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Yiddish cinema

A Dictionary of Film Studies

Annette Kuhn,

Guy Westwell

Yiddish cinema 

A body of films made in the Yiddish language from the earliest years of cinema until the late 1930s, usually inspired by canonical and popular Yiddish literature and theatre (at the turn of the 20th century, Yiddish was the mother tongue of some ten million Jews worldwide). Production was initially centred in areas of Eastern and Central Europe with large Jewish populations, most prominently in Poland. In the 1930s, with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the migration of many Jews across the Atlantic, the centre of Yiddish film production shifted to the US. The coming of sound launched the heyday of Yiddish cinema, with such classics as Joseph Green’s Yidl mit’n Fidl/Yiddle with His Fiddle (US, 1936) and the celebrated Der Dibek/The Dybbuk (Michał Waszyήski, Poland, 1938). Some Jewish émigré directors of mainstream US films, among them Austrian-born Edgar G. Ulmer also made films in Yiddish (Grine Felder/Green Fields, US, 1937). Many stars of the Yiddish stage appeared in Yiddish films, and some later went on to work in mainstream film and television: for example Molly Picon, star of Yidl mit’n Fidl, appeared in the highly successful Hollywood film Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, 1971). When the Jewish homeland of Israel was established after World War II, the Yiddish language was rejected as a product of diasporic European Jewish culture; and this extended to Yiddish cultural productions, including film.

While the Yiddish-language film no longer exists as such, themes and sensibilities characteristic of Yiddish cinema live on in the work of a number of Jewish filmmakers in the diaspora. Yentl (Barbra Streisand, US, 1983), Hester Street (Joan Micklin Silver, US, 1975), and Fiddler on the Roof are adapted from Jewish literary sources: respectively a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer; Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novel, Yekl; and various stories by Sholem Aleichem. Directors Mel Brooks and Woody Allen draw on a brand of comedy-in-catastrophe humour characteristic of Yiddish cinema and broader Yiddish culture. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s A Serious Man (US, 2009) also presents a direct homage to Yiddish cinema in its opening scene, set in a central European shtetl and featuring a putative dybbuk (ghost) and Yiddish dialogue. In film studies, work on Yiddish cinema has largely been devoted to documenting the films and the history of the genre; and there is also some work on the historical audience for Yiddish films. See also diasporic cinema.

Further Reading:

Hoberman, J. Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds (1991).Find this resource:

    Paskin, Sylvia (ed.), When Joseph Met Molly: A Reader on Yiddish Film (1999).Find this resource:

      Toffell, Gil ‘ “Come See, and Hear, the Mother Tongue!” Yiddish Cinema in Interwar London’, Screen, 50 (3), 277–98, (2009).Find this resource: