Music, Sound, and the Moving Image

Leaving Kazimierz: Comedy and realism in the Yiddish film musical Yidl mitn Fidl

Music, Sound, and the Moving Image (2009), 3, (2), 159–193.

Abstract

In making the 1936 Yiddish film musical Yidl mitn Fidl, the international cast and crew aimed to represent the Jewish customs of the Polish shtetl by filming in the Polish town of Kazimierz, to capture its residents engaged in Jewish ritual and the activities of everyday life. These scenes serve as a backdrop for a comic romance about a klezmer ensemble that uses its musical talent as a ticket for passage from the Old World to the New. The film's music, by American composer Abraham Ellstein, incorporates songs in the tradition of Yiddish theatre, combining the influence of Eastern European Jewish folk music and modern American entertainment culture. The soundtrack plays a crucial role throughout the movie, at times creating a persuasive impression of quasi-ethnographic documentation, while celebrating the possibilities offered to Diaspora Jews by modernity and emigration. The letters and writings of the film's American star Molly Picon express confidence in the importance of filming on location in Kazimierz, but her experiences there reinforced her preference for cosmopolitan life over the hardship of the shtetl. Her ambivalence reflects the complicated relationship with Jewish Eastern Europe of immigrant and first-generation Diaspora Jews during the decades leading up to World War II.

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Walden, Joshua