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March 04, 2021



Nurith Aviv - 2020
Icarus Films Home Video R1 DVD

As the expression goes for personal relationships, "it's complicated". Yiddish is a documentary about the language, about several poets in the periods between the world wars who wrote in Yiddish, and the several scholars who recite the poems.

My own limited knowledge comes from having maternal grandparents who spoke Yiddish to each other, and my picking up a few words from them. There was also reading Leo Rosten's hilarious book, The Joys of Yiddish with its vernacular usage for English language readers. And of course, the writings by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Aviv's documentary follows a formula of establishing a city - Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, among others. We see someone entering their office from the street. The camera then settles on that person telling a bit about themselves and their relationship to Yiddish. The scholars are generally on the young side, mostly having come to Yiddish through language or literary studies. Aviv then films each person on one half of the frame while the other half has the English translation of the poem being recited.

We briefly see portraits of the various poets cited: Anna Margolin, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Devorah Vogel, and others. Some of these poets were part of the Jewish community in New York City. What I would have liked to have seen, where available, would have been more archival photos of the poets and where they lived at the time.

What is of interest, and this is something I. B. Singer discusses, is that status of Yiddish. For some Jews, Yiddish was considered a déclassé language, a poor relation to Hebrew and German. The scholars who appear here mostly come from families where Yiddish was only spoken by older generations, and where use of Yiddish carried negative connotations. Aviv gives more time to her scholars first person narratives, while the poets get short shrift. Where Yiddish is of interest seems more academic than cinematic.

The DVD comes with a short, Egg Cream. Made by Nora Miller in part with older video footage by father Peter Miller, this is simultaneously the history of the fountain drink as well as the search for the perfect egg cream. For those unfamiliar with this particular beverage, it was an inexpensive warm weather concoction with neither egg nor cream, but a frothy mix of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer water. The drink has been associated with the time when drug stores had soda fountains, with a Jewish immigrant clientele. I admit to never having had an egg cream. There was a bit of nostalgia for me in briefly seeing a shot of Gem Spa, another victim of Covid-19 and rising rents in New York City, conveniently just around the corner from my Lower East Side apartment many years ago.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 4, 2021 05:22 AM