Onkel Mozes

From Aug ’06 Spotlight: Gold Coast resident Joan Levin took a Yiddish language course at Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies several years ago and fell in love with mamaloshen (“the mother tongue”). She followed up with a summer program at Oxford University, more classes at Spertus, and a trip to Vilnius; then, four years ago, she began a Yiddish language program at KAM Isaiah. The class shrinks and swells around the nucleus of her eight original participants, but as the class begins its fifth year mamaloshen is thriving in Hyde Park.

Last month I attended a screening of Onkel Mozes, one of three films offered in Joan’s summer film series (which has been open to the general public for the past three years). Released in 1932, Onkel Mozes was one of the first Yiddish talkies ever produced as well as one of the first Yiddish stories set in America. Maurice Schwartz not only stars, he also wrote the screenplay (based on the theatrical version of Sholem Asch’s novella he staged in 1930). Schwartz, best known to contemporary audiences as the director and star of Tevye (released in 1939), takes the lead again as Moses Melnik, a poor boy from the Polish shtetl of Kusmin who makes good in America. Although I haven’t seen a lot of Yiddish films, I have seen several, and Onkel Mozes is the first one that totally absorbed me as a drama, without reference to its historical or scholarly dimensions.

“Yes, Onkel Mozes is a wonderful film,” agrees Joel Berkowitz, chair of the Judaic studies department at the University at Albany, founding editor of the online newsletter “Yiddish Theatre Forum,” and contributor to the new collection Sholem Asch Reconsidered (edited by Nanette Stahl). Even though it’s only available now in a scratchy VHS version, I still recommend it. Here’s hoping the National Center for Jewish Film puts Onkel Mozes on its DVD restoration ”hot list” soon.

Originally published in 1917, Onkel Mozes was one of the first books Sholem Asch wrote. A Passage in the Night, published in 1953, was one of his last. In between, Asch created a body of work which made him the first Yiddish language author to be nominated for a Nobel Prize. Spertus has a VHS copy of Onkel Mozes as well as an extensive collection of Asch’s published work. For more information, contact them at www.spertus.edu. If you don’t want to wait for a DVD, you can purchase a VHS copy of the film from the NCJF: www.jewishfilm.org.

TZIVI’S UPDATE: Onkel Mozes now on DVD!


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