Tag Archives: Yiddish

Enemies, A Love Story

Enemies, A Love Story (1989) is based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel of the same name.  It tells the tale of four Holocaust survivors whose stories are intertwined by ties of passion, guilt, and love.  Herman Broder (Ron Silver) was hidden in a barn in Poland by his Gentile house servant, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein) whom he married out of guilt and gratitude when the two immigrated to the United States.  Since that time, he has acquired a mistress, a Russian Jewish survivor named Masha (Lena Olin), who wants him to marry her, too.   Then his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston) the woman he believed died in a concentration camp in Europe, turns up in New York too, alive if not well, still mourning their two children who did not survive.

The story is structured as a farce, but it is a dark and melancholic comedy.  Herman writhes among the complications of his multiple lives.  He is a man devoid of hope:  he ricochets from woman to woman, trying to placate one while he is cheating on another.   He is faithless, and at the same time, horrified by the faithlessness of others. He is a man who is never fully alive, living bits of his life with different women.  Even his occupation – ghost writer for a fashionable rabbi – leaves him without any identity of his own.  Herman is a ghost.

We often say, glibly, that after a trauma a person is “never the same.”  Singer suggests to us that even after a horrible trauma, people do not really change all that much:  they may be fractured versions of their old selves, but all of their old flaws and quirks remain like ghosts.  Within a few minutes of meeting Herman again, Tamara (his first wife) recognizes that he married Yadwiga out of guilt and that he must also have a mistress somewhere.  Later in the film, she sits him down and says, “In America, they have a thing called a manager. That is what you need. I will be your manager, because you are incapable of making your decisions for yourself.”  He agrees – and in hindsight, the way that arrangement works out is predictable, too.

Paul Mazursky directed the film, and co-wrote the screenplay. (He also appearing in a cameo as Masha’s estranged husband. )  Enemies, A Love Story was nominated for three Academy Awards:  Huston and Olin were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Roger L. Simon and Mazursky were nominated for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Commentary

As with all of Singer’s stories, this is not a story about Judaism, but the characters are Jewish and it is set deep within Jewish history and tradition.   At one point, when Herman is attempting to return to Jewish observance, he sits and studies Talmud on Shemini Atzeret and fumes, “What good is the Talmud if there is nothing in there to tell you how to deal with three wives?”

He apparently had not looked at Tractate Ketubot, which has quite a bit of material on how to conduct polygamous marriages.  However, the Talmud  assumes that one is doing so in good faith, which is Herman’s problem.  Polygamy is described in Biblical narrative, although the only happy marriages mentioned in the Bible are monogamous.  In the Middle Ages, about the year 1000, Rabbi Gershom of Germany issued a takkanah [decree] forbidding polygamous marriage among European Jews, and that decree has had the force of law ever since.

But the multiple marriages are not Herman’s core problem; they are only a symptom of the problem.  Herman’s problem was correctly diagnosed by Tamara:  he cannot make a decision for himself, and as a result he is incapable of keeping a commitment.  His problem is faithlessness.  Just as he dabbles and struggles through the film with his commitment to Jewish observance, confusing his Polish wife who eventually converts to Judaism, he dabbles and struggles with his commitments to the women in his life.

Yadwiga is involved in a process of commitment in the film:  she becomes a Jew.  The progression of her engagement with Judaism is delicately portrayed.  Living with Norman for years, she has become fairly knowledgeable about household mitzvot [commandments]: she is appalled when he turns on an electric lamp on Shabbat.  In her upset, she swears at him using the names of Christian saints!  She struggles to learn the words of blessings.  Yet we have the sense, by the end of the film, that this has been a successful process of commitment:  she seems happy and relaxed as a Jewish mother.

By the end of the film, Herman has disappeared altogether; he remains only as handwriting on an envelope.  All that are left are the two women, Tamara and Yadwiga, who have formed an alliance reminiscent of Naomi and Ruth.  They are linked by a bond of love and commitment, and Yadwiga’s child soothes Tamara’s bitter soul.

Double Feature

Paul Mazursky also directed Next Stop Greenwich Village, about Jews in New York in a different era.  The other Hollywood film adaptation of an I.B. Singer story is Barbra Streisand’s Yentl.

Questions

1.  If Norman Broder came to you for advice before Tamara’s reappearance, how would you advise him?  Stay in his loveless marriage to Yadwiga?  Cut off the relationship with Masha?  Or end the marriage to Yadwiga and marry Masha?  What does he owe Yadwiga?  What does he owe Masha?

2.  If Norman Broder came to you for advice after Tamara’s reappearance, how would you advise him?  What does he owe Tamara?

3.  Norman and Yadwiga start out as an interfaith relationship.  Yadwiga converts to Judaism.  Tamara and other Jewish characters speak of Yadwiga as a shiksa [filth] early on in the film.  At the end of the film, how would you describe Tamara and Yadwiga’s relationship?  Can you imagine and describe the changes that must have taken place in Tamara’s perception of Yadwiga, and how those changes might have taken place?

A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) is the most explicitly Jewish film thus far from Joel and Ethan Coen. It is a black comedy, blacker even than their previous film No Country for Old Men.  Its violence is purely emotional, but none the less harrowing for that.  It begins with a quotation from Rashi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  It then proceeds to a folk tale in Yiddish about a man named Velvel who is helped on the road by an acquaintance of his wife; he invites the man back to his home for a bowl of soup.  His wife, however, is convinced the man is a dybbuk, a body possessed by the soul of a dead person, and she stabs him/it with a fork.  The visitor stumbles out into the snow, and we are left with the question:  who was right, the man or his wife?  Was the visitor a righteous man or a demon? How can one know?

Fast forward to 1967, and another Jewish household.  Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulberg) wants to be a righteous Jew living a decent life.  He is married, he is a physics professor, he is near to receiving tenure at his university, he has two children, a girl and a boy.  The boy will be bar mitzvah soon.  But below the surface, almost nothing is right:  his son smokes pot incessantly, his daughter steals from his wallet, saving money for a nose job, his wife has decided to leave him for a widower friend.  Someone is sending anonymous hate mail about him to the tenure committee.  He is pursued by a wild assortment of large and small misfortunes, from fender benders to the Columbia Record Company to a  student who intends to bribe and/or blackmail him.  He is nervous about one scowling, gun toting neighbor, and attracted to another, a woman who has “trouble” written in her eyeliner.  His brother lives on the couch, constantly draining his “sebaceous cyst,” drawing complaints from the police about gambling and sodomy.

Like Job, he has comforters who do not comfort.  He seeks advice from friends, who offer platitudes.  He seeks out his rabbis: the youngest mouths senseless banalities, the middle-aged one offers a story without an ending, and the ancient, allegedly-wise one — no, I won’t spoil the surprise.  Advice comes from other sources too, including his son’s stereo:  the Jefferson Airplane repeats over and over again, “You gotta find somebody to love,” offering the answer that Archibald MacLeish suggested at the end of his play on Job, J.B..

Commentary

If indeed the Coen brothers intend to suggest Job to audiences, they do it without invoking any of the resolutions that Job-stories generally offer.  MacLeish suggested that love was the answer.  The tacked-on ending to the Biblical book insists that all will be restored to the righteous in the end.  This movie, though, ends on the bleakest of notes, with an ominous phone call and an approaching storm.  Disaster clearly lies ahead — and yet since the viewer is in 2009, and the story ends in 1967, the world didn’t come to an end.

One might be tempted to say, well, then, it’s all meaningless.  And that, too, is a possible answer.

For me, watching this film as a rabbi, this film was nearly unbearable to watch.  I was furious with the rabbis, furious with the wife, furious with the friends — but I have to ask myself, what would I say to Larry Gopnik if he walked into my office and demanded an answer?  The film was sharpened by coincidences:  this winter I have watched too many friends suffer through inexplicable troubles, things they did not bring upon themselves, misfortune upon misery, and the Coens are right:  all these events demand a cry of Why?

The quotation that opens the film, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” is Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13, from Parashat Shoftim, “You will be tamim with Adonai your God.” Tamim is a Hebrew adjective which can be translated “simple,”  “blameless,”  or “wholehearted.”  The son who “does not know how to ask” in the Haggadah is tam.  Noah is described in Genesis as an ish tam, a simple man (Genesis 6:9.)   Job is also described as tam v’yashar, a blameless and upright man (Job 1:8.) Larry Gopnik is a simple man in a different way:  he seeks answers in the elegant simplicity of mathematical equations.

Rashi suggests that understanding may be beside the point.  We are free to ask “why?” but there are no clear and easy answers.  What remains is the possibility of remaining a decent human being in the face of it all.  Another quotation from rabbinic literature comes to mind: “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.”  (Mishnah Avot, 2.5)

Another Rabbinic Point of View

For another rabbinic take on this film, read Rabbi Anne Brener’s billiant article on it in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

An Israeli take on the film

Ella Leibowitz’s article in Haaretz on A Serious Man offers yet another completely different view on this film.

The Dybbuk

DybbukThe Dybbuk (1937) is perhaps the best-known Yiddish movie.  Filmed in Warsaw and in rural Poland before World War II, it is based on a play by Sholom Ansky.  It is a ghost story on two levels:  a classic folktale about love that extends beyond the grave, and a film made in and of a world that was about to be obliterated by the Nazi invaders.

Two men, dear friends, make an agreement on Hoshana Rabbah that their unborn children will marry, if one is a boy and the other a girl.  One man is lost at sea before his son is born.  The other is stricken with grief upon hearing that his wife has died giving birth to a girl.  The pledge is forgotten, but 18 years later, the young man and woman find that they are inexplicably drawn to one another.  The father has other plans for his daughter by now: he wants her to marry a rich man.  The tragedy proceeds on not entirely predictable lines.

The Dybbuk is striking in its cinematography and its (for its time) unusual film techniques. Set in the 19th century, it has an otherworldly feel.  While its “special effects” were simple, the filmmakers managed to produce a film that is both enchanting and spooky.

Some viewers may find it distracting that the film is in Yiddish and only some lines have subtitles.  The subtitles are artfully done, giving us just enough to follow what’s going on while allowing the music of Yiddish and the vivid body language of the actors to tell the story.  At first I found this kind of captioning frustrating (“what are they saying?”)  but eventually I came to appreciate the fact that I was watching the movie, not the titles at the bottom of the screen.

The Dybbuk records a place and a culture that were about to disappear.  Within seven years, most of the actors would find their way to the United States as refugees.  One of the actors, Ajzyk Samberg, would die in the Poniatowa concentration camp in 1943.  The cantor whose voice gives the synagogue services great power and veracity, Chazzan  Gershon Sirota, would die with his entire family in the Warsaw Ghetto in the same year.  Kazimierz, the little village in eastern Poland where much of the movie was made was declared officially “free of Jews” by the Nazis in 1942.  The villagers who served as extras in the film disappeared into the maw of the Holocaust.

On a happier note, the two romantic leads, Leon Liebgold and Lili Liliana, married in real life and moved to the U.S.  Liebgold was interviewed shortly before his death for a NY Times article about the restoration and re-issue of the film in 1989.

Commentary

This is a film about that great Jewish topic, the power of words.  Two friends make a foolish pact in violation of Jewish law.  The rest of the film follows the unhappy results of those careless words.  Words are key, again and again:  it is by means of words that the young yeshiva student comes to ruin, discovering the secret codes (gematria) hidden in the names of his beloved, his father, and his own name.  The words of the wedding ceremony hold a power that is almost electric in the film.  The power of words is used for exorcism, for karet [excommunication], and for teaching via storytelling are all on display.

The film also gives a priceless opportunity to witness an authentic Hoshana Rabba service and to hear chazzanut by Cantor Sirota.  Whatever your feelings about ghost stories, this is a rare chance to visit a Hasidic rabbi’s court in the vanished world of prewar Polish Jewry.

Crossing Delancey

AFA 195259Crossing Delancey (1988) is a romantic comedy about a woman in her early 30’s whose Bubbe thinks she should be married already.  Amy Irving plays Izzy Grossman, who has a fancy job Uptown in Manhattan, and whom Bubbe’s matchmaker friend has matched with Sam Posner, a blue-collar fellow who sells pickles on the Lower East Side played by Peter Riegert.   The tension in the plot is between tradition and modernity, and there is never much doubt which will triumph.

One notable performance in the film is that of Reizl Bozyk, who plays Bubbe.  She was one of the stalwarts of Yiddish theater, first in Poland and then in New York, but this is her only performance in American film.

Commentary

Crossing Delancey is billed as a romantic comedy, but the most vivid relationship in the film is that between Izzy and her grandmother.  Izzy is a modern woman, circa 1988, but she also cares deeply for her Bubbe, visiting her regularly in the old neighborhood, and looking after her.  She is exasperated but respectful when Bubbe hires a matchmaker, agreeing to meet “the match” only to humor Bubbe.

Izzy’s relationships with her friends receive almost as much time as the romantic relationships in the film.  Izzy’s work world is fully assimilated into secular American life (in this case, that of the New York intelligentsia), but her family and friendships are deeply rooted in Jewish culture and society.  She and her friends alarm their mothers, straying far into the modern world of work and career, but the film suggests that at heart, Izzy’s heart is still on the Lower East Side.

This is one of the rare films that shows Jewish women and their relationships in a warm and realistic light.  All of the women in the film could have been written and played as stereotypes, but fortunately for us, the writer and the director chose otherwise.

Double Feature

Watch Kissing Jessica Stein for a version of a similar romantic comedy made thirteen years later.  Another mother is anxious for her daughter to “find someone,” but a lot changed in those thirteen years.  What the two films have in common is a warm depiction of Jewish grandmothers, mothers, and daughters who love one another deeply, and who are people you might wish you knew.

Amy Irving co-starred in another film about a Jewish woman made in the 1980’s, Yentl.  There she played Hadass, the conventional, traditional foil to Yentl’s choices about gender.

Questions

Roger Ebert argued in his review of this film that Izzy and Sam characters are so constrained by the conventions of American romantic comedy that they are barely more than “plot devices”:  stock characters given stock speeches.   Whether Izzy is a “real” character or a “plot device” what do you think of her choices and behavior?  Do you know anyone like Izzy, or is she a caricature?

Yentl

1yentlYentl (1983) is the film adaptation of the short story, “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer.  It is set in a Polish shtetl in 1907, where Rabbi Mendel, a widower, is secretly giving his daughter Yentl the sort of Talmudic education that only boys were allowed to have.  Yentl has a passion for Torah, and when her father dies, she disguises herself as a boy and travels to the yeshiva in the nearest town to study.  Barbra Streisand co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in Yentl; work on the film re-energized her own interest in Jewish study.

It is thus far the only major motion picture that focuses on a Jewish woman living a specifically Jewish life, and raises questions about the limitations of gender roles in traditional Jewish communal life.  Yentl is contrasted in the film with Hadass, (played by Amy Irving) who conforms to the social ideal for young women, and with the men who take their life in the yeshiva for granted.   Streisand made no secret of her own personal identification with Yentl.  Just as Yentl strove to succeed in the “man’s world” of the yeshiva, Streisand saw herself striving for success in the “man’s world” of the Hollywood film industry.

Commentary

Singer hated Streisand’s treatment of his short story.   He felt that it had been over-expanded into a star vehicle, with unsuitable music and a ridiculous ending.  Certainly that is one valid point of view on the film.

However, Streisand has perfectly conveyed the passion for Torah that is at the center of the scholar’s life, that fueled so much of the development of Jewish tradition and sacred literature.  She conveys the frustration that women have felt and still feel when they are excluded from access to the highest levels of study.  While many of Singer’s complaints are valid,  her command of the Jewish details of Yentl’s life is impressive.

Double Feature

Yentl makes an interesting companion to the other big Jewish musical, Fiddler on the Roof.  They are set in the same period, they begin in the same sort of place (a tiny shtetl in the Pale of Settlement) but they depict different classes in Jewish society.  Where Tevya and his daughters are peasants, Yentl is the rabbi’s daughter and Hadass is a city girl, daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant.  How are the women’s lives similar?  How are they different?  Do you notice any other interesting similarities or contrasts between the two films?

Fiddler on the Roof

fiddlerFiddler on the Roof (1971) is the screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by the same name.  It is based on the story “Tevye the Milkman” by Sholom Aleichem, the most prolific Yiddish writer of his time.  The story is set in Anatevka,  a shtetl [village] in the Pale of Settlement of pre-revolutionary Russia, about 1910, with WWI on the horizon, although there are also details that seem to point to a time about 1883.   Topol stars as Tevye, the milkman who faces the problems of shtetl life:  finding husbands for his daughters, food for his family, and survival in the face of the crushing regime of the Czar.  One casting item of note:  the matchmaker is played by Molly Picon, one of the great actors of American Yiddish stage and cinema.

The film won three Oscars (Cinematography, Music, and Sound) out of eight nominations.

Commentary

Fiddler offers a somewhat fantasized version of the brutal life of the shtetl.  It is a touchstone for the American Jewish psyche and a prime example of laughing through tears, the hallmark of much Jewish humor.  It is also the most easily accessible introduction to the Yiddish world of Sholom Aleichem.

Most importantly, Tevye is a Jewish Everyman:  he suffers, but he endures.  His world  is crumbling:  even in the muddy shtetls of the Ukraine, modernity is changing things, changing attitudes, making history.  The old traditions are under pressure; the young people have new ideas.  Tevye is devoted to tradition, but he recognizes that some forces cannot be resisted.  In every age, the conflict between tradition and change has challenged Jews:  “what now?  How shall we maintain our traditions in this new place?” has been the cry in every age, beginning perhaps on the banks of the Nile, in Egypt.

Not to be missed!

Double Feature

There is another big American movie musical about the same period, Yentl.  It tells a story set in Eastern European shtetl and town life from a woman’s point of view.  If you choose to watch both, it’s fun to compare them.