Doc captures
a whimsical Singer

A coming-of-age tale
from Israel

ďGhosts love Yiddish. They all speak it.Ē Thatís what Isaac Bashevis Singer told his black-tie audience the night he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. ďI believe in the Resurrection. Iím sure the Messiah will soon come, and millions of Yiddish-speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day, and the first question they will ask is: Is there any new Yiddish book to read?Ē 

Fans of our most celebrated Yiddish writer will enjoy a special treat this month. The Jewish Broadcasting Network will air ISAAC IN AMERICA, an hour-long documentary originally released in 1986. In addition to the more formal scenes shot in Stockholm, ISAAC IN AMERICA travels with the author on more casual adventures as he wanders down familiar streets in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Warsaw, and playfully teases reverent crowds at various American churches and synagogues. Singer was a very funny guy, and he clearly delighted in throwing his listeners off guard, answering very serious and respectful questions with an impish twinkle. The documentary captures his mischievous sense of humor, the essential element missing from the three feature films (ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY; THE MAGICIAN OF LUBLIN; and YENTL) based on his work.

Ghosts, spirits, and sprites were all ďrealĒ to Singer, and the changelings in his stories reflect his own multifaceted personality, as well as the hours he spent dwelling among shadow creatures in the realm of imagination. This is most clear in the part of ISAAC IN AMERICA devoted to one of his first American stories ďA Day in Coney Island.Ē

The real Singer, then an old man, guides the viewer from place to place, while actor Judd Hirsch provides long excerpts from the text in voiceover narration. The day in question is full of pathos (the time is the late 1930ís and the author is in danger of being deported) and magic (a pay phone suddenly spits out enough change for a full cafeteria banquet after the editor at the FORWARD agrees to publish one of Singer sketches). In one of ISAAC IN AMERICAís few truly serious moments, he confides in us: ďI have created a literature that is half autobiography and half fiction. I donít know myself which is which anymore.Ē


The final moments of NINAíS TRAGEDIES are so life-affirming that itís easy to sail out of the theater on the uplift, ignoring minor flaws and inconsistencies. Maybe thatís why Savi Gabizonís film, which Wellspring Media is releasing in local theaters this month, received 11 Offir Awards from the Israel Film Academy in 2003.

Many critics are describing NINAíS TRAGEDIES to American audiences as a coming-of-age dramedy, but thatís misleading. While he certainly has his share of adolescent sexual fantasies, Nadavís real problem is that his parents are so preoccupied with their own lives that they have little interest in his. When his beautiful aunt Nina is suddenly widowed, his mother, Alona, sends Nadav to live with her. Is this because Alona wants Nadav to comfort her sister, or because she wants more privacy for herself?

Alona is enraged because her husband, Amnon, has left their prosperous Tel Aviv home in order to live a more religious life. Nadav is furious with his father too, but instead of helping him cope, Alona takes her revenge on Amnon by sleeping with every man in sight. Aunt Nina may cry a lot, but at least her house is quiet and relatively peaceful.

Several recent Israeli films, LIFE IS LIFE and ONE SMALL STEP, for example, depict similar family dynamics. NINAíS TRAGEDIES is more whimsical than MISS ENTEBEE, my own personal favorite in this category, but equally strong in its casting, cinematography, and soundtrack. Big political issues are never addressed head-on in NINAíS TRAGEDIES, but terrorism, war, and the constant stress of absorbing new immigrants are always at the edge of everyoneís consciousness. 

Told from Nadavís point of view, complete with excerpts from his diary, NINAíS TRAGEDIES is a poignant and poetic success. However, when the filmmaker starts falling in love with Nina himself, and showing scenes from her life that Nadav canít possibly share, fragile threads begin to unravel. Credit for pulling everything back together just in the nick of time goes to Shmil Ben Ari, the charismatic actor best known as the patriarch on Israel televisionís JERUSALEM BREW. Ben Ari makes Amnonís religious conversion luminous and his last words to his son are perfect.

of the 

Many critics consider ENEMIES, A LOVE STORY the best cinematic adaptation of Singerís work. Based on a 1972 novel of the same name, ENEMIESí central character is Herman Broder (Ron Silver), a Jewish refugee living in New York in the late 40s. When the film opens, Herman is supporting two households. He has an apartment in Coney Island, where he lives with Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein), the Catholic woman who hid him in her familyís barn in rural Poland for two years. He also has an apartment in the Bronx, where he lives with Masha (Lena Olin), a Jewish concentration camp survivor, and Shifrah Puah, the mother with whom she was unexpectedly reunited after the War. Then Tamara (Anjelica Huston) arrives to further complicate the mix. Eyewitnesses have reported her death; they saw the Nazis shoot Tamara and the two young Broder children. True enough, but Hermanís indomitable wife managed to crawl out from under the bodies, make her way to Russia, and eventually find a new home with relatives on the lower East Side.

Although itís obvious from the synopsis that ENEMIES deals with tragic incidents and troubled characters, this plot-heavy film plays out as a farce. Paul Mazursky, the director best known for his satiric comedy DOWN & OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, doesnít want to weigh his film down, so he keeps everything in the present tense. There are no flashbacks, and haunting memories are lost as Herman bounces between his three New York shtetlach with increasing desperation. Readers of ENEMIES can hear God laughing at Hermanís plight, but in the film, his life feels more like a sitcom.

Barbra Streisandís YENTL is the most controversial of the three adaptations. Despite numerous Oscar and Grammy nominations and two Golden Globe Awards in major categories (Best Director, and Best Motion Picture - Comedy/Musical), many people hate it. Singerís own concerns were quite specific. ďShe made a musical about Yentl. Yentl did not go to the yeshiva to learn to sing. She went to the yeshiva to study Talmud,Ē he told LIFE magazine before the filmís release in 1983.

I stand with those who believe that Streisandís choices were both bold and exquisite. In the Farrar Straus Giroux edition of Singerís collected stories, which is over 600 pages long, YENTL occupies just a thin 20 page sliver. In the film, every song is a soliloquy, sung by Streisand herself; she enhances the story by giving the audience access to all of her characterís most intimate thoughts. Even YENTLís greatest fans would agree, however, that thereís little humor in this emotion-filled drama about an orphan who disguises herself as a boy, and then stumbles into a love triangle with her study partner (Mandy Patinkin) and the town beauty (Amy Irving).

The film that best captures Singerís singular genius is THE MAGICIAN OF LUBLIN, released by Israeli director Menahem Golan in 1979. MAGICIAN is a low budget film, with none of the carefully-crafted, lovingly-realized design elements (sets, costumes, etc) that both Mazursky and Streisand lavish on their films. Ironically, because the world MAGICIANís characters inhabit on screen is more crudely and less realistically depicted, the film as a whole has more allegorical conviction.

Alan Arkin plays Yasha. Part showman and part con artist, Yasha lives in deliberate defiance of all the rules of God and man. As his reputation and worldly success grow, he takes ever greater risks. He convinces himself that he alone controls his own powers, and he makes reckless promises. He tells his greedy manager (Lou Jacobi) that he can fly, and he tells a beautiful Countess (Louise Fletcher) that he will convert to Christianity in order to marry her. In the end, of course, God has the last laugh. He gives Yasha wings, but none of the humans achieve any satisfaction, least of all Yasha.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (6/1/05)

This article is an expanded version
of the review originally published
in the June 2005 edition of the
(Volume 2 Number 9) 
& is posted here with their permission.

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