Still from “Menashe,” courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival.
GOES TO THE MOVIES
THE UNLIKELY FLOWERING OF
by A.J. GOLDMANN
Every few years UNESCO issues a report, “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.” In this year’s edition, Yiddish is listed as “Definitely Endangered.” As dire as that sounds, that’s still not as bad as the fate of other languages that are said to be “Severely Endangered,” “Critically Endangered,” and — the kiss of death — “Extinct.”
But even as it finds a place on the endangered list, Yiddish is being preserved as a living language in ultra-Orthodox precincts like Williamsburg and Monsey in the U.S. and Bnei Brak and Jerusalem in Israel. The history and use of the language is also being studied and chronicled in places like YIVO in New York City and the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
But Yiddish might have one other savior: the movies. Yiddish is making a modest but consistent comeback in a variety of new films, both at film festivals and in general release. The latest of these is called Menashe, the story of a 38-year-old grocer, a Hasidic Jew, who fights to retain custody of his son following his wife’s death. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if Menashe becomes the first Yiddish non-Holocaust film to achieve moderate art-house success. It’s full of compassion and pathos. In Yiddish.
What is striking about Menashe is that it was written in English and translated into Yiddish for the shoot. The filmmaker, Joshua Z. Weinstein, is a secular Jew who does not speak Yiddish. One scholar calls this translation effort “trans-vernacular” and it is something that is the new reality for most of contemporary Yiddish cinema.
When it comes to this genre of film, Menashe is just the tip of the new Yiddish iceberg. Over the past few years we have probably heard more Yiddish in movie theaters than at any time since World War I. Between 1911 and 1950, hundreds of Yiddish films were released. That was followed by a 60-year dry spell that was broken in 2010 by Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, which opens with a curious 10-minutelong parable entirely in Yiddish.
The following year, 2011, there were at least two Yiddish entries, both by women directors: Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, by Eve Annenberg, and In Darkness, a film about Jews hiding in Lvov’s sewer system during World War II, by Agnieszka Holland. There was even a web TV series in Yiddish called YidLife Crisis that debuted in 2014. Capping the mini-revival of Yiddish was Son of Saul, directed by Laszlo Nemes, which won the Oscar in 2016 for best foreign film. The film, which takes place in a Nazi death camp, is technically in Hungarian, but many languages — including German, Hungarian, French, Russian, and Greek — are spoken by the frightened and confused prisoners. In the end, Yiddish accounts for roughly 70 percent of the film’s dialogue.
How Son of Saul became so heavily Yiddish was something of a journey. The script, by Nemes and Clara Royer, was originally written in Hungarian, and later translated into Yiddish and the other languages not native to the writers. This transvernacular process — a term applied by Rebecca Margolis of the University of Ottawa — is the primary mode in which Yiddish films are made nowadays. In an excellent article that appears in In Geveb, the online journal of Yiddish studies, Margolis claims that transvernacular Yiddish represents a new chapter in Yiddish film history.
“In this new mode, Yiddish appears as a fluently spoken language produced by, and for, non-fluent Yiddish speakers,” she writes. Through such a process, she continues, Yiddish becomes “readily available to meet the artistic vision of the filmmaker.”
“It’s a relationship of big trust and understanding that must be between the director, the scriptwriter and the consultant,” explained Mendy Cahan, a Yiddishist who served as language coach on Son of Saul. Speaking by Skype from his cluttered office at the YUNG YiDiSH Living Museum on the fifth floor of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, Cahan, a Belgium-born Israeli in his mid-50s, described his task on set: “What we tried to do was to give all kinds of different patinas of Yiddish: Moldavian Yiddish, Transylvania Yiddish; sounds which have been lost.”
Between puffs of his cigarette, Cahan explained that the varieties of Yiddish spoken were tailored to both the artistic needs of the film and of the actors. “We weighed and measured the words, based on their sound, their shortness, on the rhythm of things. Also, because we worked with different actors who come with different linguistic landscapes, let’s say, in their body. So I also worked with adapting the Yiddish to that. For instance, if we had someone from Czechoslovakia, we tried to make him speak Moldavian Yiddish, which would suit his way of speaking more than, say, Litvish” — Lithuanian — “Yiddish.”
Currently, Cahan is acting in an Austrian production, Murer: An Anatomy of a Trial, about Franz Murer, the Nazi known as the “Butcher of Vilnius,” who was acquitted after a weeklong trial in Graz in the 1970s and died at a ripe old age in the Alps. In the film, Cahan plays one of the witnesses at the trial. “To use Yiddish in a German-speaking film is actually quite nice, because people can understand it directly and still it’s different,” he muses. “They know it’s a Jew speaking, and they feel also a sense of what they don’t hear on the streets anymore.” That sentiment echoed the curious experience I had of watching Der Dybbuk, the classic 1937 Yiddish horror film, at the Berlin Kinemathek several years ago. The surprisingly full German (non-Jewish) audience at the screening chuckled through the ghostly melodrama in mirthful recognition of the familiar vocabulary and the off-kilter grammar. To quote the old joke: After all, everyone knows that German is just poorly spoken Yiddish.
For American and Israeli audiences as well, there seems to be a long-established view of Yiddish as a perfect vehicle for comedy, a perception that Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the Coen Brothers have done much to reinforce. One of the first occasions on which mainstream film audiences encountered Yiddish post-World War II was Blazing Saddles (1974), which memorably featured Brooks as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief.
“Son of Saul,” via Films Distribution.
This view of the Yiddish language as inherently funny has been challenged, if not subverted, by several recent Israeli productions. In Daniel Rosenberg’s Homeland, a 2008 short film that is freely available on the Internet, two Holocaust-survivorsturned-Israeli-soldiers meet on a remote desert hill at the height of the 1948 War of Independence. “In Israel, when you hear Yiddish in a film, you assume it’s a comedy, because Yiddish feels like something faraway and irrelevant to them,” Rosenberg told The Forward’s Rukhl Schaechter. “So at every screening I attended, when Tiran” — the main actor, Itay Tiran — “in the first scene, answered the commander with the word ‘Vus?’ [“What?”], everyone laughed. But after the first five minutes, they weren’t laughing anymore.”
“I think what happened in the last [few] years is that there is more space, somehow, for Yiddish,” Cahan tells me, referring specifically to Shtisel, the popular Israeli TV show, mostly in Hebrew, about a fictional Hasidic family in present-day Jerusalem. “The fact that they use Yiddish-language idioms creates a sense of authenticity that the Israeli public really appreciates,” he continues.
In his role as consultant, he mentions that he’s been contacted recently by a number of film students. “They put Yiddish into their scripts because they feel it’s part of a world, a culture, a collective subconscious. To use this language gives you permission to do certain things,” Cahan explains, adding that the language can open a window onto a different culture. “It’s a kaleidoscope to a lost world, or to part of the world that we know and don’t know.”
Yiddish language, Yiddish culture — even Yiddish civilization — as something that we both know and do not know, can help generate artistic meaning. “It’s interesting to work with the viewer, with known and unknown languages, the levels of connectivity and distance that this language evokes,” he adds. At the same time, he points to a challenge, if not a danger, inherent in the transvernacular mode, to refer back to Margolis’s term.
“Sometimes it is hard to find the right translators because of such a gap of spoken Yiddish and authentic Yiddish,” he explains. “There are many in our generation who have studied from textbooks and lack the spoken plasticity of the language, which is extremely important.”
Authentic Yiddish, which was of paramount importance to Son of Saul, couldn’t be further from the intentions of Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, the comedic geniuses behind the web TV series YidLife Crisis, which first aired in 2014. The popular show, which has been described as “the first Yiddish-language sitcom,” features the two creators quarreling — in a kind of pigeon Yiddish — about Jewish identity in a secular world, while walking around their native Montreal. Despite the frequent profanity — much of which is creatively rendered both in Yiddish and in the English subtitles — their sparring takes on a Talmudic character.
Each episode of YidLife Crisis opens with a warning that appears over a black screen: “The following contains references to adult situations and coarse language. In Yiddish.” Adult circumcision, S&M, gay Hasidim — nothing is off limits for Elman and Batalion.
“People rightly associate Yiddish with being an old and dead or dying language and we wanted to bring it into the 21st Century. People wouldn’t expect to see us breaking the Jewish laws and doing it in Yiddish,” the creators explained in an interview with a Montreal television station that Margolis quotes in her study. Neither Elman nor Batalion is a native Yiddish speaker. In the show, they speak a highly individual, idiomatic Yiddish that spills over with neologisms from English and French-Canadian.
Courtesy of “YidLife Crisis.”
Margolis points out how many of the more recent Yiddish productions have been sparing in their use of language, possibly due to difficulties in the transvernacular process. One of the remarkable things about YidLife Crisis, which plays fast and loose with Yiddish, is just how much of the show is talk. In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Batalion explained that the show strives for homage rather than authenticity. “It’s like putting on your dad’s jacket,” he said. “It allows us to pay tribute and be like our elders, but doesn’t fit exactly the same way.”
“Imagine the world exactly like it is, except everyone speaks Yiddish and no one explains why,” Batalion offered by way of explaining his show’s premise. Such a world would seem neither surreal nor absurd — and certainly not funny — to the characters in Weinstein’s feature film debut Menashe, which is set in a Hasidic community in Borough Park.
A sparse, serious melodrama, Menashe premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was later screened at the Berlin Film Festival. Shooting your first film in a dead language that you have only a passing knowledge of sounds borderline crazy. But for Weinstein, the gamble paid off. In the process, he has practically created a genre of his own: call it Hasidic kitchen-sink realism.
A far better film than either Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish or A Gesheft (2005), a Yiddish action film set in Monsey that remains, to date, the only film made by Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, for internal consumption, Menasche represents a definite advance in contemporary Yiddish cinema.
In 2010, the film scholar Eric A. Goldman was one of the first critics to recognize the potential for the regeneration of Yiddish cinema. In an article for The Jewish Standard, he mused, “Who knows? Maybe one day a Yiddish film will win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. If a Yiddish writer could win the Nobel Prize for Literature,” — a reference to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the coveted award in 1978 — “why not an Oscar for a Yiddish film?”
Six years later, Goldman’s prophecy came true when Son of Saul took home the Academy Award for Foreign Film. Cahan, the film’s dialogue coach, says there’s no reason to think Yiddish should be confined to films about the Holocaust or the Ultra-Orthodox.
“I think that much can still be done,” he tells me after giving me a virtual tour of the YUNG YiDiSH Living Museum, where a stage is set up for a concert and performance that evening.
“I dream of a beautiful historical film in Yiddish, for instance, that would take place in the 16th or 17th Century, and it could play itself out in Amsterdam, in Venice, in Prague. Or you could set it in the 1930s, in pre-War Vilna, and you could have people from Warsaw and from Ukraine, where all these different Yiddishes come together and are alive,” he grows animated as he outlines his vision. “It would be beautiful to live to see such a thing.” ■
A.J. Goldmann is an American journalist and writer based in Berlin. His articles on European art, culture and German-Jewish issues have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Republic, USA Today, The Forward, Gramophone and Opera News Magazine.
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