Yiddish Still Alive In Cinema


The Kulturfest calendar is happily overflowing with opportunities to enjoy Yiddish-language film. Not surprisingly, there are numerous documentary bows to the dear departed Yiddish theater of Second Avenue and several films about the legacy of Sholem Aleichem. There is a sprinkling of silent films, including Edward Sloman’s 1925 epic of assimilation vs. identity, “His People,” and “The Yellow Ticket” (1918), distinguished chiefly by Pola Negri’s star turn and Alicia Svigals’ splendid new score.

What is most heartening is the focus on recent filmmakers making films in Yiddish, keeping that nearly indestructible “dead” language alive in cinema. There are three programs of short films titled “Yiddish Cinematic Expressions of the Last Half-Century” focusing on the U.S., Israel and Canada on Thursday, June 18 at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., respectively at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance (220 E. 42nd St.). The gathering of contemporary filmmakers includes Yael Reuveny (“Farewell, Herr Schwarz”), Ina Fichman (producer of “The Wanted 18”) and Josh Waletzky.

I have to admit I find more hope in the small but growing number of contemporary feature films being made in Yiddish against all odds. Three of the most impressive examples will be included in the festival.

Made in 1980, “Brussels-Transit” was the first Yiddish-language film made in Europe in 30 years. It is an austere, death-haunted work, written and directed by Samy Szlingerbaum, about his parents’ search for a home in the wake of World War II; the dark, brooding film is shot in black and white with a palette that is alternately gauzy and stark. It is a stunning, painful film to watch, made all the more so by the knowledge that it would be Szlingerbaum’s only feature; he died of AIDS in 1986. Produced by Chantal Akerman, “Brussels-Transit” is rarely screened, so this opportunity should not be missed. Wednesday, June 17, 6 p.m., Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center (One E. 65th St.).

Adam Vardy has only made one feature film to date, but, thankfully, that’s because his work schedule as a cinematographer is incredibly busy. His one film, “Mendy: A Question of Faith” (2003), also involves a substantial amount of Yiddish on its soundtrack, because its protagonist is a young Hasid negotiating the difficult tightrope dance of life in the modern world. Ultimately, Mendy opts for a new family constellation that includes an apostate who deals Ecstasy, an Israeli bar owner and a beautiful Brazilian dancer. Vardy depicts his hero’s transitions with real affection, in a series of long takes that emphasize the patience and fortitude it takes to reinvent oneself. Monday, June 15, 6 p.m. Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center (One E. 65th St.).

Eve Annenberg’s 2010 film “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” also deals with the alienated chasidic youth, albeit more playfully. In its own daffy way, “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” is as much a documentary as it is a comedy-drama. The film’s cast consists of Hasidic youths re-enacting their own pasts as runaways, scam artists and street kids. Writer-director Annenberg plays a nurse, which is what she is in her day job; her character becomes involved in the lives of these kids when she is commissioned to create a modernized Yiddish-language version of the venerable Shakespeare romantic tragedy as part of her graduate work outside the medical world.

Of course the film isn’t really a documentary. But it is an unusual mash-up of contemporary street Yiddish, quasi-mumblecore, Shakespeare and a dope-riddled Three Stooges film. Sounds like a train wreck, but despite frequent misfires, the film has a sweet naiveté that makes it as faithful a “Romeo and Juliet” as any I’ve seen on film. Thursday, June 18, 6 p.m., Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center (One E. 65th St.).