By Sara Feldman
Originally published in Issue 1 of Apikorsus! magazine, April 2020
Ain davar chadash tachas hashamesh – there is nothing new under the sun. As frum communities right now debate how to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, with some people advocating practical measures and others more worried about metaphysical concerns, we can find the same controversy in a Yiddish film from almost a hundred years ago.
Witnessing the coronavirus pandemic spread thanks to negligent governments and communities, we may feel like that scientist at the beginning of a movie who raises the alarm in vain. Why aren’t there enough medical supplies, when the powerful knew this was coming? Why are the sick and the millions of newly unemployed not a top priority? The Jewish community is being hit hard. Last week brought confirmed cases among workers at the Agri Star kosher meat plant in Iowa, and the One Stop Kosher grocery store in Detroit. Typically low-wage workers with no paid sick leave or medical insurance, they are essential to the functioning of society and have risked their lives so that Jews might eat. In contrast, frum gatherings in defiance of public health warnings have led to a rising death toll in Brooklyn. Frum mistrust of laws and of uniforms arose as an adaptive response to Jewish history. Resistance to modern science and medicine, though not unique to the frum community, has been an internal Jewish debate since long before the khurbn. As those of us guided by the biological sciences practice social distancing, it is time to kick back with Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1939 Yiddish film, which speaks to our crisis.
This film, which has been released as “Fishke der Krumer,” “Di Klyatshe,” and “The Light Ahead,” draws from multiple works of maskil S.Y. Abramovitsh, also known as his pen name and narrator-character, Mendele moykher-sforim. The film is set during one of Mendele’s visits to his fictional town of Glupsk (from a Slavic root meaning “foolish”), where the teen romance of poor orphans, the blind Hodel and the limping Fishke, is portrayed alongside a bitter dispute over the allocation of taxpayer money. While the conversations between Hodel and Fishke alternate between cute and philosophical, in particular with regard to God’s responsibility for human suffering, I will focus today on the Glupsk community.
The idea of building a hospital arises in the beys-medrish. Jews who have paid taxes are aware that a large sum has accumulated, and believe that the wealthy leaders are not using it in a way that benefits the people. They argue around the table about whether or not to build a hospital: some complain that the community only has use of witch doctors, while others maintain that it is up to God’s will whether one is sick or healed. Mendele points out that the local bokhrim are bathing in the filthy river, which could cause a cholera outbreak, and that it was God’s will to clean up the streets and river and to build a hospital, because it was God’s will to give people the khokhme to do so.
Cholera comes to Glupsk when the girls, who cannot cool off in the river at any other time because it is occupied by boys, sneak into the water after Friday night dinner. They are discovered by the shames’ horrified wife. Her horror is not because the river is dirty, but rather because she is afraid that Glupsk will be punished for this sin.
The pro-hospital activists later storm into a meeting where rich community leaders have been exploring frivolous and selfish uses of community funds. The leaders respond to the activists’ demands with the slur, “apikores!” After a heated exchange, a beardless activist exclaims, “beser a yid on a bord vi a bord on a yid!” (better a Jew without a beard than a beard without a Jew!) but to no avail. Later, the shames’ wife interrupts the meeting with the news that girls have violated shabes and brought punishment to the town. Now concerned with begging for divine mercy, the community floats the idea of checking mezuzes and marrying off the two poorest residents in the cemetery—no hospital, no cleanup.
While echoes of this tale are sadly familiar to us today from the measles and coronavirus outbreaks in the frum community, the usefulness of doctors and hospitals is no longer up for debate. And while cholera weddings are of no use to us, perhaps Yiddish film is.
Sara Feldman is Preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University.