In the 1936 Yiddish comedy Yidl mitn fidl ("Yidl With His Fiddle") actress Molly Picon played a girl who dresses in boy's clothing so that she can find work as a musician. Many of the film's laughs come from the contrast between the macho Froim, the object of Yidl's affection, and the feminine, cross-dressed Yidl.
Film historian Eve Sicular says Froim embodied the ideals of the Muskeljudentum movement, which rebelled against the prevailing anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews as weak neurotics, by glorifying the Jewish sportsman and farmer. Sicular says the jokes based on gender confusion were meant to send a deeper message to audiences, linking homosexuality to the anxieties of the prewar Jewish community: the need to assimilate, the taboo of religious intermarriage, and the fear of accusations of racial inferiority.
"Jews at that time were really concerned about issues of racial degeneracy and the image of the Jewish man," says Sicular. "A lot of gay subtext in Yiddish film came in the form of the running innuendo or double innuendo unique to Yiddish culture."
Sicular will screen clips from Yidl mitn fidl and other Yiddish films as part of her lecture, "Lesbian and Gay Subtext in Yiddish Films," at 6 PM next Thursday, October 10, at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, 618 S. Michigan. Admission is $6. Call 322-1769 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Yidl mitn fidl ("Yidl With His Fiddle") photo from Yivo Institute for Jewish Research.