This year’s edition of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from April 30 to May 10, offers a terrific selection of films.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great Yiddish novelist and short story writer, was an up-and-coming literary figure in Poland before he left the country for good in 1935. He established a readership after immigrating to the United States, but to the vast majority of American Jews who could not read his serialized stories and novels in the Forward, America’s largest Yiddish newspaper, he was still an unknown quantity.
Singer, a hustler and self-promoter, understood that he could only find an international audience, and thereby achieve real fame, if his pieces were published in English. Singer’s path to celebrity was paved by a group of English translators, nearly all of whom were American Jewish women. The Muses of I.B. Singer tells this largely unknown facet of his career in grand style through interviews with the translators and file footage.
Singer’s first translator was actually Saul Bellow, the novelist, who translated Gimpel the Fool into English. But Bellow didn’t last long. Singer’s novel attracted attention and sold well, but Singer was not too happy. Being insecure, he feared that Bellow would get all the credit. He disengaged from Bellow and created a corps of new translators.
In his youth, Singer — a highly sexual person with a vivid erotic imagination — had dreamed of harems of women. Now, as a struggling novelist in a strange new land, he dreamed of translators.
Evelyn Beck was a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin when he Singer approached her. Surprised and elated by his request, Beck translated a number of his short stories. Dvorah Telushkin, who worked for Singer for 14 years, recalls that he was indefatigable. Singer would say, “We will polish it until it shines.”
Janet Hadda, who became Singer’s biographer, believes he would not have won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978 had his works been accessible only in Yiddish. Hadda raises another important point about him. She recalls that Singer, a married man, made a pass at her and that she deflected his overtures because she had no desire to sleep with a senior. Hadda claims that Singer had sex with quite a few of his translators, but she does does not offer details.
Singer’s other translators, Florence Noiville and Marie-Pierre Bay, do not mention this aspect of his personality. Nor does Doba Gerber, Singer’s proofreader and the person who supposedly inspired one of his finest novels, Enemies: A Love Story.
Singer loved his wife, Alma, a German Jew whom he met at a Catskills resort when she was married to another man. Alma must have been quite a woman. She supported Singer when he was living a hand to mouth existence, translated one of his stories and tolerated his affairs. There’s a telling scene in the movie in which she lovingly serves him tea or coffee as he sits at his desk and looks up at her in gratitude.
As the film points out, Singer was in a serious relationship with a Jewish woman in Poland. When he emigrated, he promised he would send for her, but never did. In the meantime, she gave birth to a son and brought him up in Israel. Singer reconnected with his son — who translated some of his stories into Hebrew — but not with his ex-lover.
If you were a teenager between 1958 and 1962, you probably tuned in to the pop songs of Neil Sedaka, the master of the two-and-a-half minute single record. During that period, he and his lyricist, Howie Greenfield, wrote a string of hits — Oh! Carol, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Little Devil, Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen and Calendar Girl — that sold a phenomenal 25 million copies.
But as musical tastes changed with the emergence of rock n’ roll bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Sedaka’s popularity waned. Yesterday’s celebrity was today’s nonentity. Forced to reinvent himself, Sedaka succeeded in making a comeback.
George Scott’s BBC bouncy biopic, Neil Sedaka: King of Song, traces his ascent from a boyhood of poverty in Brooklyn to international stardom.
Sedaka, the son of a Sephardic taxi driver, was to music born. “It’s my whole life,” he says. Recognizing his gifts, his parents crimped and saved to buy him a piano. The sacrifice paid off. At the age of nine, he won a scholarship to Julliard.
He wrote his first song, Mr. Moon, at 16, belting it out to adulation at a school concert. He knew then and there that he wanted to be famous. Gone were the dreams of playing Chopin as a concert pianist. There were rejections as he and Greenfield struggled to break into show business, but after impressing the singer Connie Francis with their song, Stupid, Cupid, the boys were on their way. Stupid, Cupid became the first rock n’ roll hit sung by a female vocalist.
Sedaka, an upbeat figure, recalls these moments as he plays his classics on a piano.
Being very close to his mother, Sedaka turned over his earnings to her. After his career temporarily tanked, he discovered that she and her boyfriend, his manager, had spent virtually every penny he had earned. On the advice of a new manager, Sedaka attempted to recharge his fortunes in Britain, where he performed in men’s night clubs.
By chance, he met the singer Elton John, who was in the process of forming a record company. John liked Sedaka’s songs, and the pair meshed. Bouncing back from adversity, he recorded three hits in 1975 — Laughter in the Rain, Love Will Keep Us Together and Bad Blood. He’s never looked back, proving the old adage that perseverance pays.
John Goldschmidt kneads Dough into a nice British comedy.
His chief character, Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce), is an Orthodox Jewish baker who runs a kosher bakery in a seedy part of town almost single-handedly. The shop has been in his family for a century, but Dayan has no successor. His son, a Cambridge university graduate, is a lawyer and has no interest in the bakery.
Dayan, a man of habit who’s roused at 4 a.m. by an alarm clock, works in tandem with an assistant. But one day, he’s left high and dry when his employee quits. He advertises for an apprentice to fill his place, and Ayyash (Jerome Holder) — an African immigrant who sells cannabis for a drug pusher — turns up.
Being desperately short-handed, Dayan hires Ayyash, but it’s not exactly a match made in heaven. Ayyash, a Sudanese Muslim whose patient mother is trying to keep him on the straight and narrow, looks down on Jews. Dayan himself is wary of Muslims. Against all odds, the pair bond. Ayyash, a fast learner, impresses Dayan with his newly-acquired skills. Business picks up tremendously as the bakery attracts a new type of clientele
Maybe Dayan won’t have to sell the bakery to Sam Cotton (Philip Davis), a rapacious and bigoted entrepreneur who has big plans for the building. Meanwhile, a lonely widow named Joanna Silverman (Pauline Collins) pursues Dayan, who’s still in mourning over his wife’s death.
Dough, puffed up by a credible script and an ensemble of appropriately-cast actors, is an amusing romp into the realm of cultural dissonance.