• National Center for Jewish Film
  • Lili Lliana (not my grandmother) in Kol Nidre

There was no way I could have missed last night’s screening of Kol Nidre, which played as part of Doc Films’ free series of Yiddish-language American films from the late 1930s. The movie features an appearance by my maternal grandmother—her one and only screen appearance, in fact. How she came to be in Kol Nidre is a well-established piece of family lore. For years relatives would refer to the movie as “June’s brush with stardom” or something to that effect. Only in adolescence did I realize that other people were in it.

The story goes that my grandmother was approached one afternoon by the film’s casting director while working on a display for her brother-in-law’s shop in New York. She was studying painting at a city arts college, with ambitions of going into commercial design, and she regarded the display assignments as a way of honing her skills. The casting director wasn’t interested in the display, but rather my grandmother’s build. It looked as though she was just the right size for the peasant-girl costume that was going to be used in a film. (Given that most Yiddish-language films were made for pennies—J. Hoberman reports in his critical history Bridge of Light that it was common practice for Yiddish filmmakers to shoot everything in one take, so as not to waste celluloid—it’s likely the costume was being recycled from another movie.) Would she be willing to take part in one day’s filming on a farm in New Jersey that often stood in for rural Ukraine?

The rest is family history. My grandmother assumed the role of a rural tailor’s beautiful daughter who is beset upon by Cossacks. Rather than watch his daughter get defiled (the Cossacks, in their cruelty, have forced him to watch), the old man stabs her through the heart with his shears. The action drives him to madness, and he spends the rest of his days wandering the village like a ghost.

Until yesterday this was the only part of Kol Nidre I’d seen. When my grandmother turned 75, my mom thought to surprise her by presenting the scene at her birthday party. Our family did some hunting and found that the Spertus Institute had a VHS copy of the film, and so we borrowed it from their library (at what would now seem an unreasonably high price) and had the scene copied onto another cassette (at a price that would now seem even more unreasonable). I could have watched the entire film while it was in our possession, but I was just entering adolescence and I found the idea of a Yiddish-language musical from the 1930s unbearably dull. It was another relic from a time to which I couldn’t relate, when even secularized Jewish Americans like my grandmother remained bound to old-world traditions that meant little to me. Watching Kol Nidre sounded like a family obligation akin to visiting a sick relative.

Kol Nidre is all about family obligations—I suspect my 13-year-old self would have hated it as much as he dreaded he would. In it a nice Jewish girl betrays her devout parents, who want her to marry a rabbi, by eloping with a smooth-talking playboy. Her father suffers a stroke upon learning of the betrayal, but returns to good health the following year, when the playboy—while trying to flee his wife with another woman, the schmendrick—dies in a car accident and the daughter agrees to marry the rabbi after all. Along the way there are musical numbers and comic interludes to ameliorate the moralizing.

The movie’s structure is obviously influenced by vaudeville: my grandmother’s scene, in fact, is part of a revue that the heroine’s parents attend at their synagogue; the story of the tailor’s daughter is delivered in song by a popular “radio poet” who takes the floor between two different cantorial singing acts. (This blurring of entertainment and religious ritual speaks to the insularity of Yiddish-language culture.) I realize now that this story foreshadows the heroine’s defilement, raising the possibility that she might die before she’s forgiven.

It wasn’t just members of my family who recognized my grandmother’s achievement. After Kol Nidre was completed, the casting director asked my grandmother if she was interested in acting in any more films. She declined, saying she’d rather focus on commercial design, and that was that. No matter, she’ll remain a movie star as long as the family line continues.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.