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Betta St. John,
Ulmer's soulful, open-air adaptation of Peretz Hirshbein's classic play heralded the Golden Age of Yiddish cinema. When an ascetic young scholar ventures into the countryside, searching for the city of "true Jews," he learns some unexpected lessons from the Jewish peasants who take him in as a tutor for their children. Written by
National Center for Jewish Film
The film was shot in five days after six weeks of rehearsal. Director Edgar G. Ulmer said in an interview that the producers raised the money ($8,000) for the film by hocking furniture. When the film laboratory threatened to foreclose on the film because they hadn't been paid, the head of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, David Dubinsky, purchased 75,000 tickets in advance, after he saw and liked a rough cut of the film. See more »
Restored by the National Center for Jewish Films and the American Jewish Historical Society, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, this 1938 film is co-directed by Jacob Ben-Ami who was an important figure in Yiddish theatre, and film-maker Edgar G Ulmer.
The screenplay is based on the popular play by Peretz Hirschbein, a writer who was interested in presenting the rural communities and traditional life of East-European Jews of Poland, Russia and the Ukraine which began to disappear at the turn of the century when Jews became more secularised and emigrated to more hospitable urban areas. The play was produced in 1923, with Hirshbein's view idyllising the old way of life, with the production filmed in New Jersey countryside on a shoe-string budget.
The narrative of a yeshiva student leaving his synagogue to find "truth", stems from a repeated quote from the Torah "A man without land is not a man. Heaven is the Lord's heaven and he has given the earth unto man". This philosophy prepares us for a paean to the working classes, here represented as neighbouring peasants who squabble over whose house the student will live in, and whose children gossip about kisses and romance. The fact that they view the student with awe, as an intelletual and therefore superior to them, is a lesson for the student. He must overlook their pettiness and stupidity, to learn that "The Lord desires both Torah and the land".
The idea of a peasant's daughter having a romantic interest in the student at first seems odd, particularly as he is posed the way Jesus Christ is posed in standard Hollywood Christian film. We see that rural female are outspoken and sexually aggressive, but the student is noticeably asexual, physically weak, and rocks neurotically back and forth even when not praying. When the daughter suggests she study with him, the way a boy is, we have a touch of the progressive feminist Yentl, until we realise it is only a feminine ruse.
Perhaps one has to make a dated concession for the material, but modern audiences read the drama as low comedy. The only interesting features are the specific rituals eg the girl's mother telling her to dress modestly "or he won't even look at you", how being barefoot is forbidden, and especially how the mother breathes on her daughter's forehead then spits, presumably a wish of good fortune.
That the actors come from a Yiddish theatre background thankfully doesn't mean we get over-acting. However one is surprised to hear that the student has been with one family for a month, as the passage of time is not shown.
Visually the direction often draws attention to the stage origins, with the camera at audience level to be able to take in the group of people talking.
That this is said to be the only fully restored Yiddish film in existence is a tribute. One only wishes the material wasn't so disappointing. If you consider the same play in a Goy millieu, (this isn't being anti-semitic, I hope, because Jews aren't the only people with vanished communities), one would have less reason for celebration.
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