Old movies can tread a fine line between feeling dated and irrelevant, and providing a fascinating insight into a time and place that is long gone. Ost und West (East and West) is the earliest surviving example of Yiddish cinema, shot almost a century ago, in Vienna in 1923, and most definitely falls into the latter category.
The film deals with the thorny issue of assimilation that has troubled Jewish communities for hundreds of years, as a wealthy New Yorker and his boxing-enthusiast daughter return to the old country for his niece’s wedding in a traditional, observant household. The most fascinating aspect of the film for me was to see scenes of how our ancestors would have lived: how they dressed, what their houses looked like, the food they ate, their Sabbath table. The household is a relatively affluent one in cosmopolitan Galicia, but the images still resonate strongly for those of us with family ties further east.
As well as being intriguing from a historical point of view, the film is, in parts, laugh-out-loud funny, even for a modern, sophisticated audience. It throws up some hilarious faux-pas by the worldly Americans as they encounter traditional shtetl life. Even the suitably obese father – who one assumes grew up in the Orthodox community – cannot find the right page or passage in his prayer book, while his daughter Mollie takes a novel to the Temple to stick inside hers, while the rest of the family prays fervently on Yom Kippur.
Unable to cope with hunger during the long day of fasting, Mollie sneaks out of the synagogue to raid the fridge, stuffing her face with the meal intended for the family to break the fast, then hiding the leftovers under the table, to be discovered by the pet dog and cat! But Mollie’s playful disruptiveness ends up getting her into more trouble than she could have imagined as a mock wedding game becomes real and she finds herself accidentally married to a young, pale-faced yeshiva student.
This scene has great resonance for me as my great-grandmother found herself in a somewhat similar situation. The educated and impeccably dressed daughter of an affluent grain merchant, she spent more of her time reading modern novels than the Torah, but was forced into an arranged marriage with a Talmudic scholar who had been brought up in a Rabbinical court. Her initial horror at the match eventually turned to affection, and my great-grandparents’ marriage worked out in the end, as did that of the fictional Mollie and Ruben in East and West.
East and West is one of a great number of Yiddish films of the 1920s and 30s that entertained audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, although those made earlier than 1923 have not survived. New York was the main centre of the Yiddish film industry, enjoying a ‘golden age’ in 1936-39, when more than two dozen films opened, only for this to be curtailed abruptly by the onset of World War II. The films capture the language and lifestyle, as well as the values, dreams, and myths of the world of American Yiddish culture. Yiddish films were also made in Poland, Austria and Russia.
Filmmaking was a direct offshoot of Yiddish theatre, which had played a significant role in the life and culture of Jewish immigrant communities for many decades, and many popular stage actors were later immortalised in film. Molly Picon, the female star of East and West, began her career in Yiddish theatre in Philadelphia at the age of six and was one of few stars of Yiddish stage and screen to cross over into the mainstream American film industry, notably playing Yente the matchmaker in the 1971 production of Fiddler on the Roof.
East and West “breathes true Jewish character”, even though “it does not satisfy – one might say, thank God – high literary expectations,” wrote the Viennese journalist E G Fried at the time of its release.
Fried also cited the authenticity of the musical accompaniment, which drew on Jewish folk motifs. How much of that music remains in the version of the film we can view today is not clear. It is a silent movie set to a musical score produced by Henry Sapoznik and performed by Peter Sokolow during the process of restoration. Like many works of Yiddish cinema, the film only survived in fragmentary versions, and was reconstructed by the Filmarchiv Austria, funded in part by the American Film Institute Film Preservation Program and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The film is available to watch from Rarefilmm, the "Cave of Forgotten Films". You can find it on their Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/1177986749024623 by typing "East and West" into the Search box.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.