For a change of pace, we offer to our website’s visitors this year-end movie review, not of a current feature but of a 1932 film made by the Yiddish Talking Pictures company. Uncle Moses was adapted from Sholem Asch’s 1918 Yiddish novel, Onkl Mozes. It serves up liberal doses of schmaltz, pathos and humor while telling the story of an imperious and prosperous clothing-factory owner on the Lower East Side, who employs his “landslayt” from the village of Kuzmin, Poland and deploys enough paternalistic control to keep the union at bay, at least for a while.
The film was made in America and the script is spoken in Yiddish (with easy-to-read English sub-titles) and immigrant English, as when a striving Yiddishe Mameh refers with pride to her “grand baby” piano. Featured performers are Maurice Schwartz as “Uncle Moses”, Judith Abarbanel as his love interest “Masha”, Sam Gertler as Moses’s nephew and shop-manager “Sam” (who hires goons to break a strike when Moses is sidelined by illness), and a young, beardless Zvee Scooler as “Charlie”, the radical labor organizer who competes with Uncle Moses for the love of Masha.
Students of labor history will appreciate the serious treatment of labor issues in Uncle’s shop, where the workers must choose between paternalism or unionism, and the strains of immigrant life are well-illustrated. Also, while watching the movie, you can imagine yourself sitting in an historic Second Avenue venue like the Yiddish Art Theatre, enjoying the glory days of the Yiddish stage, and anticipating tea and pastries at the Café Royal after the show.
The Uncle Moses film is a visual complement to the literary work, The Rise of David Levinsky, Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel about a Russian immigrant Jew who rises from poor peddler to rich garment manufacturer, but loses his soul along the way.
The film is available for rental on DVD from several public and college libraries in the New York area and beyond, and can be purchased from “JewishVideo.com” (Ergo Media, Inc., of Teaneck, NJ), which is a source for many Jewish films, as well as from other online sellers.
Footnote: A musical version of David Levinsky was created in 1987 by the late Isaiah Sheffer, co-founder of Upper Broadway’s “Symphony Space”, and a nephew of Zvee Scooler.
Reviewed by Keith Danish of the NYLHA