Beyond Fiddler: Teaching Representations of Jewish Eastern Europe on Film

Sarah Ellen Zarrow

Each time I teach my Jewish history survey course, I ask students about their last encounter with any topic in Jewish history. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that most of their knowledge comes from the world of film and television, or from Young Adult Holocaust literature (Washington State schools are “strongly encouraged” to teach about the Holocaust, although not within any particular disciplinary framework). In practice, this seems to mean that many of my students have seen episodes of Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, have seen (or performed in!) Fiddler on the Roof, and may have read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (or seen the film adaptation). Some students have more wide-ranging media experience with representations of Jewish history, and a handful have had some sort of Jewish education that included some historical component.

In classes with more students who identified themselves to me as Jewish, my experience was much the same. More supplemental school (or even day school) education meant only that students might be familiar with a wider variety of films and novels—but their core received knowledge was no different (and might contain more inaccuracies, historically speaking). When I first began teaching Jewish history, I found myself feeling like my primary job in the classroom was teaching against this wealth of accumulated story lines, characters, and implied teleologies. If a student has seen Fiddler a half-dozen times, how do you discuss the fact that most Jews emigrated out of the Pale for economic reasons, rather than to escape the threat of violence? Of course—primary sources analysis and various active learning strategies help. But can a few hours of classroom time overwrite 18+ years of Fiddler-infused Thanksgivings?

I don’t want to imply that only college students meet history through artistic representations. We all do. Paintings, memorials, films—they all have their own histories as well. While it is interesting to discuss whether artistic representations are “true” to the actual historical events, and where artistic representation and historiography diverge and converge, ultimately we may learn much more by understanding that every painting we see, every memorial we visit, was created in its own time and that the artist made choices about the work, and that we can examine those choices with our historian’s tools.

As I was planning my courses for last year, I realized that I had a great opportunity. With more or less free reign to create a roster of courses in Jewish history (and beyond), I could use our department’s Film as History course (already on the books) as a way in to thinking historically about the images of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. We could go beyond whether representations of Jewish life were “factual” or “fictional,” (aka “good” or “bad” in some students’ eyes), and go far beyond material I can work with in my survey course. We could use films as primary sources, sources that speak not only to a historical reality of their subject matter, but that also speak to the ideology and historical circumstances of the filmmaker and of Jewish life in the time and place the film was made.

In this way, the course was designed to stretch students’ ideas of what primary sources are useful for (many students come in to survey courses assuming that primary sources give us a real, unvarnished truth, whereas secondary sources are flights of fancy). We could use films to discuss authorial intent and strategy—how does the director achieve what they set out to do? And we could have fun as well. Never underestimate the value of enjoyment in learning. Since I had a number of returning students who I think trusted me to curate an interesting and engaging classroom, I figured they wouldn’t mind if I threw a few strange films their way.

Before teaching this course, I had used film in a number of ways as part of other classes. Sometimes a film illustrated a particular point far better than another activity (or lecture) would. Films are always useful as a way to take some of the focus off of the professor, asking students to turn on their critical minds even while engaged in watching, which seems easier than listening to lecture. Students can use films as secondary sources instead of another reading. And students can investigate a film as a primary source, bringing the same questions to it as to any other source:

Who created this? When? Where? For what audience, if you can make an educated guess? What did this source want to show? How was this source received?

Teaching a film class as someone without a film background was tricky but also rewarding. The class and I both benefited from Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White’s The Film Experience, which laid out terms like diagenic and non-diagenic music (that’s music the characters in a film can hear, versus music they can’t hear, like a spooky soundtrack that lets the audience know what’s about to happen) in relatively simple terms. In some ways, I think that my lack of film knowledge was actually helpful—I didn’t assume any film background from students, and together we could work on applying historical skills (all students had previously taken at least one history class) to film. Facing this challenge of “reading” films as primary sources myself gave me a deeper appreciation of what my students were learning to do, and I think helped them understand the classroom space as a true place of learning and skill-building, not as a place of showing off what you already know.

There were a few practical challenges with the course that it seems worthwhile to address. First, I titled the course “Filming the East European Jewish Experience,” which was wordy and boring. Considering how many students had some exposure to Fiddler on the Roof, I think I will run the next iteration of the course as “Beyond Fiddler.” (In general, I now have a deeper appreciation for “sexy” titles for my courses.) The other major practical challenge was getting the films. Like many schools, Western subscribes to Kanopy to supplement our physical library holdings. However, many of the films were only available through Vimeo’s paid streaming service or were otherwise tricky to find. I was able to have the library purchase some films, and for those I was unable to have bought for the class, the library staff directly emailed directors. In all cases, the directors sent links to password-protected versions of the films. Our library staff seems unusually resourceful; I mention this because it would never have occurred to me to simply ask for a free copy. In instances where we borrowed the film via interlibrary loan, it was important to have a backup plan in case the film didn’t arrive on time or (more likely) a student missed class and then could not access the film anywhere else. My backup plan was “pay a lot of overdue fines,” which would not be sustainable in the long run.

Finally, it is worth talking with your disabilities resource center about captioning. Many older films, even if they have English subtitles, do not present clear subtitles. Kanopy frequently renders foreign language dialogue as “[speaking in another language]” in the transcript that runs to the side of the films. Especially since some students will have captioning required by their accommodations plans, it’s worth working with the disability resource center to figure something out that is practical and won’t circumvent the school’s policies.

In the following reflection, I will elaborate on some of the choices I made in developing and executing this course, and on what I learned in the process of teaching this course. A revised version of my syllabus can be found here.

I began the course with a word cloud. What words or phrases came to mind when thinking about “Jewish film”? The two words that occupied a central place in everyone’s mind: Fiddler and Holocaust. Some students just put a question mark. Everyone knew that their knowledge was not the end of the discussion.

The first two films we screened in class were Gefilte Fish and Borat. We used both of these films to discuss ideas about Eastern Europe, “authenticity,” and the idea of nostalgia. We then moved to the five extant films of the “Six Cities” films directed by Shaul and Yitzchok Goskind in 1939. The five films (a sixth film, on Łódź, was lost) depict the life of Krakow, Warsaw, Lwów, Wilno, and Bialystok—the Jewish institutions and street scenes as well as major civic monuments. There is surprisingly little in English written about the films; Byran Burn’s essay “The Approaching Storm” can be read not as an analysis of the films, but as a reading-in of major postwar Jewish preoccupations with pre-war Jewish Eastern Europe. Although the students at first found the essay useless (one asked whether the author had watched the same films they had), we used it as a jumping off point to discuss close reading and watching, and to consider what presuppositions scholars and students bring to the table when discussing pre-Holocaust Jewish life.

Our discussions on the theme of immigration and culture clash proved to be one of the most successful of the term. We used Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief to illustrate (literally) some of the challenges new immigrants faced, and how “American” children clashed with “old world” parents. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was a helpful tool in using graphic novels as source materials, and also helped students think about film in different ways. Much like with films, which we often see as entertainment only, comics can be read and picked apart from so many angles; even though many students were quite familiar with comics and graphic novels, McCloud’s work helped to de-mystify and decode the way that comics do work. In this unit, we considered the way in which immigrant culture became hybrid culture, or American culture; our guiding question was the extent to which East European Jewish culture(s) in the United States could or should be considered of a piece with East European cultures in situ.

This discussion prepared us to delve into what became a fixation of the class—the idea of “home.” Beginning with home movies from YIVO’s collection, and using Daniel Soyer’s concept of the travel agent as “broker” between the U.S. and Europe, we tried to go beyond looking at these films as narratives of pure return, considering instead the ways in which the filmmakers had been changed by their new surroundings and their own ageing. This unit brought up the central question of “home” and “away,” and what conditions feeling at-home rests upon. Can immigrants returning feel “at home” in their old home? Can their children? And grandchildren? We began to call the immigrant filmmakers the “grandparents’ generation,” a term students found useful for the rest of the quarter.

I saved Fiddler on the Roof for a week when I was attending a conference. As it turns out, very few of my students had seen the film all the way through. When I returned, we discussed why that was—how is it that almost every student knew of the film (which was, after all, made well before most of them were born, and often before their parents were born)? One student had acted in a high school production of the musical, but few others knew the basic plot and characters. Our readings for the unit “the Shtetl and its Afterglow” focused in part on the historical shtetl—its organization, social structures, and patterns of daily life—and partly on the image of the shtetl, the way it is remembered and portrayed in a post-emigration, post-Holocaust world. Situating the filmic (and musical) Fiddler in its Cold War context also drove home the need to read (and in this case, view) primary sources not in the context of what they depict, but in the context of when they were created. (For an example of this type of source reading in a classroom study, see Sam Wineburg’s use of a discussion of the designation of Columbus Day as a holiday within the Italian-American immigrant community. 1 1 Sam Wineburg, Why Learn History (When it’s Already on Your Phone), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. ). We also took the opportunity to discuss pogroms, such a large focus of Fiddler, and of many popular narratives of Eastern European Jewish life.

Given that the image of the shtetl looms so large over the class’s concept of history, I introduced Marianne Hirsch’s conception of “postmemory” at that juncture. “’Postmemory’” “describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before--to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up” and also helps to understand some filmic representations of the past as attempts to close a memory gap. Students struggled with the idea that the “home” of memory could not be the same as the “home” of postmemory. I saw this most clearly when we discussed The Feast of Passover, in a unit on films depicting the shtetl. The Feast of Passover depicts, as did Gefilte Fish from the first day of class, a decline in observance and a weakening of tradition—but then turns that theme on its head, showing an America where anyone might be a Jew. I ended the quarter realizing that the students’ quest for an “authentic” past ran so deep that they might never see a depiction of American Jewish life as something other than “less than,” a disappointing surprise but nevertheless one that will encourage me to think about my course content in new ways.

The next two units—“Tourism and the Impossible Past” and “Property and Restoration”—focused on the “grandchild” generation of films, depicting attempts to inhabit a familial past, to go “home” (now generations removed), and to restore family possessions. We used Jack Kugelmass’s and Erica Lehrer’s work to discuss the desires of Jewish tourists (and the definition of tourist) to Eastern Europe, particularly to Poland, and watched Everything is Illuminated, as well as reading an excerpt of the book of the same title.

Rutu Modan’s The Property, a graphic novel about a grandmother-granddaughter trip to Poland ostensibly to make a claim for property restitution on the grandmother’s former apartment, is a richly-detailed (and beautifully illustrated) exploration of family dynamics and ties—personal and tangible—to homelands. “Property and Restoration” included what I started calling “furniture week,” featuring Divan (Couch) and Kredens, two autobiographical films about attempts to recover family heirlooms. Jacob Damas’s Kredens (Credenza) depicts his search for the credenza his family left behind when they left Poland for Denmark during the 1968 antisemitic campaign. We watch Jacob, who was born well after his family resettled, speaking with his family’s former neighbors, and we also witness quite negative attitudes towards his search and towards his family, former neighbors. But we also overhear Jacob’s conversations with his mother, who urges Jacob to give up the search, and who states that the credenza was never very important to her (Jacob only knows of it from her brief mentions of it). We used this film to discuss the importance of the past, and of roots, even painful roots, to a generation born outside of Eastern Europe. Pearl Gluck’s Divan provided an interesting counterweight to this film. Gluck went to her family’s ancestral home in Hungary, searching for her family’s heirloom couch, and also seemingly trying to explore her place, as someone who left the Hasidic world, within her family structure. At the end of the film, it is revealed that the couch on which various of Gluck’s friends sit is not, in fact, the family heirloom, but a couch that Gluck purchased for herself in Hungary and had sent back to her home in the United States.

Divan provoked strong reactions in my students, which I have to admit surprised me. I had imagined that Gluck’s tale of, eventually, creating her own narrative and heritage, reclaiming a sense of family connection if not the physical connecting object, would appeal to students interested in autonomy and self-definition. Instead, they were deeply disappointed that Gluck had not located the heirloom and that she seemed satisfied with her choice in the end to make her own heirloom. “That’s just not how family history works” seemed to be the prevailing sentiment of the class.

The idea of re-shaping the past to better suit oneself was a subtle thread that ran throughout the whole course. Historians also put a narrative to the past, of course, and this course allowed for an exploration of different ways of viewing the past, through lenses of the historian’s craft, family ties, loss, and reclamation. The last unit, which I called “Coping Strategies,” explored the tensions between the past “as it really was” (if we can even write one coherent narrative) and the past as we might like it to be. For this unit, we mainly explored the work of Yael Bartana, particularly her trilogy And Europe Will be Stunned. Bartana imagines a new world in which young ethnic Poles, heirs to a land robbed of its Jews, welcome Jews “back,” in order to rebuild a new society. The “Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland” (JRMiP), as the larger project is titled, allows for a creative re-insertion of the “grandchild” generation into historical narrative, to mold the past in a creative way.

In certain ways, the ideas underpinning the JRMiP seemed to bother students. Throughout the term, there was a palpable tension in our discussions between a sentimental and uncritical understanding of “home” and a naturalization of a drive to “go home” on the part of the students, and a growing sense of the need to put nostalgia in its own historical context and to not uncritically accept an identitarian view of “journeys home.” This tension persisted until the last day of class, and gelled around the JRMiP. Bartana’s project asks whether we can become historical actors and re-write the future of the past; the project depicts one way this might happen while never obscuring the fact that it is performance art and not serious proposal (or is it?). Seeing images of youth in pioneer dress act out a fantasy of “return” seemed to strike many students as awkward and bizarre, perhaps overly sincere. I myself think of the JRMiP as akin to the mirror for people suffering from phantom limbs—it satisfies a deeply-felt need to feel whole, even as we know it is not “real”—but students left that last unit feeling unsatisfied. In retrospect, I should have devoted more time to an exploration of Bartana’s art, especially as the films differ so much in style from the features and shorter films we had become accustomed to.

Using a film class to discuss not only history but also its representation challenged students to use two temporal lenses (that of the event and that of the film’s creation). The variety of media both scholarly and less so also encouraged conceptual and analytical flexibility. And introducing students to new cinema is always an enjoyable and unpredictable experience. Many Molly Picon fans were formed in the making of this class.

Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. “Beyond Fiddler: Teaching Representations of Jewish Eastern Europe on Film.” In geveb, November 2019:
Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. “Beyond Fiddler: Teaching Representations of Jewish Eastern Europe on Film.” In geveb (November 2019): Accessed Mar 27, 2023.


Sarah Ellen Zarrow

Sarah Zarrow is on the editorial board of In geveb. She is Professor of Jewish History at Western Washington University, where she teaches courses in Jewish history and the Holocaust.