkman's daughter, Chava (Miriam Riselle), who falls in love with a handsome young Russian, Fedye Galagen (Leon Liebgold), who is not Jewish. Among the familiar faces are Tevye's wife, Golde (Rebecca Weintraubt) and his eldest daughter Tzeitl (Paula Ubelski).

Tevye (Maurice Schwartz) with his daughter Chavah (Miriam Riselle)

While Sholem Aleichem's short stories were a huge hit in print, his plays did not always fare as well  at Yiddish-speaking theatre companies (the great Yiddish actor, Jacob Adler, refused to play Tevye onstage). Seven decades later, one of the movie's great joys is the chance for modern audiences to hear the distinct musicality of the Yiddish language (there are clear English titles in this beautifully restored print from The National Center for Jewish Film).

Tevye (Maurice Schwartz) reading to Shloimele (Vicki Marcus)
and Perele (Betty Marcus) in the 1939 film version of Tevye

What I found fascinating while watching Tevye was how more clearly defined the struggle between the Jews and non-Jews was in shtetl life. Winning Chavah over to Christianity was a major coup for the Aleksei (Julius Adler), the local priest. Tevye's grief is palpable, while Fedye's father, Mikita (Daniel Makarenko) and his wife (Helen Grossman) are depicted as crude and insensitive. Once married, Chavah became miserable at the thought of being disowned (and declared dead) by her family.

Not too many people know that Tevye was the first film not made in English to be added to the Library of Congress’s prestigious National Film Registry -- or that Schwartz's 1939 film was shot in rural New Jersey. Here's the trailer:

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Written and directed by Joseph Dorman, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is a poignant documentary which captures a world of literature that was almost wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis (for a fascinating description of how that literature was saved, I highly recommend Aaron Lansky's thrilling book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued A Million Yiddish Books). Fill with wonderful vintage photographs, Dorman's film is highly educational and grandly entertaining. Who knew that more than 200,000 people showed up for the author's funeral in New York City in May of 1916!

Crowds pay tribute to Sholem Aleichem at his funeral in 1916

In his lengthy director's statement (which I have quoted below), Dorman explains the powerful and deeply personal impact of working on a documentary about Sholem Aleichem:
"Like most documentary filmmakers, I 'stumble' on the ideas for the films I make. For a film to be any good at all, I think, it has to tap into a part of the subconscious; to trigger some unresolved issue that one needs to work through. In the case of Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a friend, Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Yiddish and Jewish studies at Rutgers, first suggested the idea of a film on the author and I reluctantly began to explore it with him. I knew little about Sholem Aleichem except that he had written the stories of Tevye the Dairyman that had become the basis of Fiddler on the Roof. I remembered that my parents had a copy of the Tevye stories on their bookshelf, but I couldn’t remember anyone in my home ever picking it up to read it.
As I would soon learn, generations of Jews had copies of books by Sholem Aleichem on their shelf, even if they never read them. They functioned as a kind of talisman of Jewishness. And like most of those people, I imagined Sholem Aleichem to be some old Yiddish grandfather, his stories pieces of schmaltz like so much of popular Jewish culture. It must be full of nostalgia wrapped in sentimentality to be served in overstuffed portions for the Jewish masses."
Sholem Aleichem
"Of course, I knew nothing. I was afflicted by the general amnesia that affects much of American Jewry regarding an East European world from which we came a little more or less than a hundred years ago. That amnesia is abetted by the overwhelming American desire to assimilate, to fit in; to misremember one’s past in order to shape it for present and future needs.
I soon discovered through the help of Jeffrey and the work of people like Ruth Wisse, Dan Miron, Hillel Halkin, David Roskies and others who appear in the film was that Sholem Aleichem was a writer of complexity and depth. That his work was full of irony and darkness and his world far different from the one I had imagined it to be.

Sholem Aleichem was, in fact, a modern master of the short story and especially the monologue, so much so that he could take his intuitive understanding of common Yiddish speech, place that speech in the mouth of a semi-literate 19th century Jewish shtetl dweller, and produce psychologically and sociologically complex portraits of a deteriorating world and its poor and disoriented inhabitants. And somehow, on top of it all, he could be generous enough in spirit to serve almost singlehandedly as a cultural backbone for a Jewish civilization desperately in need of support and encouragement. That he could, in short, stare directly into the darkness and laugh, and, miraculously, make others laugh with him."
Sholem Aleichem
"What I also discovered was that Sholem Aleichem, who had so brilliantly held up a mirror to those shtetl Jews, could somehow still hold a mirror up to me so that I could understand my life better, could understand how I perceived the world, and how it felt to be a Jew in a world where my own religious beliefs were constantly in flux and the traditions of my parents and grandparents eroding all around me. I had struggled all my life with what it meant to be a Jew if I didn’t pray weekly, much less daily; if I sometimes believed in God and sometimes didn’t. I learned that my confusion was also Sholem Aleichem’s confusion and Tevye’s confusion, and that that link was vital to me as it had been to my great-grandparents in the shtetl. The important thing, in the end, is to wrestle with the ambivalences of identity. Only by doing so can we hope to hold on to our ever‐shifting identities in any meaningful way.

While Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness is technically a biography, I have never quite seen it that way. I wanted to use Sholem Aleichem to explore an entire world and felt I could because he managed to embody that world in his work and his life. In fact for many, the very phrase “the world of Sholem Aleichem” has become shorthand for the 19th century world of the shtetl. In the same way that I was able to discover my own East European Jewish past through Sholem Aleichem’s work, to reconnect with it, I hope that those who watch the film can do the same. I had been given an idea for a film and stumbled onto a powerful personal exploration. I can only hope that those who happen to 'stumble' into the theater because of something they’ve read in the paper or the words of a friend can find their way back to Sholem Aleichem and his work, too. If they do, they will find no answers -- Sholem Aleichem was too shrewd to think that there were any -- but, instead, a host of questions that will echo provocatively throughout the course of their lives."
Sholem Aleichem

Narrated by Alan Rosenberg, Dorman's film features Peter Riegert doing voice work for Tevye and Rachel Dratch lending her voice to the character of Shayne Sheyndl. Among the talking heads are the above-mentioned Aaron Lansky and Bel Kaufman (Sholem Aleichem's granddaughter who wrote Up the Down Staircase). Here's the trailer:

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Odd pieces of Yiddishkeit can always be found on YouTube. Here are three of my favorites:

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