Review of Jonah Corne and Monika Vrečar’s Yiddish Cinema: The Drama of Troubled Communication

Rebecca Margolis

Jon­ah Corne and Moni­ka Vrečar. Yid­dish Cin­e­ma: The Dra­ma of Trou­bled Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Albany, NY: State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Press, 2023. 362 pp. $36.95.

Jonah Corne and Monika Vrečar’s Yiddish Cinema: The Drama of Troubled Communication offers a radically new approach to reading Yiddish screen production by applying a model from media studies to a field that had, until that point, been primarily oriented towards documenting its history. I extend my appreciation to the authors for dramatically widening the scope of scholarship on Yiddish cinema.

The innovation of Corne and Vrečar’s book entails reading Yiddish cinema as “a kind of media theory in itself” by applying the philosophical framework introduced in the 1970s by Vilém Flusser (1920-1991), a Czech Jew who survived the Nazi Holocaust: “the structure of communication is the infrastructure of human reality” (2). I cite the book’s theoretical foundation, which establishes what the authors term “troubled communication” as a lens through which to read Yiddish cinema:

In more specific terms, our central argument is that Yiddish cinema propounds the idea that ‘the structure of communication is the infrastructure of human reality,’ and that it does so through an insistent focus on troubled communication. Consequently, we contend, the films offer exemplary testimony to what is often said about the revelatory powers of dysfunction: namely, that it is in their faltering and breaking down that we become most cognizant of the systems that sustain us, that we vitally rely on for our existence. Again and again, with archetypal frequency, in a manner reflective of the turbulent period of Jewish history in which they arise, Yiddish films revolve around characters who have become treacherously cut off, disconnected, ‘excommunicated’ (to use the term in a broad sense), and as a result are thrown into full-blown existential crisis, whose only means of resolution or mitigation appears to derive from a type of reentry into the world of communication (4).

The Yiddish cinema, the authors further argue, offers “a highly unique, highly emphatic iteration of troubled communication that stems from the particular social-historical predicaments that the films set out to capture—predicaments that belong to one of the most turbulent periods in all of Jewish history (certainly European Jewish history). Mass immigration, the erosion of religious and familial traditions and the concomitant disorientations of modernity, labor struggle, the rise of political antisemitism that would lead to the Holocaust” (4-5). The authors apply the model of “troubled communication” to a diverse selection of Yiddish-language films from 1933 to 1948, specifically: The Wandering Jew (1933), The Dybbuk (1937), Where is My Child? (1937), A Little Letter to Mother (1938), Kol Nidre (1939), Motel the Operator (1939), Tevye (1939), The Living Orphan (1939), and Long Is the Road (1948). Rather than providing historical context for the films’ production or their reception, the authors offer compelling readings of the films that identify thematic, visual, and other motifs within each one.

I offer as one example Michał Waszyński’s Expressionist classic, Der Dibek (The Dybbuk, Poland, 1937), which adapted the iconic play by Sh. Ansky about the deceased soul of a Jewish scholar that invades the body of his beloved. In introducing the film, Corne and Vrečar aptly observe the supernatural tendencies within Yiddish cinema associated with troubled communication: “Currents of mysticism flow regularly through Yiddish cinema, from the songs and melodies possessed of a preternatural ability to cross vast distances and ontological boundaries, to the incredible coincidences and providential plot designs of shund, to the compendium of dreams and visions where a photograph or a painting of a long-lost loved one bursts numinously into life” (255). In this vein, Corne and Vrečar’s analyze Der Dibek in association with Flusser’s writing on the supernatural in a motif they term “the call of the wind” (256), where gusts of wind signify an unheeded otherworldly presence in pivotal moments throughout the film. Viewing the film through this lens suggests an additional dimension to Der Dibek as a film about ruptured and violated memory.

This theme is compounded in the film’s afterlife as part of a Yiddish cinematic corpus that was remastered and rereleased with subtitles beginning in the 1970s by the National Center for Jewish Film or, more recently, a selection restored by Lobster films and presented by Kino Lorber under the title, The Jewish Soul: Classics of Yiddish Cinema. As Zehavit Stern has argued, it is difficult not to backshadow the pre-Holocaust films such as Der Dibek by reading them through the lens of the cataclysmic events that followed. 1 1 Zehavit Stern, “Cinema as Site of Memory: The Dybbuk and the Burden of Holocaust Commemoration,” in The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema, ed. Lawrence Baron (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011), 82-88. Corne and Vrečar resist this impulse. Instead, they offer close readings of the films in line with their theoretical apparatus, accompanied by aptly chosen movie stills that augment their arguments. Much of the book’s analysis is taken up by non-linguistic issues, and their focus on extrasemantic cinematic strategies such as mise-en-scène and metasemantic modes (e.g. silence, song) identifies essential tropes across the corpus of Yiddish cinema. For example, their analyses of the many incidences of acousmatic voices—heard but without seeing the source—as an iteration of troubled communication underscores the levels of analysis that the Yiddish cinema invites.

While there is perhaps some irony in a book on “troubled communication” that relies primarily on subtitles, it would be impractical to cite all the dialogue in Yiddish along with translations, and the authors make a deliberate choice to do so strategically (304, note 19). The book indirectly raises questions relating to screen translation, among them how subtitling, as a graphic and condensed adaptation of spoken dialogue, raises a vast array of translation issues. An inherent challenge lies in conveying non-standard versions of language—dialect, colloquialisms, slang and profanity—as well as humor, especially in the utilitarian and truncated subtitles that accompany most Yiddish films. In sum, the processes of translation attached to Yiddish cinema offer their own brand of “troubled communication.”

In a case of felicitous timing, I read Corne and Vrečar’s work during the final stages of writing my own book about Yiddish cinema, The Yiddish Supernatural on Screen: Dybbuks, Demons and Haunted Jewish Pasts. Their theoretical framework significantly informed several elements of my analysis of how semiotically meaningful Yiddish—a communicative usage versus borrowings embedded in another language—within multilingual film or television has increasingly come to signify the mystical or magical. One example relates to the Polish-English-Yiddish film, Demon (dir. Marcin Wrona, Poland, 2015). That film, which integrates Yiddish dialogue as part of a supernatural possession narrative situated in contemporary Poland, is punctuated by dramatic gusts of wind. Corne and Vrečar’s “call of the wind” motif in association with Waszyński’s Der Dibek (1937) proved invaluable to my understanding of Demon as a twenty-first century film interrogating memory of Poland’s vanished Jews. This connection underlines the irrefutable connections between the classic Yiddish films and post-Holocaust Yiddish on screen, despite the undeniable rupture. Not only have the creators of film and television with Yiddish dialogue been influenced by the screenings of the restored Yiddish films that form the subject of Yiddish Cinema, but common themes and motifs extend across the divide into the present.

This brings me to my main point: the fragmented transmission of the Yiddish language and its culture as revealed on screen since 1948—the end of Corne and Vreča’s timeline—offers an exemplary case of “the drama of troubled communication.” The predicaments of the twentieth century that form the root cause of “troubled communication” have been vastly compounded in the decades since the Holocaust. Further, filmmakers have gravitated towards integrating spoken Yiddish dialogue within screen narratives that evince troubled communication, most recently in the Ukrainian-French film Shttl (dir. Ady Walter, Ukraine, 2022), which offers a multifaceted fictionalized portrayal of the twenty-four hours preceding Operation Barbarossa. The concept of “troubled communication” has been heightened by the translation apparatus associated with mainstream cinematic and televisual production with Yiddish dialogue, produced by and for non-speakers of the language who largely rely on screen translators and subtitles. These constitute highly involved processes of reconstituting spoken Yiddish from an imagined origin text (also called pseudo-subtitling or reverse subtitling). Whereas multilingual film and television with subtitled Yiddish no doubt attract audiences, as evidenced by the success of the recent Netflix miniseries Unorthodox and others, the Yiddish dialogue itself lacks a target audience. As such, iterations of “troubled communication” abound in post-1950 film and television with semiotically meaningful Yiddish, where the language functions in a communicative capacity rather than embedded into another language. I would argue that it is precisely the absence of a target audience, and the inherently troubled communication that ensues, that motivates the Yiddish use.

Here I offer just a few examples of uses of spoken Yiddish where the language functions as a strategy of “troubled communication” in multilingual films. In an imagined frontier in the Jewish Western Blazing Saddles (dir. Mel Brooks, USA, 1974), Mel Brooks plays a native American chief on the American frontier who attempts to communicate with African American newcomers in a combination of Yiddish and Yiddish-accented English. In the all-Yiddish prologues to a cycle of American films and television programs—The West Wing (“Holy Night,” Season 4, Episode 11, 2002), A Serious Man (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, USA, 2009), The Cobbler (dir. Tom McCarthy, USA, 2014), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (“My Mom, Greg’s Mom and Josh’s Sweet Dance Moves!” Season 1, Episode 8, 2015)—viewers are confronted by a cold open in an unfamiliar subtitled language that signals vanished pasts in the American immigrant neighborhood, trans-Atlantic journey or pre-immigrant shtetl. In other cases, the usage of Yiddish underscores the incomplete transmission of the language before or in the aftermath of the Holocaust. For example, in Bruxelles Transit (dir. Samy Szlingerbaum, Belgium, 1980), the soundtrack provided by the filmmaker’s survivor mother narrates her experiences, which are partially reconstructed by her son in dramatic vignettes. In a key scene in the Academy Award-winning multilingual film, Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes, Hungary, 2015), Sonderkommando prisoner Saul (Géza Röhrig) finds himself unable to communicate with his fellow inmates due to his poor Yiddish. Most recently, in a cycle of horror movies containing scenes with Yiddish, the language signifies Hasidic Jewish carriers of esoteric knowledge. These include The Possession (dir. Ole Bornedal, USA, 2012), the Hollywood horror movie that introduced the hoax known as “the Dybbuk Box”; Yiddish deployed by a parasitical demon in The Vigil (dir. Keith Thomas, USA, 2019), and the queer rom com horror film, Attachment (dir. Gabriel Bier Gislason, Denmark, 2022). My current study, Laugher Through Yiddish: Language and Humor on Screen, will again be drawing on Corne and Vrečar’s theory as part of my analysis. After all, troubled communication can engender laughter, even if it is nervous laughter.

If I have a critique of Yiddish Cinema, it is not with the fact that the authors do not extend their analysis beyond 1948. Every author or set of authors is entitled to determine the parameters of their project. However, I take issue with the way they delimit not only Yiddish cinema but the vitality of Yiddish into the present.

In their closing remarks to the volume, Corne and Vrečar articulate my issue of contention: the implied absence of continuity between Yiddish cinema before the Holocaust and what came after. In a two-page Coda, the authors write, “Naturally, there are other ways that one might enact the needful task of bringing Yiddish cinema, as it were, out of ‘the ghetto’ that it unfortunately mostly still occupies, and into aesthetic and philosophical spheres where it might find a broader reception” (297). In this vein, Corne and Vrečar propose building bridges with other minor or ethnic cinemas, “Or stretching out the timeline of Yiddish cinema into the ‘postvernacular’ phase of the language, one might forge links with more recent Yiddish film and media, including works about Hasidic and other Haredi communities (where, of course Yiddish still retains a vernacular purchase) like the global sensation, Netflix-streaming series Shtisel (2013–)” (297). They cite from Kafka’s 1912 “Introductory Talk on the Yiddish Language,” held as the opening remarks to a recitation in Prague by Yiddish actor Yitzhak Löwy. Here Kafka underlined the role of the performer/interpreter in elucidating Yiddish and its culture for those unfamiliar with the language such as himself: “Once Yiddish has taken hold of you and moved you—and Yiddish is everything, the words, the Chasidic melody, and the essential character of this East European Jewish actor himself—you will have forgotten your former reserve” (298). The authors conclude their book, “Luckily for us, however, engraving performances like Löwy’s on celluloid, Yiddish cinema allows us to feed on them copiously, to take more than a bisl—a little bit—of nourishment from them, and so perpetuate the memory of Yiddish—whose fragility Kafka seemed to sense even more than a century ago—that much longer” (298-99).

This closing statement suggests that not only memory of the Yiddish cinema but of the language itself is fading, as if there were no real continuity into the present, save for the “vernacular purchase” in the Haredi world. For readers of In geveb, these sentiments about Yiddish might be all too familiar: the afterlife of Yiddish is postvernacular, our usage of the language freighted with symbolic rather than communicative meaning, if we speak it at all. This reductionist framing, which resonates with a trope that what Jeffrey Shandler has termed “Yiddish as moribund,” needlessly delimits the applicability of Corne and Vrečar’s reading of Flusser’s theory to Yiddish screen studies—or Yiddish—more broadly.

Yiddish Cinema: The Drama of Troubled Communication suggests innovative and fruitful ways that scholarship in media studies can be applied to Yiddish cinema. I deeply appreciate the ways in which Corne and Vrečar have raised the bar to herald new interdisciplinary approaches to the fields of Yiddish cinema and Jewish screen studies in convergences that will no doubt enrich both. The productive framework that they offer for reading Yiddish cinema “as a Jewish media theory from below” (297) compellingly extends into the present.

Margolis, Rebecca. “Review of Jonah Corne and Monika Vrečar's Yiddish Cinema: The Drama of Troubled Communication.” In geveb, April 2024:čar-yiddish-cinema.
Margolis, Rebecca. “Review of Jonah Corne and Monika Vrečar's Yiddish Cinema: The Drama of Troubled Communication.” In geveb (April 2024): Accessed May 26, 2024.


Rebecca Margolis

Rebecca (Rivke) Margolis is a professor and Pratt Foundation Chair of Jewish Civilisation at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.