Arts Listings

‘Jesters and Gestures’: PFA Presents Performed Yiddish Culture

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:53:00 AM

The way many people see Yiddish culture is often one-sided, flat. Knowing just a little, they project fantasies: ‘the poor little shtetl!’” 

Zehavit Stern was talking about “Jesters and Gestures: Performing Yiddish Culture From Silent Cinema to Avant-Garde Film,” the series she curated with Jeffrey Skoller, which will feature its final two screenings Sunday and Tuesday. 

Yiddish cabaret stars Shimon Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher appear in Jolly Paupers (Poland, 1937) with their short subject, I Want to Be a Boarder, made in the United States the same year; and on Tuesday, Ken Jacobs’ Urban Peasants (United States, 1975) with the short, Unititled (Part 1) (1981), Ernie Gehr’s portrait of the last Jewish immigrants of the Lower East Side that year.  

“Jesters and Gestures” came from a meeting between Stern and Stoller “two years ago, when I taught a class at UC Berkeley,” Stern recalled. “Jeffrey teaches film; it was from a combination of our interests—and from not having to talk about Yiddish culture as an museum artifact!” 

The series features seven shows in just over two weeks, including a rare live performance, West and East, by the Sala-Manca Group—a “translation” from the 1923 Austrian silent film East and West, starring great Yiddish actress Molly Picon.  

Stern wryly recalled reactions she’s encountered: “When I tell people I speak Yiddish, they’ll say, ‘Why do you want to do that?’” 

She talked about the upcoming Jolly Paupers. “It’s really special. Since we called the series ‘Performing Yiddish Culture,’ we wanted a broad spectrum of performances—and some would like it all at once! Humor, singing, dancing, plot, cantoral chanting, a wedding ...  

“This is an excellent performance of humor from Lodz in Poland, between the wars. They had very good—really crazy-funny—writers, and it gives you a sense of their stage performances, of cabaret, though there almost seems to be a plot. It sometimes feels like brief sketches. When Dzigan and Shumacher performed in Yiddish after the war in Israel, they were ‘persecuted’—though that’s too strong a word!—forced to live in hotels for years, because the rule was that Yiddish performers were foreign artists, not Israeli.” 

Stern commented on their short film, made in the States: “It gives a sense of American vaudeville—Jewish Fred Astaire? I don’t know!—so there’re two kinds of humor from one team on one program, in a way.” 

Of the film by the well-known experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, composed of family home movies from Brooklyn in the 1930s and ’40s, alternating with “situations” from an LP, Instant Yiddish, Stern said, “Ken Jacobs plays with it, with the absence of Yiddish culture. So many people interview their parents about the Holocast; this is so experimental, so contemporary, engaging—touching! And it uses something like a Yiddish Berlitz guide: How to Book a Hotel Room in Yiddish, How to Go to the Bank ...” 

Of the unusual live performance by the Sala-Manca Group, Stern said, “They were accompanying their own film, with images from the original screenplay, the night after the original showed, so some people saw both. They’re very political: the protagonist is the grandson of the original film’s, who went from being a practicing Jew to secular, maybe assimilated, in America ... the grandson’s orthodox, lives in Israel ... They call it a translation; there’s also the notion of mis-translation, translating Hebrew to Yiddish, Yiddish to English, Hebrew to Yiddish, Yiddish to English, and vice versa, through Babylon, that translation software. All kinds of cultural encounters—and perfectly aware of the gaps.” 

Mentioning the reaction to a live performance in their theater by the PFA staff, Stern said, “They were very excited. And they had to pull out every piece of their equipment! It’s not a performance space.” 

The reaction to the series has been gratifying to Stern. “I was surprised. People came up afterwards, more than I expected. There was even a sense of community. Feeling connected. In discussion, we sounded like we knew each other. Many of them I do know came with the East Bay Group Yiddisher Cabaret, in which people meet every month in someone’s house. But film studies people came, too. I’m always glad to see it’s not necessary to have a background to be interested.”  



Dzigan & Shumacher in Jolly Paupers with short I Want to Be a Boarder (both 1937), 3 p.m., Sun., Nov. 22, introduced by Zehavit Stern; Ken Jacobs’ Urban Peasants (1975) with Ernie Gehr’s Untitled (Part 1) (1981), 7:30 p.m., Tues., Nov. 24, introduced by Jeffrey Skoller. Pacific Film Archive Theater, 2575 Bancroft at Bowditch (near Telegraph). Tickets: $5.50–$9.50. 642-1124;