This 1939 movie filmed in the Bronx captures a lost Yiddish world


(New York Jewish Week) — The New York Jewish Film Festival, which this year begins on Wednesday evening, is offering moviegoers an opportunity to travel back in time to experience a New York Jewish world of yesteryear. 

“Mothers of Today,” a 1939 Yiddish-language feature that was filmed in the Bronx in just five days, will be screened twice as part of the festival. A low-budget potboiler, it stars Esther Fields, a popular radio personality of the era whose “simple Jewish woman” persona learned her the nickname  the “Yiddishe Mama.”  

The 85-minute drama, which is made with bare-bones sets, costumes and dialogue, follows a widow, played by Fields, as she navigates the sacrifices she made as an immigrant to the United States as her two children begin to reject Jewish tradition and embrace the fast-paced life of New York. In one subplot, her son, a cantor, steals the deed to his mother’s store after falling for a woman of questionable morality and getting involved with gangsters.

“At the time, there was a large immigrant Yiddish-speaking population that was hungry for inexpensive and accessible entertainment,” Eric Goldman, a scholar on Yiddish, Jewish and Israeli cinema and author of “Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present,” said of the era. “They were ready, at least initially, to just watch anything that would entertain them — it’s not as if they needed high culture. The movie theaters were there and willing to show these films.”

Directed by Henry Lynn, “Mothers of Today” is part of the Yiddish genre known as shund — literally, “trash” — a term used to describe popular entertainment of the day. Such films and novels appealed heavily to the working class American Yiddish community. They  often drew on widely applicable, sentimental themes that reflected the realities of daily life. Goldman compares shund films to mass-market, low-budget B movies that are beloved by audiences if not respected by critics.

“The film is low budget, maybe even lowbrow, and meant squarely for the audience that enjoyed and gobbled these things up,” said Lisa Rivo, the co-director of the National Center for Jewish Film, which restored “Mothers of Today” for the modern screen. The two screenings of the film this week will be the first public showing of the restored version in the United States. 

The New York Jewish Film Festival, now in its 33rd year, is hosted by The Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center. It features 28 films that explore Jewish life and experience across the globe. With the exception of “Mothers of Today,” all the films are recent releases including the New York premieres of “One Life,” starring Anthony Hopkins as a real-life British stockbroker who saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust, and “Remembering Gene Wilder,” a documentary about the iconic Jewish actor.

The National Center for Jewish Film collaborates with the festival every year to screen Yiddish film from their archive of over 15,000 Jewish films from the 20th and 21st century. With “Mothers of Today,” according to Aviva Weintraub, the director of the New York Jewish Film Festival, “We wanted to share this gem of Yiddish film with our audience as we know how much they appreciate Yiddish cinema.”

Based in Waltham, Massachusetts, the National Center for Jewish Film was started in 1976 by Rivo’s mother, Sharon Pucker Rivo, who had acquired and restored 30 Yiddish films. Yiddish cinema — which included shund films but also higher quality, more artistic films — saw its height in the interwar period between the 1920s and early 1940s when about 130 films were made, mostly in Poland and the United States. Before the NCJF, the era of Yiddish film was relatively forgotten — a “lost chapter of cinema history,” according to Rivo.

“Without her having brought together all of these different Yiddish films, there would be no understanding of something called ‘Yiddish cinema,’” Rivo said of her mother. “By aggregating the films and by putting them back together, restoring them, and making them available for screenings like this one… I think she really changed the course of Jewish history and also cinema history.”

As for shund films in particular, audiences also loved them because “most of these were about daily life and the struggles of that population,” Goldman explained. Such films often centered, like “Mothers of Today,” on the role of Jewish women in the home and in immigrant communities.

“They depict a people that are suspended between two worlds — between tradition and modernity, the old country and the new country, the shtetl and the city,” Rivo said of the genre. 

“To be able to see yourself on screen  — as a Yiddish speaking immigrant, children of immigrants, or even grandchildren of immigrants — must have been a kind of an extraordinary experience.”

For today’s audiences, watching such films “gives us access to the psyche of immigrant life,” Rivo said.

“Mothers of Today”may not be the highest quality film ever made, according to Goldman, but it’s worth watching to “have a fun, escapist night and remember what it was like for these very unsophisticated immigrants, many of whom only spoke Yiddish, to have a night out, just to get away and laugh and choke and squeak and squeal,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

“Mothers of Today” is screening on Thursday, Jan. 11 at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 14 at 12:00 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W 65th St.).  Tickets start at $17. Fore more information about the New York Jewish Film Festival, click here.