In the early 1990s, I combined my interest in Judaism and job as a writer for a video retailing magazine into a side gig writing about Jewish videos for a Yiddish-English newsletter. Its unlikely name: Der Bay, published by the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Belmont, California. The day job gave me access to Jewish entertainment, and I especially liked movies and music coming out of the vaults of Eastern Europe and the USSR. Both my employer, Video Store Magazine, and Der Bay printed articles about the releases, the first for business reasons, the second for the joy of exploring Yiddishkeit.
Those Der Bay days flashed back to me recently when I saw the new documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, about the Yiddish roots of the play Fiddler on the Roof, its creation, ongoing global success and endless permutations of performance, including in Japan, Thailand and a junior high in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Most recently, the Yiddish version wowed crowds in New York, including me.
Screened at the Jewish Film Festival in Stamford, Connecticut, the documentary explored the genesis of Tevye in the stories of Sholem Aleichem, including a 1916 recording of Aleichem reading one of his works.
Thanks to Der Bay, I saw films from 1912 and 1991 that fall into what you might call the Fiddlerverse: same time frame, same geography, same mixture of joy (Jewish weddings!) and looming terror. While not musicals, the films I wrote about for Der Bay showed shtetl life and a Russian-language take on a Fiddleresque story with elements from several Yiddish writers. Serious fans of Fiddler will enjoy them. And now, here’s what I wrote in 1993:
The Way It Was
Der Sovieten Farband is gone, and what’s left is crumbling, but Russia continues to produce visions of Yiddish life, some ancient by film standards, some new, all compelling.
Two recent releases provide a fascinating juxtaposition because they both cover the same historical period. One does so in “real time,” so to speak, the other looks backward from today.
Milestone Film & Video recently released a 10-volume video series called “Early Russian Cinema.” Volume 4, “Provincial Variations,” contains a 12-minute fragment called “The Wedding Day,” or “Yom Hakhupe” in Hebrew or “Den’ Venchaniia” in Russian. Based on a play by American Yiddish author Joseph Latiner, The Wedding Day contains no intertitles. Missing material makes the plot more or less incomprehensible, although it seems to involve the wrong woman marrying the right man. It doesn’t matter.
What does matter is this 1912 glimpse into another dimension, the Planet Shtetl. The actors are from a Jewish theater troupe touring in Western Poland. The scene of the khupe and the sometimes flooded town show the way it was. The wedding scene is a vividly acted melodrama, with the rejected woman fainting at the feet of the groom, who in turn seems to go insane as the bride falls into the arms of her mother.
Fast forward to the 1990s. First Run Features has released to the art-house circuit Get Thee Out!, made by Jewish director Dmitri Astrakan in 1991, the twilight of empire. It takes place in the last years of Czarist Russia. As such, Get Thee Out summons a much more detailed vision of the world too-briefly seen in The Wedding Day.
Based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel and Alexander Kuprin, it stars Otar Mengvinetukutsesy (that’s a Georgian name) as dairyman Motl Rabinovitch. His family lives outside the ghetto, in the Russian country, with Russian friends. Jews and gentiles share an exhilarating sense of camaraderie. The plot concerns the testing of those relationships by rumors of pogroms and the elopement of his daughter Beyelka and his friend Jwan’s son Peter.
The film is entirely in Russian, except for some Hebrew prayers. Still, Get Thee Out is visually stunning and deeply unsettling in its unblinking depiction of Jews in a violent, lawless world. It bears comparison to Commissar, a Russian movie about a Jewish family in revolutionary Russia. Through striking imagery, Astrakan depicts a land without rules. Motl dreams of blood-splattered pogroms, perhaps based on childhood memories. The headlights of the pogromists’ truck approach through swirling fog, like a demonic being. A Gypsy thief is caught, beaten and killed, the body casually left in a dusty road. Black-uniformed Russians efficiently type lists of victims.
Mengvinetukutsesy plays Motl as a different kind of Jewish character, a man of action rather than thought, more comfortable in a bar than a yeshiva. He looks like Gene Wilder’s Polish rabbi in The Frisco Kid, just a foot taller and tougher. The end is tantalizingly ambiguous, daring the viewer to complete the story. Get Thee Out is definitely worth seeing.
For those who want to explore more aspects of the Fiddlerverse, this Daily Beast article is a good start. It’s a long review of the book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof by Alisa Solomon.
Where will Fiddler pop up next on its unending world tour? Sunrise, Sunset could work well as the theme music for the International Space Station, as the sun is always rising and setting on it, every 92 minutes.