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Art With a Schmear of Schmaltz

A Yiddish film festival beginning today offers the rare chance to experience a world that is no more. (Enjoy, enjoy.)

June 15, 1997|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

From a language its speakers often didn't take seriously came a cinema so precarious it had no business existing at all, a beleaguered cinema that barely had the strength to survive its numerous trials. Yet the world of Yiddish film turns out to be paradoxically vibrant and emotional, an endearing mixture of comedy, sentiment and culture where mothers are venerated, children overfed and everyone yearns not for riches and celebrity but "a normal life full of joy."

As J. Hoberman, author of the definitive "Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds," points out, Yiddish movies had all the attributes of a national cinema without a nation to call its own. Though now often reduced to the joke-filled language of Las Vegas comics, Yiddish was once the lingua franca of a complex, sophisticated transnational culture that thrived in prewar Europe and America before disappearing, like Atlantis, almost without a trace. Producer Joe Green, interviewed in the involving documentary "The Yiddish Cinema," laconically explains: "Six million of my best customers perished."

In that brief window some 100 Yiddish films were made on a scattershot basis, mostly in the United States, Poland and Russia by long-forgotten companies with names like Sphinx and High Art. Many of them have been carefully preserved by the National Center for Jewish Film's Rutenberg and Everett Yiddish Film Library and have been the subject of extensive tributes in London, New York, Berkeley, Boston and, at long last, Los Angeles.

Starting today, some two dozen Yiddish films, the classics as well as the rarities, the expected and the completely surprising, will be screening at two Laemmle theaters, the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. It is a rare chance, and one that probably won't be repeated, to immerse oneself in the tam, the taste of a world that is no more, to get just a hint of a destroyed culture that has left these films for us to ponder, weep over and enjoy.

It was a world that was born of a division between religious and secular points of view, that echoed the stresses between the old civilization of Europe and the new one of America. Whom should you marry, how should you worship, what language should you speak, where should you live? Was it true, as a character in one film says, "better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew," or was that just a convenient rationalization?

One of the services these Yiddish films provides is an opportunity to see the physical world the Holocaust destroyed. Given when they were made, the European silents, especially films like "Laughter Through Tears" and "Jewish Luck" (which featured intertitles by Isaac Babel, cinematography by future Eisenstein d.p. Eduard Tisse and the film debut of the celebrated comic actor Solomon Mikhoels) can't help but have a documentary feel.

Because these films were never intended to be shown to anyone who didn't speak the language, they are also the equivalent of the home movies of a culture, enabling us to share intimately in the emotional life of that long-gone audience, to worry as they did about questions of love, loss and marriage.

And because Yiddish is above all a passionate, yeasty language, suited to conflict and confrontation, to scolding, pleading, finger-pointing and haranguing, emotional minimalists seeking "Remains of the Day"-type restraint had best look elsewhere. It's the Yiddish cinema, after all, that gave us the story of a sweatshop girl jilted by the fiance she has put through medical school who's then struck by the car that is taking him to the synagogue where he will be married to someone else.

Though Yiddish was fairly recently established as a literary language when these films began, an extensive literature existed that provided source material for numerous movie projects. It was a celebrated play by S. Ansky that produced what is generally considered to be the greatest of Yiddish films, "The Dybbuk," praised by critic Parker Tyler in his "Classics of the Foreign Film" as "one of the most solemn attestations to the mystic powers of the spirit that imagination has ever purveyed to the film reel."

Made in Poland in 1937 in a stylized, Expressionistic manner that's been called "Hasidic Gothic," "The Dybbuk" is haunting and atmospheric, a chilling supernatural romance that functions as a privileged glimpse into the past, to a time when rabbis regularly performed prodigious miracles, when spirits of the dead wandered the Earth and tampering with the supernatural inevitably led to the most dire results.

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