The Jester, a Polish movie in Yiddish co-directed by Joseph Green and Jan Nowina-Przybylsk in 1937 and restored by the National Center for Jewish Film in 2008, transports us into the world of a vibrant Yiddish culture, values and humour prior to the First World War. The black-and-white movie narrates a romantic tale set against a backdrop of day-to-day life in a small-town Yiddish in Galicia. It’s difficult to define whether the movie is a musical, romantic comedy, documentary or historical drama. Green and Nowina-Przybylsk brilliantly combined all these genres in a major production emblematic of the golden era of Yiddish cinema – of which, perversely, some scenes were even used by the Nazis in their antisemitic propaganda film The Eternal Jew.
The movie starts with peaceful scenes of agricultural lands in Galicia. Enhanced by lively orchestral music produced by Nicholas Brodszky, the camera shows the main character, Getzel, a travelling jester, wandering along a road with a dreamy gaze and a pack on his back. The road leads him to a beautiful orchard where he meets the young and playful Esther, the daughter of a shoemaker from the nearby town. Getzel arrives in the town looking for work and eventually finds a job in the shoe making shop of Esther’ father, Reb Nachum, a strong patriarchal figure, charitable and with a wicked sense of humour.
Getzel quickly falls in love with Esther but, awkward and lacking confidence, he doesn’t dare to express his feelings. The movie captures the drama of Getzel’s impossible love for Esther who, in turn, falls in love with the eloquent and well-travelled Dick, a circus performer. The two lovers have several secret rendez-vous, but, soon, Reb Nachum finds out and forbids Esther to see Dick. Shortly thereafter, Reb inherits a large sum of money and abandons his shoe-making business. The movie theatrically depicts the society’s upper class here, gossiping about his inheritance and calling him ‘the new Rothschild’, playing with stereotypes of the Jewish capitalist nouveau-riche.
Reb is determined to become part of high society and tries to marry Esther off into a prominent family. He invites a potential groom and his parents to his new house and orders a Purim play, a comic dramatisation of the Book of Esther with fanciful costumes and music. The movie forges a brilliant comparison between the confident and fearless Esther and the Persian Queen from the Purim play, who saved the Jewish people from the royal vizier Haman’s intrigue to kill them. Esther, rebellious and angry with her father, asks Getzel to perform in the play and stop the marriage. Infuriated, Reb Nachum orders Getzel to leave the house.
Esther and Getzel escape to a big city where they meet Dick again. Esther starts performing on stage with Dick and they eventually get married. The despairing Getzel returns to the small town in Galicia. Ashamed and humiliated, he refuses to tell Esther’s parents about her whereabouts, but Esther and Dick follow him. While the whole community rejoices that Esther has returned, Getzel leaves the town and resumes his solitary travels. The movie ends with a symbolic scene of the orchard where Getzel first met Esther, implying the cyclical nature of time.
The diversity of scenes, all embedding distinct references to Yiddish culture, keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish. A scene which clearly stands out with a fantastic combination of dialogue, music, dance and cultural references is the Purim play at Reb Nachum’s house, where Getzel plays King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire. The awkward and desperately in love Getzel suddenly transforms into a powerful King. He acts confidently, witty and with a great sense of irony, eventually stopping Esther’s marriage with an ill-matched suitor. Imagination and theatre are brilliantly mixed with realities of Yiddish family life, social classes and morals.
The Jester presents an opportunity to explore Yiddish culture and the vibrant life of Yiddish communities in Eastern Europe before the First World War. 85% of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers, leading to a massive decline in the use of the langugage. Migration and language assimilation after World War II led to further decline. Recently, Yiddish movies like Romeo and Juliet(2010), Felix (2014) and Menashe(2017) have tried to revive the tradition of Yiddish film on the big screen. Screened in 2018, The Jester adds to this by preserving the Yiddish legacy and the many facets of Yiddish culture, which endure to this day.