Gender Rebellion

In Yiddish film 

Once upon a time in Manhattan at The Museum of Modern Art, I was at my job, compiling program notes and watching audiences watch old Yiddish films. I was working on a major retrospective show, the 1991-92 “Yiddish Film: Between Two Worlds” series co-sponsored by the National Center for Jewish Film. The biggest draws were The Dybbuk and Yiddle With His Fiddle, both full of gender ambiguities and good music. Somewhere between the labyrinthine back ways to the projection booths, the elevator rides to the film department office, and my subway rides home to the East Village, I began to appreciate Yiddish films in ways I would have never expected.

Since then, I have written and lectured extensively on various aspects of subtext in Yiddish films, and continue to learn more every time I show my collection of video clips or speak with someone who worked on one of the original productions. One constant response from my audiences is widespread fascination with Molly Picon, who played the title role in Yiddle With His Fiddle among other classics. Picon’s gleeful performances were a unique phenomenon, given how rarely women in Yiddish films were depicted as more than some man’s mother, wife, daughter, sister or sweetheart. Almost anyone lucky enough to have seen Picon in person wants to talk about her effervescent magic onstage.

Molly Picon’s characters often combined rowdiness and modesty, a formula well-suited to audiences trying out new roles in a world quickly dropping its familiar social restraints. In this climate, the actress was given license to impersonate boys—but not men. She maintained a kind of worldly innocence, daring enough to delight viewers, but never going too far. Latter-day comparisons to characters such as Yentl or Victor/Victoria recognize the fascination common to stories of women ‘passing’ in a man’s world. But we should also take into account the notably untransgressive nature of the parts Picon chose to play, in which questions of her character’s sexuality came up only obliquely if at all. Molly Picon’s butchy stuff was mild even for her own period, if we remember any of the wilder female-to-male non-Yiddish entertainers.

But if Picon’s roles placed implicit limits on her power and freedom, they also reflected the shifting sense of power and freedom among Jews during the interwar decades. Calibrating what levels of risk would pass for entertainment reveals a close connection between rising Jewish anxieties and the changing ways our tomboy heroine was presented onscreen.

Of all the figures of the Yiddish entertainment world, none was more widely beloved than the feisty Molly Picon. For over fifty years, this diminutive dynamo delighted fans as she sang, danced, scolded, swaggered, schemed, yearned, and did perfect wide-eyed double takes. And throughout her career in both Yiddish theater and films, whether in New York, London, Warsaw, or Buenos Aires, Molly made box office hits with her signature shtik: male drag. From the stages of New York’s Second Avenue to the Yiddish-language silver screen, Picon’s trademark cross dressing topped the list of music, scripts and general mischief custom-made to showcase her talents.

Picon’s transvestite appeal came from her particular charisma, of course, but the popularity of this type of performance spans many ages and cultures. Playing with the trappings of gender always contains some degree of the risque, and any performer able to create such a scene provides a vicarious thrill for spectators. But while such spectacles may be perceived as liberating and exciting, they also have the potential to scandalize and shock viewers. Molly Picon and her producers were clearly invested in what pleased their Yiddish fans; even Picon’s most daring escapades never crossed into the realm of scandal. Her popularity did not derive from sexually provocative behavior, unlike the intriguing, sophisticated appeal of glamorous Hollywood androgynes. Stars such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, contemporaries of Picon, challenged gender norms through highly sexual ized cross-dressed roles. And, in films such as Queen Christina and Morocco, both enacted scenes with clear lesbian overtones: Garbo dressed in full swashbuckling regalia as she kissed her beloved Countess Ebba; Dietrich kissed a cabaret fan while wearing a tuxedo and top hat.

Yiddish films, by contrast, and Picon’s vehicles in particular, were not going out of their way to transgress the boundaries of audience sensibilities. Compared to its ‘mainstream’ counterparts, Yiddish cinema was notably desexualized. And even onstage, while bawdy male (and female) impersonation thrived in European nightclubs and on American vaudeville circuits—fueling Broadway’s so-called ‘Pansy Craze’ of the late 1920’s—such risky material did not make the crossover into popular Yiddish culture. While in one exceptional instance, lesbianism was portrayed in a Yiddish drama, Sholem Asch’s 1908 Got Fun Nekome (‘God of Vengeance’), it was still a highly controversial piece when performed in the I920’s, and its content instigated theater closings in various cities where it played. In this context, it is quite significant that Molly Picon’s “trouser roles” cast her as boyish, not mannish; while her repertoire included so many instances of putting on pants, these were fundamentally pranks rather than challenges to the sexual status quo. Picon rarely experimented with the male privilege that can come with wearing these clothes, and even then, only ever so tamely.

Picon’s crossdressing roles were not static. In fact, they reflect very clearly the changing times in which they were made, when political and socioeconomic transformations affected every facet of Jewish life. Within the context of an evolving Yiddish culture, the changing function of Molly Picon’s ‘gender- bending’ is a fascinating microcosm of the changing nature of cultural anxieties and mores over the decades. Picon’s earlier drag roles, which launched her as a star in the early 1920s, were largely unapologetic romps with some eventual lessons in moderation. By 1936, her appearance in the girl-dressed-as-klezmer- boy role required excuses to be invented so that the plot may introduce Molly dressed as a reluctant yingl, longing only to be a meydl again. The shifting presentation of Molly’s tomboy antics reflects first the Zeitgeist of the Jazz Age, then the Great Depression; the specifically Jewish experiences of an immigration boom followed by restrictive American quotas; and, finally, the issues of ethnic identity as affected by the pressures of assimilation and anti-Semitism.

The interwar period of the 1920’s and 30’s was a time of tidal shifts in the Jewish worlds of Europe and America. The very possibility of stardom such as Picon’s in the Yiddish speaking community emerged as part of this era, when largescale dislocation, urbanization and immigration were giving Jews from Eastern Europe and their descendants unprecedented freedoms and choices. The earlier transformations of the haskole (Enlightenment) movement had already opened the way for secular Jewish literature and theater, but the idea of women in the public eye as performers was still considered a shande well into the 20th century. Meanwhile the tradition of crossdressing on the Jewish stage, while it certainly had an ancient precedent in the Purim plays (purimshpiln), had been essentially only a one-way, male-to-female, once-a-year religiously sanctioned ritual involving men or boys playing both men’s and women’s parts. While women were allowed to witness Jewish men dressed as Vashti and Esther, the reverse did not pertain to performances done by any girls’ yeshives. Clearly, all sorts of Old-World order had already been thrown into question to allow an act as unconventional as Molly Picon’s to be considered popular family fare.

The 1921 show which launched Picon’s career ensured that, from the beginning, her fame was linked to her performance in boys’ clothing. Yankele featured Molly in the (masculine) title role wearing elaborate yeshive bokher and drummer- boy outfits. The play, written for Picon by her husband/ manager and sometime co-star, Jacob Kalich, was characterized in her autobiography as ‘the Yiddish Peter Pan.’ Picon, who had been born in New York in 1898, was sent to Europe in this show to prove herself with the Yiddish audiences of Warsaw. Having made her theater debut at the age of 6. She was by this time a seasoned professional, but it was only after her triumphant run before Eastern European audiences that she could truly be considered a Yiddish star. This production was revived intermittently for more than a decade, as Picon toured it to enthusiastic houses as far off as South America.

While Molly Picon did not come from a theater family per se, as did many of the preeminent Yiddish actresses of this age, the professions of her mother—a dressmaker—as well as perhaps her father—a tailor—certainly had their effect on her path. Picon’s mother made many of the costumes in her stage wardrobe, and her costumes in turn ‘made’ many of Molly’s roles. The crossdressed parts became perhaps less credible later in Picon’s career, when she was already somewhat more zaftig, but by that time she had so endeared herself to her public in such parts that few let such details interfere with their enjoyment. Her androgynous shtik was closely connected with a perennially childlike stature. Even as an adult, Picon was well under five feet tall, and her scrappy underdog/upstart persona gave her the ability to appear rebellious and unthreatening at the same time. The rowdy waif routine seems to have contained the right chemical balance for all Jewish audiences — men, women and children—to identify with Picon’s characters.

Only two years after Molly took Yankele to Europe, she made her film debut in the silent Yiddish comedy Ost und West (East and West, Austria, 1923), co-starring with her husband and the film’s American director, Sidney Goldin. And here, too, she puts on Hasidic drag. Molly is cast as the irreverent Mollie Brown. Playing a spoiled Jewish American flapper dragged along to the Old Country by her allrightnik father (Goldin), ‘Mollie’ changes into yeshive boys’ I clothing for one portion of the film. I In other scenes, her tomboy tendencies show themselves through her behavior if not her attire: she practices on the punching bag she has packed along, struts around in her boxing gloves, and repeatedly puts up her dukes to intimidate the religious folk who try to interfere with her non-traditional ways. She flouts taboos basically for the fun of it: flirting brazenly with a roomful of yeshive bokhers; raiding the pantry on Yom Kippur, and landing a knockout punch on the cook who catches her in the act. Then, of course, there is the episode at her cousin’s wedding party, where she disguises herself as a Hasidic boy. At this point, conformity is finally enforced: discovering his daughter in drag, even the thoroughly modern Mr. Brown (ne Brownstein) undertakes disciplinary action—he spanks her.

While certain things had to be kept within bounds, Ost und West is clearly the product of a permissive, defiant, anti-nostalgic mood. In 1923, memories of the traditional Old World (the ‘East’ of the film’s title) were far from idealized. American restrictions on immigration from Eastern Europe had not yet materialized (these were enacted three years later), and so links with the world of the shtetl did not as yet seem so brittle. Neither did the traditional centers of Ashkenazic life appear endangered as they would in ensuing decades. The Roaring Twenties were just getting underway, America was the Land of Opportunity, and the ‘flickers’, as silent films were then called, were still competing with vaudeville for their audiences. Picon uses slapstick moves to portray the brash young daughter of an American big shot, bratty yet winning, the pampered offspring of an immigrant who has made good. Most of the film’s jokes center on the clashes which erupt when old ways meet new, lampooning both the ‘backward’ shtetl Jews and the American parvenu. Eventually Mollie’s defiance is tempered when one of her stunts goes too far and encounters the formidable force of Jewish marital law.

By the final reel of Ost und West, Picon’s rollicking tomboy has been duly chastened and is happily married off to one of the hometown religious scholars (played by her real-life spouse, Kalich), but not before profoundly changing his outlook, too. He leaves the shtetl for cosmopolitan Vienna, shaves his beard, and gives lectures on ‘Orientalism.’ In the end. East and West settle in genteel Central European society, and everyone learns their lessons in moderation. Mollie’s brash, butch ways are mollified. But her earlier defiance of authority, although eventually contained, is an example of what made good 1920’s entertainment. ‘Mollie,’ like her audience, was primarily out for kicks.

“IF ONLY YOU WERE A BOY”: CROSSDRESSING IN SERVICE OF FAMILY VALUES By 1936, when Yidl Mitn FidI (Yiddle With His Fiddle) was produced, Picon’s character took quite another stance. Filmed on location in Depression-era Poland, in the shadow of the Third Reich, this picture is a musical comedy revolving around the dramas of a fragile, fragmented family and frustrated, mistaken-identity romance. Here transvestitism is even less of a transgressive element than in Ost und West even though, as Yidl, Picon spends almost her entire time onscreen dressed as a boy. The premise for her unfeminine apparel is that her dear old widowed father, evicted from their home, himself suggests that he and she could make a living on the road as musicians but for the idea of taking his daughter to places unseemly for a young woman: “If only you were a boy….” Whereas in the 1923 film, cross-dressing was a daughter’s misbehavior for which her father spanked her, here as ‘Yidl’ she is actually obeying her papa; the poor man all but thanks her. While masquerading as his son, she is able to have all sorts of adventures (including one night of drinking in a tavern, the pretext for her tipsy gamin routine) but manages nonetheless to keep a meydl-next-door innocence, as well as a predisposition to self-sacrifice for the good of her family. She feeds her father, letting herself go hungry; maintains the burden of her disguise even though the man she loves rejects her, believing she is really a boy; and lavishes her frustrated affections on small, furry animals. By 1936, the point was not to challenge conventional Jewish gender norms or family values, but rather to reinforce them, according to producer/director Joseph Green. Indeed, the fundamentally unthreatening nature of Yidl allows her character to reinforce masculine/feminine polarity, illustrating one of the social instruction points on Green’s agenda.

For all of Green’s traditional imagery, though, there were some old-line cultural messages he was quite deliberately trying to undo and replace. The key subtext of Yidl Mitn Fidl is a conscious rejection of stereotypical images of the goles yidn, or Diaspora Jews, substituting instead the figure of a new. Model Jew. Thus the representation of Yidl (whose very name means ‘little Jew’) as a high-strung, loquacious, neurotic, weak and apparently effeminate young man makes her character a perfect foil in the then-current debate over Jewish “fitness” versus so-called degeneracy. Social theories of ethnic and racial degeneration had been around long before the rise of Nazism, first proposed at the turn of the century and advocated by anti-Semites and Zionists alike—the idea that certain traits were characteristic to a people, and could possibly be bred or trained out. The filmmaker was trying to painlessly teach his audiences about desirable versus undesirable Jewish traits. Contrasted to the suspicious effeminacy personified by YidI is the tall, handsome klezmer musician, Froim, who embodies everything Green recommends cultivating: clean shaven, clean-cut, handy and athletic, Froim plays the straight man to Yidl’s comical figure in more ways than one.

The issue of men casting off unmanly ways is portrayed here with frequent exhortations to masculinity, as well as many an oblique reference to homosexuality as its supposed opposite. Since the audience knows Yidl’s secret identity, her failure to match up to virile ideals gives plenty of opportunity to bring up the problem while never actually having to show an effeminate, much less homosexual, Jewish male onscreen. Regular girl that she really is underneath, Yidl of course develops a crush on Froim. The jokes which ensue further construct Froim as the masculine, heterosexual paragon. He saves the helpless Yidl from drowning, but sensing the youth about to embrace him, Froim literally casts off the undesirable, dropping him/her back into the lake. (Degeneracy theories were also applied to queerness, of course.) And just to dispel any lingering notions of Jews as incapable of productive labor, Froim is shown in an otherwise gratuitous scene doing carpentry— not merely a fiddler, he can handle hammer and nails!— at which Yidl, naturally, is hopeless.

The film’s resolution finds degeneracy cured—Molly/Yidl safely back in a dress, and the normalcy of heterosexuality declaimed. Onstage, the former Yidl speaks directly to the audience about the drawbacks of her gender-bending escapades. Asking if there could possibly be any explanation for same-sex attraction between two males, she says rhetorically, “A yingl mit a yingl hot epes a tarn?” [‘A guy with a guy—what sense that make?’]—perhaps does implying, too, with tam as a double entendre, that such a thing would be in very strange taste.

Molly Picon continued to be remembered for her cross-dressing roles throughout her career. Even in 1982, when receiving a lifetime achievement award from New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, she arrived in a stylish tux. Yidl Mitn Fidl was, however, her last screen appearance in drag. But it was not the last time the Yiddish cinema envisioned a woman in ‘masculine’ garb. The subtly iconoclastic 1940 film, Americaner Shadkhn (“American Matchmaker, USA) features an all-too-briefly-seen sister character, the sly Khavele (Elvie). From her first appearance onscreen, wearing an aviatrix outfit a la Hepburn and referring to Orthodox visitors as “the cowboys with the black hats,” we understand that this is no nice Jewish character part. A screwball-comedy atmosphere places the film in its age of insecurity, where nothing is sure but uncertainty. The dialogue, as well as visuals and soundtrack, abounds with campy references (include thinly- veiled feygele jokes), and Elvie’s running commentary holds nothing sacred. Asked if .’she is interested in marriage, Elvie replies, “Nadn is alright, nor der khosn shtel arayn in seyf’ [Dowry’s fine, but keep the groom in a vault].

Eve Sicular is former Curator of the Film & Photography Archives at the YIVO Institute and author of the article, “Beyond the Pale: The Celluloid Closet of Yiddish Film.” She is also drummer/bandleader of The Greater Metropolitan Klezmer Band.

The Yiddish films East and West, Ainericaner Shadkhn and Yiddle With His Fiddle, as well as other Yiddish classics, are available as videos (with English subtitles) from two sources:

• The Rutenberg & Everett Yiddish Film Library of the National Center for Jewish Film, Brandeis University, Lown 102, Waltham, MA  02254. Phone: 617-899-7044. Fax: 617-736- 2070. Each video costs $72, plus 34 postage for the first video, SI postage for each additional one.

• Ergo Media, 668 American Legion Drive, POB 2037, Teaneck, NJ 07666. Phone: 1-800-695- 3746. Fax: 201-692-0663. Americaner Shadkhn costs $59.95. Yiddle With His Fiddle costs $69. 95. $5 postage for the first video, $1 postage for each additional one.

[The National Center for Jewish Film provides archivally restored (better quality) videos, but they are more expensive. Ergo’s films are of somewhat lesser quality but the price is lower.].