Ydd2104 Yiddish Literature and Film

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University of Ottawa, Dept. of Modern Languages and Literatures

YDD2104 Yiddish Literature and Film | winter 2014

Time and location: Wednesdays, 4:00-7:00 pm, FSS 1005

Course website:

Instructor: Prof. Natalia Vesselova

E-mail: nvess040@uottawa.ca

NB: Please identify the course number in the subject line and sign your message with full name.

Office location: Arts Building, 70 Laurier, room 325.

Office hours: Thursdays, 2:30-3:30 pm, or by appointment

Course Description

A study of Yiddish literature and film in Europe and America.

Discussion of major themes in Yiddish literary works and film as well as the social and cultural contexts behind their creation. No previous knowledge of Yiddish is required.

Required reading material

  1. Frieden, Ken, ed. Classic Yiddish Stories of S.Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2004.

  2. Jay Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds. Dartmouth, 2010.

  3. Course pack.

The books and the course pack are available at Agora Bookstore, 145 Besserer Street,

Tel: 613-562-4672. Online ordering: www.agorabookstore.ca.

Course Objectives:

Students will acquire knowledge of the major trends in Yiddish literature and film produced in Europe and America during the last 150 years, as well as an understanding of the wider context of Yiddish culture and history.






Quizzes and participation




Written assignment 1


February 5


Midterm exam


February 26


Written assignment 2


April 2


Final exam




Quizzes and Participation (10%)

Attendance at all lectures and viewing of all of the films is mandatory. Students are expected to read the required materials before each class. Unannounced quizzes will be given at random to check attendance and involvement with the information. Active participation in class discussions will be evaluated as well.

Written Assignment 1 (15 %)

Explore any aspect of the culture clash between traditional Yiddish values/way of living and the “New World” as reflected in fiction or/and film. Use non-fiction materials for reference and background information.

Required length: approximately 1,800 words, including the list of works cited.

Written Assignment 2 (25%)

Come up with a clear thesis linking one of the discussed films and fiction. Use non-fiction reading materials for reference and background information.

All students should verify their topic with the professor in advance.

Required length: approximately 2,500 words, including the list of works cited.

For quotations and references, in-text citation must be used (author’s last name, page), with the full list of works cited at the end of the essay. Written assignments should be typed in double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font, 1” margins, and stapled.

The essay evaluation will be based on:

  • clarity of the thesis;

  • originality of ideas;

  • precision and detail of analysis;

  • logic and structure of argumentation;

  • level of style, spelling, and punctuation;

  • accuracy of referencing.

For various writing problems, free help is available from the University Academic Writing Centre (www.sass.uottawa.ca/writing/centre.php).


Format: short identification questions (40 points), essay questions (60 points).

Final exam

The same format as midterm, with increased number of questions. The final exam is cumulative and will include material from the entire course. Deferrals are only possible with a doctor’s note: see “Policies and Procedures” under “Health Services Clinic” on the Health Services website: www.uottawa.ca/health.

Students who require accommodation during examinations must register with Access Services: www.sass.uottawa.ca/access.

Students’ responsibilities

As well as being present in every class, students are expected to be ready with each day’s reading portion and participate in class discussions. In case of a missed class, students must watch the film and familiarize themselves with the day’s lecture notes (arrange borrowing them from classmates).
Essays should be submitted in person on the due dates, unless a student is under exceptional circumstances and asks for an extension in advance. The standard grade deduction is 2% per day past the deadline, for the maximum of a week.
Beware of academic fraud, such as fictitious bibliographical information, improper citation, and plagiarism: these misdeeds will result in a zero grade for an assignment and, in certain cases, even in failing the course. To be informed about what constitutes plagiarism consult this page: http://www.arts.uottawa.ca/eng/students/fraud.html. When unsure, ask the professor.

Course calendar (subject to change)

Week 1 January 8

Introduction to the course.


Prologue in A Serious Man (USA, 2009, 7,4 min). Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

(available on Youtube).

The Yiddish cinema (60 min.) DVD 00886 

Week 2 January 15

Lecture: Yiddish literature in the “Old World” and the “New World.”

Reading | Non-fiction: {CP1} Chone Smeruk, Leonard Prager, et al., “Yiddish Literature,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, vol. 21, 2nd ed., 338-372 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007). 

Reading | Fiction: Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Son From America” (in-class).

Theme 1. Life in the “Big City”

Week 3 January 22

Film: Uncle Moses/Onkl mozes (USA, 1932, 87 minutes)

Directed by Sidney Goldin and Aubrey Scott, screenplay by Maurice Schwartz. DVD 02220

Reading | Fiction: {CP2} Sholem Asch, “Alone in a Strange World”; Isaac Raboy, “Imprisoned,” in The New Country: Stories from the Yiddish about Life in America, edited by Henry Goodman (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2001), pp. 10-19; 32-38.

Reading | Non-fiction: Hoberman, pp. 161-166 | {CP3} Hannah Berliner Fischthal, “Uncle Moses,” in When Joseph Met Molly: A Reader on Yiddish Film, edited by Sylvia Paskin (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 1999), pp. 217-230.

Week 4 January 29

Film: Mamele (Poland, 1938, 100 min) Directed by Joseph Green and Konrad Tom. DVD 00879

Reading | Fiction: Sholem Aleichem, “Holiday Dainties,” in Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, pp. 89-94; {CP4} Dvora Baron, “Kaddish,” “Bubbe Henya”; David Bergelson, “In the Boardinghouse;” in Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories, An Anthology, edited by Sanbra Bark and Francine Prose (New York: Warner Books, 2003), pp. 1-7, 247-258, 269-277.

Reading | Non-fiction: Hoberman, 287-293.

Theme 2. Love and Romance

Week 5 February 5 Paper 1 due

Film: Yiddle with his Fiddle/ Yidl mitn fidl (Poland, 1936, 92 min)

Directed by Joseph Green and Jan Nowina-Przybylski. DVD 02213

Reading | Fiction: {CP5} Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” in The Collected Stories (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1982), pp. 149-169.

Reading | Non-fiction: Hoberman, pp. 236-243 | {CP6} Eve Sicular, “Gender Rebellion in Yiddish Film: Molly Picon, Drag Artiste, in When Joseph Met Molly, pp. 245-254.

Week 6 February 12

Film: The Light Ahead/ Fishka der krimmer/Di klyatshe (USA, 1939, 94 min.)

Produced and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay by Chaver Pahver, DVD 00881

Reading | Fiction: S.q Y. Abramovitsh, “Fishke the Lame,” in Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, pp. 32-54.

Reading | Non-fiction: Hoberman, pp. 300-302 | {CP7} Sylvia Paskin, “The Light Ahead,” in When Joseph Met Molly, pp. 119-130.

Week 7 February 19 Reading week: no class

Week 8 February 26 Midterm

Discussion of written assignment 1 and planning of written assignment 2.

Theme 3. Family and tradition

Week 9 March 5

Film: Tevya (USA, 1939, 96 min) Directed and screenplay by Maurice Schwartz. DVD 00880

Reading | Fiction: Sholem Aleichem, “Hodel,” “Chava,” in Classic Yiddish Stories of S.Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, pp. 57-88; {CP 8}: Lamed Shapiro, “The Kiss,” in The Cross and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Leah Garrett (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 46-49 + 214-215.

Reading | Non-fiction: {CP9} Ken Friedan. “A Century in the Life of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye,” The B.G Rudolph Lectures in Judaic Studies, New Series, Lecture One (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1993-1994), pp. 1-25.

Week 10 March 12

Film: American Matchmaker/ Amerikaner shadkhn (USA 1940, 87 min)

Produced and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. DVD 00884

Reading | Fiction: {CP10}: Lamed Shapiro, “New Yorkish,” in The Cross and Other Jewish Stories, p. 198-212 + 219-221.

Reading | Non-fiction: Hoberman, pp. 317-322 | {CP11} Matthew J. Sweet, “Talking About Feygelekh: A Queer Male Representation in American Speech,” in Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, edited by Kira Hall and Anna Livia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115-126.

Theme 4. Mysticism

Week 11 March 19

Film: The Dybbuk/Der Dibuk (Poland, 1937, 123 min.)

Directed by Michal Waszyński, screenplay by Alter Kacyzne and Andrej Marek. DVD 02170

Reading | Fiction: I.L. Peretz, “Kabbalists,” “Teachings of the Hasidim,” “The Rebbe’s Pipe,” “If Not Higher,” “Between Two Mountains,” in Classic Yiddish Stories, pp. 147-178.

Reading | Non-fiction: Hoberman, pp. 279-284 | {CP 12} Ira Konigsberg, "The only ’I’ in the world": Religion, Psychoanalysis, and ‘The Dybbuk’,” Cinema Journal 36, no. 4 (1997): 22-42.

Week 12 March 26

Film: A Gesheft (USA, 2005, 90 min)

Directed by Yakov Kirsh, produced by Mendel Kirsh

Reading | Non-fiction: {CP 13} Miriam Isaacs, “Haredi, ‘haymish’ and ‘frim’: Yiddish Vitality and Language Choice in a Transnational Multilingual Community,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 138 (1999): 9-30.

Week 13 April 2 Paper 2 due

Lecture: The present and future of Yiddish literature and film

Films: Der fus tort (Ottawa, Sharon Katz, 2001, 6 min) | DVD 00790

A Maiseh (Jerusalem, Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts, 2002, 19 mins)

Reading | Fiction: visit www.yiddishpoetry.org, click on “contemporary Yiddish poetry,” click on “Zackary Sholem Berger,” scroll to read his poetry with English translation, listen to the .mp3s.

Reading | Non-fiction: {CP 14} Jeffrey Shandler, “Postvernacular Yiddish: Language as a Performance Art.” TDR 48, no. 1 (2004): 19-43.

A Guide to Classic Yiddish Film

What you see

What it means


Rampant economic dislocation in the “Old World”; immigrants “working their way up” in the “New World.”

Small town

A shtetl: an Eastern European market town in the “Pale of Settlement” (restrictions on Jewish settlement); a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants; generally traditional; rigid social structure; influence of Hasidism.

“Big City”

Modernity; industrialization; new social structure.

New York City: “New World” immigrant centre; mass Eastern European immigration 1880-1920 (2+ million)

Lodz: “Manchester of Poland”; Jewish industrialists (2nd after Warsaw; 230,000, 1/3 of total pop.)

Jewish farmer/villager

Relatively uncommon in Eastern Europe; less learned; earthy; ideal of productivization of Jews linked with revitalization (especially Zionism).

Men with long beards, sidelocks, head coverings; women with covered heads

Religiously observant Jews, i.e. observant of Jewish ritual law (halakhah) that governs diet, dress, prayer, ritual, holiday observance, etc. Often: Hasidim (Jewish mysticism)

Men and boys studying

Study of sacred Jewish text, especially Jewish law and its rabbinic interpretation (Talmud); study = a high status activity in Ashkenazi civilization; the ideal vocation for a Jewish male.

Women and girls at work in the shtetl

Traditional ideal: women supporting husbands at study; woman as “eyshes khayl” (woman of valour).

A wedding scene

Favourite of Yiddish stage and film; symbol of Jewish continuity; rare license for song/dance/jest/debauchery;

participants: groom and bride (khosn-kale); musicians (klezmorim), wedding jester (badkhen).

Jewish musicians

Klezmer/klezmorim (pl.); professional itinerant instrumental musicians called upon for specific occasions: weddings, holiday celebrations; inherited “caste”; low social status.

Jewish matchmaker

Shadkhen; traditionally arranger of marriages; symbol of conflict with modernity; often comic relief.

Jewish beggars

Integral part of social structure (tsedoke, charity).


Source of comic relief.


Hasidic rabbi and heir to a Hasidic dynasty; charismatic leader.

Interactions between parents and children

Ideal: patriarch and matriarch; recurring theme: role reversal; symbol of wider themes of displacement within modernity.

Factory scene

“Sweatshop”: bad conditions, class conflicts.

Men and women in modern garb

Modernity; new ideologies: Socialism, Nationalism (esp. Zionism), etc.; shift away from tradition.

Romance, love marriages

Modernity; break with tradition.

Jewish underworld

Part of urban social structure.


Generally negative; cause of anxiety.

Non-Jewish characters

Other; rarely portrayed; neutral to very negative.

Key moments in Yiddish civilization

  1. 70 CE: Jewish exile from Holy Land (biblical Israel); dispersion; diaspora

  2. ~1,000 years ago: beginnings of Yiddish language among Jews in Germanic lands (Ashkenazim)

  3. 1200: beginnings of Jewish settlement in Poland

  4. 1600-1800: “Golden age” of Yiddish civilization; semi-autonomous communities in Europe

  5. 18th century: life of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), founder of the populist Jewish mystical movement of Hasidism; spread of the movement in Eastern Europe; followers = Hasidim (singular: Hasid)

  6. Late 18th century: Jewish emancipation in Western Europe; Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah); decline of Yiddish

  7. Late 18th century: partition of Poland (1772), creation of “Pale of Settlement,” restrictive anti-Jewish laws in Tsarist Russia

  8. Mid-19th century: Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe; new ideological movements

  9. 1860s: first works of modern Yiddish literature; founding figures: Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher Sforim, 1835-1917); Sholem Rabinovitch (Sholem Aleichem, 1859-1916); I.L. Peretz (1852-1915)

  10. 1881: assassination of Russian Tsar (Alexander II); pogroms (anti-Jewish violence); increased anti-Jewish legislation

  11. 1880-1920: mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, esp. United States; development of popular Yiddish culture (Yiddish theatre, newspapers, literature, etc.)

  12. 1905: failed Russian Revolution; increased Jewish nationalism

  13. 1908: first Yiddish language conference in Czernovitz, Romania

  14. 1917: Russian Revolution, end of Pale of Settlement, Jewish emancipation

  15. 1914-1918: World War I, followed by widespread anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe

  16. 1919: creation of Poland (part of Treaty of Versailles)

  17. 1919-1939: rapid expansion of modern Yiddish culture

  18. 1929-1939: Great Depression, increase of antisemitism, restrictions of Jewish immigration, Nazism in Germany

  19. September 1939: German invasion of Poland, outbreak of World War II (1939-1945); population of 16 million Jews, 11 million in Europe (3.5 million in Poland, 10% of total population)

  20. 1939-1945: “Final Solution” in Holocaust: death of six million Jews; end of European Yiddish civilization; shift in the map of “Yiddishland” away from Europe

  21. 1945-present: rapid decline of Yiddish as Jewish lingua franca outside of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities; “postvernacular Yiddish”

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