Directors: Joseph Green and Konrad Tom
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When moviegoers think about Jews in the movies, portly studio moguls, skeletal victims of the Holocaust, or nebbishy, neurotic New Yorkers are the images that may spring immediately to mind. Fortunately, the steady stream of historic Jewish-themed and Yiddish-language films coming back into the world via the fine rescue and restoration work of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) is offering a larger sense of the breadth and richness of Jewish life. The NCJF’s most recent restoration, now making its way around the world at festival screenings, is Mamele.
Mamele is a classic and important work for a number of reasons. It is the last Yiddish film shot in Poland, made just a year before the Nazis occupied Poland and began the destruction of the way of life depicted in the film. Mamele also stars “Queen of the Yiddish Musical” Molly Picon, a first-generation American of Polish immigrant parents who started in vaudeville at age 6, launching a highly successful 70-year career during which she would be nominated for a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of an Italian mother in Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and create an indelible Yente the Matchmaker in Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Additionally, it preserves Picon’s trademark musical number “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long As You’re Healthy”) for posterity.
The film, set in the industrial town of Lodz, concerns the Samed family—father Berel (Max Bozyk), plain oldest sister Yetka (Ola Shlifko), attractive middle sister Berta (Gertrude Bullman), good-hearted youngest sister Havche (Picon), unemployed oldest brother Duvid (Max Pearlman), apprentice locksmith Zishe, and schoolboy Avremel. Mrs. Samed has been dead for three years, but she entrusted the welfare of the family to Havche, who gets her household money from the working members of the family to shop for the home. Her cooking, cleaning, sewing, errand-running, and maternal guidance are variously resented, ignored, or taken for granted, but her promise to her mother is sacred. Havche is lonely and abused—her father beat her when she was late bringing his coffee—but she finds solace in her friendship with Schlesinger (Edmund Zayenda), a promising musician who lives in an apartment across the courtyard.
Berta is romanced by Max Katz (Menasha Oppenheim), a slick thief who impresses her and Berel with his new car and ready cash. Katz will take what he can from Berta, but his real interest is to get Zishe to make a key to allow his partners in crime to get into a shop adjoining a bank, break through the wall, and rob the bank. An observant Havche follows Zishe and the men, accidentally brings a wall down on them, fishes Zishe out of the rubble, and forces Max to throw Berta over in a hilarious scene in which Havche tricks him into thinking she has a gun on him. However, a petty family argument finally pushes Havche over the edge, and she abandons the family to travel with the Schlesingers to the country. Romance blooms, the family realizes how lost they are without her, and Havche returns to her role of mamele (little mother), with Schlesinger joining the household as her husband.
Picon originally played the teenaged Havche the mamele on the stage when she was in her 20s. Although the actress was a tiny 4’11”, she was 40 and clearly a grown woman by the time she recreated the role on screen. The gross injustice of a child playing wife and mother to her ungrateful family thus is lost and her self-sacrifice more in keeping with the stereotype of mothers, in general, and Jewish mothers, in particular. Nonetheless, the fascinating cast of characters living modern lives in the big city alongside their religious observances make this film a lively affair. The wit and flair of the dialogue perfectly capture the Jewish personality. For example, a group of men are watching Berel play dominoes in a local hang-out. One asks another for a cigarette, then a match. The retort is, “What do you supply? The mouth?” The film shows a sukkot (temporary house) being built for the Festival of Sukkot, and the women serving food to the men inside. When a young boy asks why his mamma isn’t in the sukkot, his father replies “At Passover, you’ll ask questions…eat!”, a witticism referring to the four questions the youngest at the table always asks at every Passover seder.
Picon is a terrific and charismatic actress who initially was not a fluent Yiddish speaker. She eventually spoke like a native because Joseph Green, a Warsaw native who maintained a film production company in Poland, insisted she travel to Europe to learn the language and customs from the source. Picon shows off her musical chops not only with a clever rendition of “Abi Gezunt” sung as she prepares a meal, but especially in a vignette in which she talks to her grandmother’s photograph. Picon plays her grandmother as a young girl, a vibrant young woman, a plump matron, and a 78-year-old matriarch, singing about all the different ways she danced through her life. The sequence is well edited to mirror the reminiscences of an old woman, and Picon offers the right amount of comedy and pathos to the stand-out number. A nightclub sequence in which Bullman and Oppenheim offer a slice of contemporary nightlife balances out the more traditional, sentimental elements and opens this stagebound film up a bit.
While there’s no doubting the reality of situations like Havche’s, the film has a fairytale quality to it—a wisecracking Cinderella who gets her Prince Charming while checking to see that the soup is seasoned properly and her ketzele (kitten) gets a saucer of milk before she goes off to get married. I thoroughly enjoyed this showcase of talented performers putting over a classic of the Yiddish stage with just enough cinematic verve to please the discerning cinephile.
You can view before-and-after scenes of the restoration here.
Mamele screens Sunday, May 31, at the Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. There will be a post-screening discussion with Lisa Rivo, codirector of The National Center for Jewish Film.