Meditations on Mamele (1938) and Yale’s Yiddish Film Festival

I was fortunate enough to attend Yale’s Yiddish Film Festival this evening and catch the 1938 film Mamele, immediately followed by J. Hoberman’s fascinating keynote lecture. Mamele is about a young woman named Khavtshi, who, when her mother dies, takes on the responsibility of managing the home and taking care of her siblings. The entire family, however, is far from grateful to Khavtshi, and in fact, the more she sacrifices, the more they demand. When their dreamy musician neighbor — who is Jewish, of course — comes a-calling, will Khavtshi answer the door? Will she even realize he’s knocking for her? (You’ll realize it. Right off the bat. He’s not particularly subtle.) The light comedy of this film — a kind of Yiddish rom com, really — comes into conflict with its historical context, directly on the heels of the Nazi occupation of Poland. As convener Masha Shpolberg noted in her introduction to the film, this film is a portrait of a Jewish life that is soon to be lost — and as Hoberman addressed in his lecture, Yiddish films from this period are often best described as portraits of a “utopian Yiddishland” that, in fact, never existed in the first place.

The “utopian” vibe definitely comes through with a film like Mamele, the story resembling a fairy-tale more than anything else. When the lights came up in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium, the woman next to me said, “Cinderella story, huh?” (I would mention her by name, but I actually never met her. Thank you, stranger!) (Oh, and speaking of Cinderella stories, I want to put in a plug for my colleague Maya Cantu’s excellent book, hot off the presses: American Cinderellas on the Broadway Musical Stage.)

One of the things that makes Mamele a fairy-tale, and indeed, a Cinderella story, is that Khavtshi marries for love. Hoberman explained in his talk that, in Yiddish films, marriage is not usually presented as the product of romantic love but, rather, as a step toward maintaining tradition and continuing the Jewish community, which is to say, making Jewish babies. Mamele is not like this. At all. The two fall for each other in the typical musical fashion: by unwittingly singing a duet together about wanting to find love and, eventually, with him singing directly to her about love. It’s ostensibly not about the love he harbors for her but of course it is, you guys. And, in the end, the two marry and he presumably moves into the family home, so Khavtshi can continue to play the put-upon Mamele who at least is married now.

So what is a love match doing in a Yiddish film? I have a few theories.

The first is somewhat inspired by Stanley Cavell’s idea about a genre’s compensatory elements. Basically, what this means is that while every genre has a recognizable set of elements, not every example of that genre has every single one of those elements. That’s why we can recognize that a TV show like Firefly is a Western, even though it is set in space instead of West: because the plots, characters, and language is reminiscent of a textbook Western. You dig? Cavell is discussing 1930s romantic comedies when he coins this term to explain, for example, why It Happened One Night is a comedy of remarriage, even though the leading man and lady are not actually married until the… well, don’t let me spoil it.

So Mamele resolves with a love match and, I would argue, incorporates a critique of the more pragmatic approach to love. When Khavtshi’s glamorous younger sister Bertie finds herself newly single and bored, she decides she wants to marry Schlesinger. Khavtshi tries to hide her devastation and tells her sister, “But you don’t even love him.” Bertie responds that, according to conventional wisdom, the love comes later. In a different context, Bertie’s decision could be seen as a kind of maturity, a sadder but wiser move out of the Marjorie Morningstar playbook. But in this moment, the film makes Bertie seem selfish and greedy — she would just acquire Schlesinger as a husband just like she buys up dresses on her work breaks. Even audience members whose marriages were arranged were certainly rooting for poor Khavtshi, who deserves more than a husband but to marry the man she loves!

That said, there are other elements of the Yiddish play/film that are upheld in Mamele: the importance of family, the willingness of the mother to sacrifice for others, the disrespect that children show their parents (or mameles). We also know that, when they marry, Schlesinger will move in with Khavtshi’s whole family, and the Jewish lineage/traditions will be continued… partially or entirely subsidized by his salary. Schlesinger is a mensch, after all.

The other reason why a love match is not just acceptable but necessary to the plot of Mamele relates to the film’s status as a star vehicle. In his talk, Hoberman explains the tension between the humble origins of these independent films and the reality that many of these films, adapted from the stage, began as star vehicles. The star of Mamele, Molly Picon, was a popular Yiddish star on stage and on the radio; she had played this role for years before it came to the screen, such that, okay, it’s a little distracting that she is a 40-year-old woman with a small child who is somehow her brother. As Doberman told the audience, a musical number involving Picon playing a grandmother is a gentle joke at the unspoken age problem. (Reminds me of watching Bernadette Peters’ portrayal of the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, her dry delivery of the line “Them’s my brothers and sisters” and the uproarious laughter that resulted….)

I would argue that the romance plot is central to any star vehicle, because the film has to establish the star as lovable, as magical even. That’s how we know to love her too. It is as though the character of Schlesinger models for us how to appreciate, even worship, her, while nearly everybody else treats her like garbage.


Bridezilla? Not on Khavtshi’s watch.

And to return to the Cinderella story idea, Schlesinger doesn’t just love her — he discovers her. While everyone else around her thinks Khavtshi is either invisible or, as she calls herself, an “old maid,” Schlesinger recognizes her for the “charming” and “clever” wife she can be. In that way, the finding of love is analogous to the discovery of the star, which sure is economical, considering that Mamele is a star vehicle and a love story invested in being both at the same time.

I highly recommend Mamele, which is available through the National Center for Jewish Film. Many thanks to Yahel Matalon, Zelda Roland, and Masha Shpolberg for organizing this event and to J. Hoberman for his lecture.

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