It is not every week when you can see 37 films in seven days — all celebrating the renaissance of Yiddish culture.
Starting Sunday, as part of KulturfestNYC, the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene will present the largest festival of Yiddish culture cinema ever presented anywhere. (In full disclosure, I am pleased to have been asked to curate and moderate the film series.)
A century ago, Yiddish cinema began. It was seen as a way to convey Yiddish theater to the far ends of Europe. In Soviet Russia, it became a medium for Jewish expression in a Communist realm that first encouraged it and then later demanded ideological conformity. Throughout the 1930s, it continued as a creative force, both in the United States and in Poland, as a source of entertainment and a bulwark against assimilation. After World War II, Yiddish movies served to provide comfort to those in need of that consolation.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Jewish life, culture, and language were extolled as a check against the perceived threats to the Jewish world. But within a few years of the war’s end, with the majority of Yiddish speakers dead, new forms of entertainment, including television, and a post-Holocaust world Jewry more comfortable in secular society, Yiddish cinema ceased to be the dynamic cultural force it once had been.
A generation later, however, in the mid-1970s, three young filmmakers in New York — Josh Waletzky, David Greenwald, and Sally Hecklel — all turned to Yiddish to tell their stories. In 1980, a filmmaker, Samy Szlingerbaum, whose parents were stateless after the war, related those experiences in “Brussels-Transit,” the first feature film to be made in Yiddish in 30 years. So began an incredible renaissance of Yiddish cinema across Europe, Israel, and the United States that continues today. The three once-young filmmakers will be on hand to screen and talk about their films (“The Bent Tree,” “Luck,” and “The Well”) on Thursday morning. Boris Lehman, the star of “Brussels-Transit,” will be coming in from Belgium to be at Wednesday night’s screening of his film.
The film program begins on Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. with “Auf das Leben/To Life,” a German film that premiered this winter at the Berlin Film Festival. It is the story of a once-popular cabaret singer of Yiddish songs who has an ongoing struggle with memories of her early life. Her memories become all the more complicated when she meets a man who has a remarkable resemblance to the love of her life from some 30 years earlier. The film is one more example of how today’s German cinema has been struggling with the question of how Jews do or don’t fit into today’s Germany. Sharon Brauner, a popular German singer who stars in the film, will be on hand for a post-screening conversation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Throughout the week, films will be screened at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance on 42nd Street in the afternoons and at Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center at East 65th Street in the evenings. Highlighting the series are a feature film, “A Gesheft/The Deal,” shot by ultra-Orthodox Jews in Monsey; “Mendy,” Adam Vardy’s movie about a chasidic Jew who leaves his Brooklyn community in search of a different life; Eve Annenberg’s “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” a 2010 contemporary version of Shakespeare set in Williamsburg, and “The Dybbuk and the Holy Apple Field,” Israeli filmmaker Yossi Somer’s adaptation of the classic play, set in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim. Other highlights are screenings of “Tevya and His Seven Daughters”; an Israeli adaptation of the classic Sholem Aleichem stories, “Too Early to be Quiet, Too Late to Sing”; Israeli vocalist Chava Alberstein’s homage to Israeli Yiddish poets, and a look at “YidLife Crisis” and some of the interesting made-for-the-web Yiddish films of today. There also will be a screening of the 1918 silent film “The Yellow Ticket,” presented with Alicia Svigals’ original music, and showings of two 1920s silent films with live piano accompaniment. Filmmakers, artists and actors will be at most of the showings for post-screening conversations.
Cinema at KulturfestNYC will conclude next Sunday, June 21, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, with the showing of two important films. One is “The Pin,” Naomi Jaye’s Canadian Yiddish film, released in 2013, about two young people who hide in the woods during World War II. The other is Avram Heffner’s 1990 Israeli film, “Laura Adler’s Last Love Affair,” with Rita Zohar, who will be at the screening. It’s about the queen of a Yiddish theater troupe and her diminishing audience.
The festival closes with the New York City premiere of “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem,” a cinematic celebration of the legendary actor, singer, troubadour, and Jewish activist. The extraordinary Bikel will be on hand for a conversation following the film.
This is an opportunity like no other! For more information, go to www.KulturfestNYC.org. For tickets, go to Ovation Tix- 866-811-4111 or call 212-213-2120, ext. 0.