Despite the taboo surrounding homosexuality, the topic was too intriguing to be left entirely out of the Yiddish picture. An exploration of lesbian and gay subtext in Yiddish cinema during its heyday, from the 1920’s to the outbreak of World War II, reveals distinctly Jewish concerns of the time intertwined with a striking array of allusions to this highly-charged subject. From musical comedies such as YIDL MITN FIDL (Yidl With His Fiddle) and AMERIKANER SHADKHN (American Matchmaker) to classic dramas DER DIBUK (The Dybbuk) and DER VILNER SHTOT-KHAZN (Overture To Glory), queerness reached the screen in various guises, emerging as an alternate take on themes of conflicted identity, passing and same-sex attachments. Discussion of these and other gems of the Yiddish screen, as well as such features as RADIO DAYS, COLONEL REDL, CROSSFIRE, and GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, will be accompanied by clips from selected films and period home movies.
The above Metropolitan Klezmer video of Muzikalisher Tango, intercutting live concert performance with pivotal revelatory moments in the nightclub scene of Yiddish screwball comedy “American Matchmaker” [Americaner Schadchen, 1940], was selected by British online magazine New Music Express for a Best of YouTube reposting.
The Celluloid Closet of Yiddish Film began as Eve Sicular’s research article in Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review in 1994 and Eve first presented this material as a video clips-lecture for Frameline Festival in June of that year. She has now brought this to over 50 screens from universities to synagogues to media and community centers as well as dozens of film festivals. (See full list of publications and lecture venues, including both stand-alone clips lectures; and full-band multimedia presentations.)
Film archivist / historian Eve Sicular has lectured throughout North America and Europe on Yiddish and Soviet cinema. A former curator of Film and Photography Archives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, she has also worked for the Department of Film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on the series Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds. She received a magna cum laude from Harvard-Radcliffe College for her thesis on the compilation film work of early Soviet documentary pioneer Esther Shub.
She has published numerous articles and anthology essays on the subject of queer subtext in Yiddish cinema, as well as lecturing on this topic at film festivals, scholarly conferences, media centers and universities across North America and Europe. Her 1994 study A YINGL MIT A YINGL HOT EPES A TAM: The Celluloid Closet of Yiddish Film published in The Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review, applies THE CELLULOID CLOSET author Vito Russo’s research on homosexuality in the movies to examples found in Yiddish culture. In Gender Rebellion in Yiddish Film for Lilith magazine (1995), she examines the crossdressing careers of Molly Picon and other performers. In 1996, her Outing the Archives piece appeared in Davka magazine’s special sexuality issue while Found Footage, Hidden Meanings: On Queer Subtext, Yiddish Films and Subcultural Recycling was published Toronto’s Mix arts journal. Revised versions of these articles have appeared as two essays in the British anthology When Joseph Met Molly: A Reader on Yiddish Film (1999, Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham). She has also contributed a new essay to the Lambda Literary Award-nominated Queer Jews anthology (Routledge Press, 2002) describing her experiences spanning Jewish and queer cultural worlds as both a film scholar and klezmer bandleader.
The Yiddish Celluloid Closet is also Eve Sicular’s serendipitous Ashkenazic homage to the work of film maven, cultural and political activist Vito Russo (1946-1990), author and presenter of the original CELLULOID CLOSET — and later co-founder of ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Vito’s book, first published in 1981, was a tremendous inspiration to Eve, who read it in 1984 and first saw Vito present his Celluloid Closet clips-lecture at the University of Oregon in 1986. She brought Vito back to the Pacific Northwest for his Seattle debut in June 1989 at the Museum of History and Industry, forming Popcorn Sister Productions to make this show possible. This show month fortuitously coincided with formation the local ACT-UP chapter. Here’s a photo of Vito, Eve and her brother Steven Sicular outside ACT-UP’s brunch honoring our special guest. The new documentary feature VITO! premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2011, with more festival screenings and HBO broadcast for 2012. Mazel tov to filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz and Automat Pictures. (HBO also aired their Celluloid Closet documentary in 1995 based on Vito’s work.) Final note: In deftly campy live shows, Vito enjoyed describing himself as an adherent of Judyism… referring, of course, to his reverence for Liza Minnelli’s mom.
In addition to her work as a film historian, Ms Sicular is drummer/leader of both Metropolitan Klezmer and the all-female Isle of Klezbos sextet, and has produced their award-winning CDs: Greetings from the Isle of Klezbos, Traveling Show, Surprising Finds, Yiddish for Travelers, and Mosaic Persuasion. The bands have appeared in broadcasts on Showtime’s The L Word, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN Worldbeat, PBS’ In The Life, and the German network ARD’s Rhythms of New York, as well as on radio stations worldwide and at concert halls, nightclubs, college campuses and music festivals since 1994.
Her latest musical project, J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs From My Grandmother’s FBI Files, is a work-in-progress based on surveillance documents on Dr. Adele [Grandma] Sicular obtained through a Freedom of Information Act filing. This new work, for which she received a 2008 Manhattan Community Arts Fund grant from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, debuted at Dixon Place.