A new Crimean War? Really?

As a historian watching Vladimir Putin’s Russia flout international law to send troops into Crimea – part of the separate country of Ukraine – it is truly hard not to marvel.  Another Crimean War?  Really?  Why would anyone want to repeat that particular horror?
Yes, Putin has reasons for the incursion.  Don’t they always.  Crimea’s coast city of Sevastopol happens to host Russians principal warm water post and Navy base.  And most of the people who live in Crimea actual want the Russians in control.  In a fair plebiscite, they would doubtless vote for joining Putin.  But a new war over Crimea? 
The first Crimean War
In case you forget, the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 was the premier European bloodbath of the mid-Nineteenth Century.  Over 220,000 Russians died in the contest along with some 300,000-375,000 “allies,” mostly British, French, and Turkish. 
Russian President Vladimir Putin
practicing with loaded weapons. 

But worst of all was the original War’s utter pointlessness.  Started over a pretext – alleged Turkish mistreatment of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, which Turkey then controlled – it had more to do with Western fears of Russian expansion than any principled stand to “protect Turkey” – the West’s ultimate excuse to intervene.  

Russia mostly lost the War.  Britain and France finally captured Sevastopol, the Black Sea was de-militarized for a time, but not for long.  Russia soon re-established its Naval base and, by 1914, Britain and France had happily switched sides and embraced Russian as their new ally in preparation for Europe’s next grand and largely pointless bloodbath, World War I.

View from the USA
We Americans happily stayed out of that fight.  We would stage our own grandiose bloodbath Civil War a few years later in the 1860s.  As a result, most Americans have only two clear images of the Crimean War.  
  • One is of Florence Nightingale treating wounded British soldiers. 
  • The other is of Errol Flynn in his 1936 classic The Charge of the Light Brigade (see clip above), playing real-life British officer Lord James Cardigan leading that famous 1854 suicide cavalry mission (yes, it resulted from miscommunication among careless officers) that, through pure courage and pluck, managed to breach Turkish lines before it was forced to immediately retreat.  In real life, almost half the 670 British soldiers involved were lost: 118 dead, 127 wounded, 60 captured. 


Still, Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his heroic poem.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

”Forward, the Light Brigade!

“Charge for the guns!” he said:

Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Florence Nightingale leading British nurses in Crimea.

The irony of a new Crimean War in 2014 is hard to miss.  How convenient it would be in its own odd way.  All the historic battlefields are already there and waiting.  Why not simply recycle, and maybe use re-enactors instead of real soldiers?

Hopefully, cooler diplomatic heads will prevail, a formula will emerge for all sides to save face, guaranteeing both independence for the Ukrainian state as well as Russia’s strategic access to Sevastopol.  But if not, what an opportunity it could be for historians – the parallels, the contrasts, the urgent need for TV talking heads.
It’s true what they say:  Never throw away your old notes.         

Yiddish Theater: Don’t Forget Molly Picon

Yiddish is not beautiful.  Harsh and gutteral, it makes you twist your face to get the sounds out. Many of its words are bastardized from German, Slavic, Polish, Hebrew, English, French, you name it.  And worse, Yiddish today is rapidly dying.  Millions of people spoke it  a few decades ago– the Jewish national tongue — but today it has grown largely irrelevant.  American Jews speak English, French speak French, and Israelis speak Hebrew.  Even the old Jewish Daily Forward, once the largest Yiddish-language newspaper in the world, still survives but now publishes also in English.

But Yiddish can also achieve beauty and depth.  It can be hilarious and harmonic, even if you don’t understand a word. The backdrop of countless family stories, its phrases live on in dozens of American slangs.  But disappearing with the language today is also our access, in original form, to an amazingly rich literature: books, theater, newspapers, music, and, yes, movies.  And that brings us to Molly Picon.

Molly Picon — born Malka Opiekun in 1898 in New York City’s Jewish enclave on the Lower East Side — loved comedy.  Look at her prancing around the kitchen in the film clip above from her popular 1938 hit Mamele.  (The subtitles are Polish, but that hardly matters.)  Molly Picon started acting at six years old and became star of the New York Yiddish stage of the 1920s and 1930s, pioneer of Yiddish film, and, later, as times changed, a lifelong familiar face of English-language TV and film  — including a regular spot on the 1960s show Car 54 Where Are You? (see clip below).


Molly Pico Theater in 1931.

New York alone had three daily Yiddish newspapers back in Molly Picon’s prime, the 1920s and 30s.  Its fourteen Yiddish stage companies — mostly huddled together on lower Second Avenue — produced everything from slapstick comedies to cabarets to sappy immigrant stories to Yiddish translations of Broadway hits and Shakespeare classics. With hundreds of thousands of Yiddish speakers in New York and millions more still living in pre-WWII Eastern Europe, theater troops from NY often toured Warsaw and vice versa.  It was big business and very profitable.

Molly Picon quickly became a favorite on Second Avenue.  By 1931, she and her husband — fellow actor Yankel Kalich — had enough money to lease the Yiddish Folks Theater at 12th Street and Second Avenue for her own productions.  (She had to leave later than year, though, when the owners sold it in foreclosure.  This was, after all the Depression.)  The building still stands today as a movie house.   (Click here to take a visit.)

She starred in one of the first Yiddish-subtitled silent films, 1922’s East and West, then in the 1930s became a favorite in Yiddish talkies.  She traveled to Poland to shoot what became her best known film, Yidl Mitn Fidl (see clip below), a sentimental comedy about a young girl disguising herself as a boy to join a group of traveling musicians, but then falls in love with another band member.

Molly kept acting her entire life — even after the Yiddish stage stated fading way in the 1950s.  She would appear regularly on pioneer TV shows from Dr. Kildare to Trapper john, M.D. to The Naked City.  Fittingly, she would win a role in the film Fiddler on the Roof as Yenta the Matchmaker.  She would live 94 years before Alzheimer’s disease caught up with her in 1992.

But I like her best as the young star of Yiddish stage and film in the 1930s, taking those hard-edged words and giving them warmth,  depth, and humor, even if you can’t understand more than a syllable.

BTW, two of Molly’s early Yiddish films are now listed on Netflix Mamele and Yiddle with his Fiddle.  Enjoy.

Guest Post: David Taylor on Anzia Yezierska, Part II

Anzia Yerierska as a teenager in 1910s New York.
Anzia Yezierska paid a price for being a renegade.  During the Depression, when popular tastes turned against stories about immigrants, her career guttered, and she had few reserves in terms of money and contacts to keep her afloat.  But even down and out, she nurtured her rebel side.
Depression / Federal Writers Project
In the 1930s, dwindling finances forced her to take government relief, but Anzia turned to the Federal Writer’s Project,to help make some money and practice her craft. Here she found a dazzling community of talent that I talk about in my book Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America.
Anzia later described one encounter she had in the WPA cafeteria with a young Richard Wright after he won a prize his fiction:
Richard Wright in 1939.

“He handed me a copy of Story magazine… with the announcement that the first prize of the WPA Writers’ Contest was awarded to Richard Wright…  ‘Five hundred bucks!… And they’re going to publish my book!’

“In his eyes I saw my own elation thirty years ago when my first story was published… I knew the double-edged thrill of his triumph. It was not only recognition for his talent, but balm for all he had suffered as a Negro. I thought of Hollywood, when I’d been as intoxicated with the triumph over my handicaps as Wright was now… He would know how to take success for what it was worth and not become rattled by it as I had been…”
Anzia enjoyed the limelight again briefly in the 1950s with her memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse.  After that, though, she was mostly forgotten. She continued to write and live in New York City, dying in poverty in 1970.
Anzia Yezierska has influenced generations of writers who managed to discover her work.  The late Grace Paley, another brash and wonderful Jewish writer of short stories who grew up later in the East Bronx, was one. “I loved them,” Paley said of Yezierska’s stories in a telephone interview. “I read her later. When I got away from ‘literature’ I became close to the literature that I had to do.” That is, with an ear to the language of the neighborhoods.”

In 1998, the critic Margo Jefferson ranked Yezierska’s Salomé of the Tenements among seven novels demanding to be filmed. Saloméwas inspired by Yezierska’s friend Rose Pastor, who championed socialist causes, protested World War I, was tried and convicted of violating the espionage act of 1917 with her writings against the war (her case was dismissed in 1921), divorced, and later became a successful dress designer.
Yezierska’s own life story, rising from poverty to literary success, still strikes people today. Kyle Semmel, a writer and translator, invoked her immigrant story when he applied to a nonprofit that helps first-generation college students. Like many first-generation immigrants, she lived with her impoverished family and helped support them, selling items to vendors while studying English in night school. When everyone else in the family was asleep, she would crawl up to the roof “and talk out my heart to the stars. Who am I? What am I? What do I want with my life?”
“Yezierska’s case is a distinctly American one,” Semmel wrote, “and it mirrors the situation many young people find themselves in today: talented, eager and hard-working, but ultimately uncertain about their future because their families are in lower-income brackets.”
Hollywood and Broadway
Now in 2014, both Hollywood and Broadway are about to present striking glimpses into Anzia’s world – 1920s Manhattan and its strong woman burdened by hard life and hard choices.

 The Immigrant, a new film starring Marion Cotillard, got a standing ovation at Cannes last spring and gets its U.S. debut soon. The Village Voice called the film, about a Polish

Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant.

immigrant new to New York, “a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic.”

On Broadway, Rebecca Hall (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and Iron Man 3) will debut in a revival of Machinal, a 1928 play by the journalist/playwright Sophie Treadwell, inspired by the true story of a woman driven to murder. (The same murder provided the seed for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity).
Anzia Yezierska’s set a model decades before what became known as the women’s movement.  The 1920s were very much the modern world,” says Amy Bloom, author of the bestselling novel Away, whose protagonist (like Yezierska) escapes pogroms in Russia to face the trials of the New World. “We had cars and telephones and radio and movies. And I think that the struggle within women—between what is expected of them, discovering their own natures and trying to make their way in the world and be reasonably successful in whatever world they choose to be in—is always an issue.”

For Bloom, who gave voice to Yezierska in the 2009 documentary Soul of a People, which Andrea Kalin and I produced, Anzia’s hungry spirit and her characters would always slam against society’s norms. “By and large, women didn’t design the norm,” said Bloom, “so it doesn’talways suit them.  But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to try to make their way in the bigger world.”

When Rebecca Hall and Marion Cotillard step into the footlights, they may remind us of another pioneer from that era still waiting in the wings.
David A. Taylor is a Washington, DC-based writer of prize-winning books, articles and films. His books include Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America and The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy. Twitter: @dataylor1