Joseph Green, 96, Pioneer of Yiddish Filmmaking, Dies

Joseph Green, the theatrical and film producer who revitalized Yiddish-language motion pictures, has died.

Green, who was 96, died June 20 in Great Neck, N.Y.

While working shortly before the Holocaust, Green produced four films in three years capturing Jewish life in Poland.

“His impact was enormous on the generation that he was creating the films for originally, as well as the subsequent generations of Jewish audiences and filmmakers,” said Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Born Joseph Greenberg in 1900 in Lodz, Poland, Green studied drama during World War I in German-occupied Warsaw.

After moving to Berlin in 1918, he joined an offshoot of the Vilna Troupe, a Yiddish theater company that toured extensively throughout Europe and brought Green to the United States.

Green remained in New York, acting with numerous Yiddish companies, including Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater. In 1927, he followed Yiddish actors Rudolph and Joseph Schildkraut to Hollywood and landed a walk-on part in “The Jazz Singer.”

Five years later, he was hired to dub the voice of Joseph for the silent biblical film “Joseph in the Land of Egypt” that was being re-released with a Yiddish soundtrack. Green returned to Poland, touring with a copy of the film for two years to raise enough money to begin his own production company in New York and Warsaw.

He intended to produce Polish-made, Yiddish-language films starring American actors.

“To my surprise, in a country with 4 million Jews, they had never seen a Yiddish film,” Green told Roberta Elliott in a 1985 article in The New York Jewish Week. “Those in the Polish film industry — mostly Jews — were afraid Yiddish films would create anti-Semitism.”

His first film, the 1936 “Yidl Mitn Fidl” (Yiddle with a Fiddle), featured the young American stage actress Molly Picon. The story of a young woman who poses as a man in a wandering troupe of musicians was hailed as the first international Yiddish hit.

He followed Yidl’s success with three more films, “Der Purimshpiler” (The Purim Player) in 1937, “Mamele” (Little Mother) and “A Brivele der Mamen” (A Little Letter to Mother), both in 1938.

“We made three films, one right after the other. For nearly 12 months we didn’t leave the studio — time was running out. We had to get onto film as much as possible of that charming and creative life in Poland,” he told Elliott.

These films are “one of the few pictures we actually have of the vibrancy of Jewish life prior to the destruction of the communities,” said Sharon Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film, based at Brandeis University. “They preserve the memory of prewar Polish Jewish life.”

During World War II, Green briefly returned to the stage, producing H. Laivick’s “The Miracle of the Warsaw Ghetto” and David Bergelson’s “We Will Live” at the old Yiddish Art Theater on Second Avenue in New York.

Green released an English version of “Yiddle With a Fiddle” and in 1990, the film was adapted for the stage, touring in New York, Massachusetts and Florida. He remained active in New York as a film distributor.

“When people ask me why I didn’t keep making pictures, I have only one answer: Six million potential moviegoers were missing and they were the most important audiences for the Yiddish films,” he told Elliott.

“It is ironic that he died just as a new generation of filmmakers is committed to chronicling and expanding on the Jewish experience on film,” said the culture foundation’s Siegel.

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