USA, 1935, 75 minutes, b&w
Public Exhibition Formats: DigiBeta, DVD
Public exhibition screenings will be preceded by an 8-minute video introduction to Boris Thomashefsky & the Yiddish theater excerpted from the 2008 documentary film The Jewish Americans, courtesy of WETA, Washington, D.C. Special thanks to David Grubin Productions.
"...pays tribute to religious and theatrical traditions while surprisingly bursting their bonds in moments of cinematic inspiration...lightning bolts of cinematic revelation suggest the pliable, accessible modernism of the cinema."
- Richard Brody, The New Yorker
"If Jewish film, and Jewish culture at large, are about legacy, then this is required viewing, an immersion in remembrance of the forefathers"
- Village Voice
Believing his wife lost at sea, Israel remarries a scheming gold-digger. Shock, tears and laughs abound when his beloved wife returns on the eve of her son's bar mitzvah after a ten-year absence. Starring Yiddish theater superstar Boris Thomashefsky in his only film performance, this musical melodrama is a masterwork of shund, the bread and butter of the Yiddish theater.
Israel (Boris Thomashefsky), a Polish widower whose wife Leah was lost at sea ten years earlier, is preparing his son Yudele for his bar mitzvah. Israel has remarried Rosalie (Anita Chayes), a schemer planning to rob him and run off with her lover. Leah (Regina Zuckerberg) survived the shipwreck and has recently regained her memory. She discovers from her in-laws that Israel has remarried and determines not to cause her family any more pain (�I can�t live anymore, I�m going back to the ocean�). She secretly attends Yudele�s bar mitzvah ceremony before leaving, but is revealed by her sobbing when Yudele chants the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) for his �dead� mother. Israel discovers Rosalie�s treacheries and her lover pulls a gun. All is set right, however, when Israel is saved by his daughter�s happy-go-lucky American suitor. In the end, the con artists are arrested and the family is reunited. The drama is punctuated with numerous songs typical of the vaudeville stage and the Lower East Side Yiddish theater. Highlights include the hit song �Erlekh Zayn� (�Be Virtuous�) sung by Thomashefsky and an entertaining song-and-dance number by Sam Colton as the young American suitor.
An actor, singer and producer, Boris Thomashefsky (1868-1939) was a pioneer of the American Yiddish Theater and one its central figures for nearly fifty years. Boris and his wife, Yiddish actress Bessie Thomashefsky, built a 2nd Avenue theater in 1912, published their own magazine and encouraged new generations of young artists. Enormously popular, with a flamboyant personality and a famously tumultuous personal life, Thomashefsky was the superstar of Yiddish theater. 30,000 people lined the streets of the Lower East Side on the occasion of his funeral in 1939.
Bar Mitzvah opened on March 15, 1935, at the Clinton Theater on the Lower East Side. It had a reasonable theatrical run in the US and remained in distribution for several years. It was a more substantial hit overseas. Produced in New York in 1935, the film was written and directed by Henry Lynn based on a play of the same name written by Boris Thomashefsky. Thomashefsky was 67 years old when he starred in Bar Mitzvah; he died four years later. Bar Mitzvah is believed to be his only film performance.
An American-made feature film about Jewish Poland (and the "Old Country" more generally), Bar Mitzvah shows how American and Polish Jews caricaturized each other during this period as it represents the pinnacle of low budget movie making. Aside from its unequivocal documentary and historical value, it is a great piece of kitsch. More accurately it is a masterwork of shund – popular Yiddish lowbrow theatrical fare that was the bread and butter of Yiddish theatrical productions. As critic J. Hoberman writes, after lamenting the film’s less then stellar production values, “And yet, one must be grateful that Bar Mitzvah was made, for, more than any other performer, its star was the popular Yiddish theater incarnate.”
Yiddish Film Festival at Yale University (2015)
Medias Central European Film Festival (2013)
JCC of Houston Book & Arts Festival (2012)
Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival (2012)
Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival (2011)
Bucharest Jewish Film Festival (2011)
Lenore Marwil Jewish Film Festival (2011)
Washington Jewish Film Festival (2010)
Foundation for the Preservation of Yiddish Culture Film Festival, Lodz Poland (2010)
Jerusalem Cinematheque (Dec 2010)
NCJF Jewish Film Festival (2010)
Austria Film Archive (2010)
Toronto Jewish Film Festival (2010)
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam (2010)
New York Jewish Film Festival (2010) -2 Sold-Out Screenings at Lincoln Center
Jersusalem International Film Festival (July 2009)
NCJF Film Restoration
The National Center for Jewish Film has restored and preserved the sole existing 35mm nitrate element of this film, which included the labor-intensive patching and repairing of damaged film materials. While the original Yiddish-language print contained a limited number of English subtitles, NCJF created over 200 new subtitles, including all of the songs. All of the film materials are owned by the National Center for Jewish Film.
Preservation and restoration was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Eastman Kodak Company, with support from Brandeis University, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and The National Center for Jewish Film’s Reel Funders.
2009 Restoration © The National Center for Jewish Film
Executive Director Sharon Pucker Rivo
Technical Director Rich Pontius
Associate Director Lisa E. Rivo
Academic Consultant Sylvia Fuks Fried
Translator Lillian Leavitt
Title Animation National Boston
Laboratory Cinema Arts, Inc.
Special Thanks Sylvia Fuks Fried, Hankus Netsky, Solon Beinfeld, J. Hoberman, Michael Tilson Thomas, The Thomashefsky Project, Linda Steinberg, WETA Washington D.C.
Director Henry Lynn
Producers Henry Lynn & Jack Stillman
Story Boris Thomashefsky
Screenplay Henry Lynn
Editor Jack Kemp
Cinematography Robert J. Marshal & George H. Wicke Jr.
Sound Engineer Jerry Barton
Musical Direction Jack Stillman
Originally released by S&L Film Company
Boris Thomashefsky (Israel)
Regina Zuckerberg (Leah)
Anita Chayes (Rosalie)
Peter Graf (Cantor Yeruchim)
Gertrude Bulman (Feigele)
Morris Strassberg (Abraham)
Leah Naomi (Sarah)
Sam Colton (Sam)
Morris Tarlowsky (Alexander)
Benjamin Schechtman (Yudele)
Bar Mitzvah & The Thomashefsky Project
Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, is the grandson of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. A two-minute segment of Bar Mitzvah was preserved by The National Center for Jewish Film and showcased as part of the original theatrical production “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater” written and performed by Michael Tilson Thomas at Carnegie Hall in New York City in April 2005. The production has since been performed in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Tanglewood.
Film Press Kit (PDF)
New reviews of Bar Mitzvah in The New Yorker, Village Voice & Huffington Post (PDF)
World Premiere at Jerusalem International Jewish Film Festival Press Release (PDF)
Digital Site Licensing (DSL) available - Contact us
Step down pricing for K-12 & public libraries may be available - Contact us
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Also directed by Henry Lynn