Just by coincidence it would seem, two films opened yesterday in New York that would be of particular interest to any Jew who, like me, has affection for the Yiddish language and more generally those who are curious about Jewish culture. The more successful of the two is the documentary “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Since it persuaded me to read some of the fiction of a writer I had never considered worth my time, one can say that at least one goal of the film’s makers had been achieved.
The other is playing a couple of blocks away at Lincoln Center’s brand-new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Titled “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish”, it is a Godardesque attempt at showing the attempts of an aspiring Yiddishist, played by writer-director Eve Annenberg, at creating a Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s classic with actors drawn from the Satmar sect in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Since the cast is made up primarily of young people who broke with the Satmar sect, whose real-life struggles to define themselves are woven into the film, it is noteworthy on that basis alone.
Born in 1859, Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich started out writing in Russian and Hebrew, the liturgical language of the Jews, but decided early on that he could reach more people by writing in Yiddish. He eventually used a pen name that meant “Good Health”, linking him to the American writer he is most often compared to: Mark Twain.
Using some of the most amazing archival film footage and photographs of the Russian shtetl (Jewish village) that in and of themselves are worth the price of admission, the film sets the context for Aleichem’s fiction. Despite the utter backwardness of Jewish life, there were young, educated people like Solomon Rabinovich who were grappling with the problem of “modernization”.
The Russian and Polish Jews who lived in the Pale were burdened by traditions that had little to do with the relentless wave of capitalist development that Karl Marx once described this way:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
The film includes a lengthy discussion of “Tevye’s Daughters”, the novel that would be turned into the Catskill Mountain summer theater favorite “Fiddler on the Roof”, and a movie that I never found reason to watch. As it turns out, one of Teyve’s daughters runs off with a Jewish Marxist revolutionary and the other with a Russian Christian who persuades her to convert. They are the Jews of the future and Teyve represents “Tradition”, as one of the better-known songs from the musical puts it. This dramatic tension still exists in the Jewish community but mostly around the question of Israel. Ironically, Aleichem was an ardent Zionist who died long before he could see how Israel organized a campaign to wipe out Yiddish, something that the movie points out. One of the saddest things about Israel, other than the brutality it shows Palestinians, is the lobotomy it has performed on Jewish culture. The Yiddish language is a singularly expressive language even though its demise is understandable given the inexorable processes described by Karl Marx.
Early on in “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish”, we see Romeo/Lazer Weiss, who is wearing the black garb and side-curls of the Satmar in the claims room at an airport trying to get paid for a bunch of items that were supposedly lost in transit. When the airport agent asks him for proof of his ownership, he dumps a pile of tickets on the man’s desk and begins whining in broken English about his rights. Assuming that anybody that religious (Lazer begins praying out loud while the clerk pours through the tickets) is on the level, the clerk approves his claim.
A few minutes later we see Lazer hooking up with his two cronies, renegades from the Satmar sect like him, who are living in the back of a van. He takes off his black clothing and dons a warm-up suit, and removes his fake side-curls. They then light up a joint that they pass among each other. They are what are called gonifs in Yiddish, or thieves.
This is not the only film that dramatizes Hasidic criminality. In April of 2010, I reviewed “Holy Rollers”, a film based on true events, namely the participation of Hasidic youth in a drug-running scheme that took advantage of their seeming “holiness”, the same scam run by Lazer Weiss in the airport claims office.
What makes Lazer Weiss’s performance as a con artist interesting is that this is exactly what he was doing in real life before director Eve Annenberg recruited him to play Romeo. Melissa Weisz, another renegade from the Satmar sect, plays Juliet. In real life the two reprobate youth have become lovers. What makes their performance so compelling is their ability to speak Yiddish fluently (the film is subtitled in such instances.) Unlike people like Eve Annenberg, who developed a scholarly interest in Yiddish as an adult, these are people for whom it is the mameloshn, or mother tongue.
I have no problems recommending this film despite my feeling that Annenberg bit off more than she could chew. The script never completely reconciles the characters on and offstage and you get the feeling that she is stretching the point by seeing Satmar feuds as anything remotely as deadly as the Montague-Capulet feud that Shakespeare wrote about, or—for that matter—the rumble between Puerto Ricans and gringo gang members in “West Side Story”. There are feuds among Hasidic sects, but none that have ever led to killings.
Despite this, she has accomplished a major artistic and cultural achievement by putting Yiddish at center stage, a language that I loved listening to as a young man in the Catskills where people from Sholem Aleichem’s shtetls used to vacation. My mother and father both spoke Yiddish, particularly when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying. Some of their expressions had a power that I imagine Hebrew will never be able to complete with, or English for that matter. When a customer would give my normally patient father a hard time over what he was charging for a pound of tomatoes (39 cents back in 1958, like nothing you can buy today), he might say something like Gai kaken oifen hoyz, which means go shit on your house.
Fifty years ago my Yiddish was a lot better than it is today. One of the projects I have on my to-do list (I refrain from thinking in terms of a bucket list) after retirement is to study Yiddish. A year ago or so I bought a book titled “Born to Kvetch” by Michael Wex that I hope to get to around that time to kick things off. Kvetching means complaining–something that all Jews are good at (me particularly). I will conclude with this passage from Wex’s book:
If you really want to impress someone who asks if you speak Yiddish, you don’t say yo (yes); you don’t say, a frage! (some question) or tsi red ikhyidish (do I speak Yiddish?). No, just say halevay voltn ale azoy geret, “if only everybody spoke it the way I do,” and you won’t have to say anything else. You will have shown that you know not only the words but also the worldview: no one speaks Yiddish like you do and no one ever will. Much as you’d like to be able to converse with your equals-in-Yiddish, it just isn’t going to happen on this side of heaven.