Too obscure and under the radar even in its own time to be considered truly lost and forgotten, Khavah is nonetheless a fascinating time-stamped message sent out by early 20th-century Jewish culture — not from its ostensible setting (Czarist Russia, circa 1905) but from its production dateline (America, 1919). Insular and backward-looking, the film transmits the conflicted emotions of first-generation Jewish Americans caught between the bright promise of the New World and the harsh lessons of the Old. In the end, the film opts for the blinkered perspective of the shtetl. It would be one of the last times that the tug of Jewish tribalism would override the attractions of the American Dream in a Jewish-made motion picture, an art form that prospered by embracing assimilation — and the other 97 percent of American moviegoers — the marketing strategy that built Hollywood.
Subtitled “a love drama of the Ukraine from the pen of Sholem Aleichem” and adapted from Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” stories, Khavah is the first known version of an Aleichem story in American cinema — decades before the name of the greatest of Yiddish language fabulists became a bankable commodity with the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof, which debuted on Broadway in 1964, and the big-screen version directed by Norman Jewison in 1971, a full-on infusion of shtetl culture into the American mainstream recently chronicled in the triumphalist documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles (2019). The “Jewish Mark Twain” is how Aleichem was billed to non-Yiddish readers in 1919, probably because he shared with Twain an ear for his people’s vernacular and a double-meaning pen name. (The traditional Jewish greeting “sholem aleichem” means “peace be upon you” in Hebrew; his prosaic real name was Sholom Rabinovich.) Directed by Charles E. Davenport, whose only other twirl in the spotlight was when he was prosecuted for obscenity along with Mae West for stage managing her notorious 1928 play Pleasure Man, Khavah was shot at the Estee Studio in New York, with the woods of New Jersey standing in for Czarist Ukraine.
Khavah (played by Alice Hastings, a stage actress getting a big break that led nowhere) is the pretty, headstrong daughter of dairyman Tobias (think Tevye), proprietor of a small farm outside a Russian Orthodox village. Tobias is played by Giacomo Masuroff, formerly a leading tenor with the Russian Imperial Opera, whose voice, naturally, is unheard here, and who, ironically in light of his on-screen fate, had once been decorated by Czar Nicholas II “in appreciation of his dramatic ability.” Historical expectations notwithstanding, Tobias and his family live in a peaceful, separate-but-equal coexistence with their Russian Orthodox neighbors who reside in the hamlet across the bridge. Tobias and the local Russian elder Ivan (Phil Sanford) are friends, so friendly that Tobias is teaching the illiterate Ivan how to read.
Ivan’s son Fedka (Alexander Tenenholtz) is a university student lately returned from Kyiv with a serious fixation on the works of Maxim Gorky, the proto-Bolshevik social realist novelist. One day, while drinking with his pals (“Vodka — the curse of all Russia,” scolds a Prohibition-friendly intertitle), Fedka and the boys stumble into Tobias’s farmyard, where a lubricated member of the gang manhandles Khavah. Gallant Fedka defends the damsel and pummels her assailant. Their eyes meet and, 1919 or not, everyone knows where this story is going. As a token of his love, Fedka gives Khavah a picture — of Maxim Gorky. Bound by tradition (Tradition!), Tobias is appalled at the possible love match. “Fedka is a fine boy,” Tobias tells Ivan, “but Jew and Gentile — oil and water…” The ellipsis says it all.
The kids are having none of it. “What is wrong with Fedka?” Khavah demands of her implacable father. “Isn’t he a human being?” Besides, Fedka is a brilliant writer, destined to become a second Gorky. “If he’s the second Gorky,” kvetches Tobias, “who’s the first?” His wisecrack is one of the only sparks of Jewish humor in a somber melodrama sorely in need of some. Tobias has arranged for his daughter to marry a suitably Jewish grain merchant, and Khavah is under divine pressure to obey — pages from the Torah in Hebrew fill the screen, dissolving into an English translation of the commandment “Honor Thy Father and Mother.” Still, the infatuated ingénue follows her heart. “Broken shall be the barriers that stand between love and happiness!” Khavah resolves, explaining the title.
Making the decisive break, Khavah walks in stoic self-exile across the symbolic bridge, into the Russian village. Sunday mass is just getting out. Through Khavah’s nervous eyes, we see a strange and threatening world plastered with Russian Orthodox Christian iconography. The portrait of the Virgin Mary, the peasants crossing themselves right to left, and a crucifix on the door — spooky totems all. Shedding her dowdy peasant attire for a festive Russian wedding dress adorned with beads and necklace, Khavah is transformed — but is she converted?
The wedding party is a massive blowout, Russian style. Violinists (but not balalaikas) play, Cossack dancers perform the indigenous high kicking choreography, and the blitzed revelers, men and women alike, drink and carouse joyfully. (One can only wonder what sort of musical accompaniment the pianist and violinist conjured during the scene of Russian jubilation; no accompanying musical score from the film is extant.) Not joining in, Khavah eyes the boozy antics warily: her family never indulged in such disgraceful revelry! Yet the film lingers on the boisterous fun of the wedding party — the precision dancing, the unbridled hilarity. First a single Cossack dancer, then a trio, resplendent in their white folk outfits, kick out the jams and bring down the house. Almost despite itself, the camera, if not Khavah, is seduced by the alternative to shtetl gloom.
The honeymoon — not that Fedka and Khavah ever get out of the village — is over soon enough. Though Fedka’s love remains steadfast, Khavah’s once supportive mother-in-law has devolved into an abusive, hectoring shrew. In fact, Fedka’s entire family strikes Khavah as, well, vulgarly goyishe. A deus ex machina arrives on schedule when the czar issues an edict that Tobias and his family are to be banished to the outmost regions of the Pale of Settlement. Fed up with Fedka’s family, Khavah returns to the Jewish side of the bridge, kissing the mezuzah in her home as a gesture of reemergence. It is a soft and tender kiss, more loving than any she gave Fedka. When the Russians discover her defection, a brawl erupts outside the home — until Khavah stops the donnybrook with a declaration: “I renounce my marriage vow — a vow of sorrows and tragedy — to go with my father as I came to him.” Fedka is crushed, but, well, oil and water. Banished from the life they had known, but again intact as an autonomous Jewish unit, the family heads off to an uncertain future.
You will not be surprised to learn that this bummer of an ending did not heat up the American box office. After a brief theatrical run in 1919–1920, Khavah vanished from the marquee, and film history. In 1991, when the meticulous critic-historian J. Hoberman came to publish his essential volume, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Cinema Between Two Worlds, he could not locate a print and had to rely on plot descriptions. Unbeknownst to archival film circles, however, two 16mm prints had been preserved by Leopold Kehlmann, co-owner of the one-off production company which financed the film, Zion Productions, probably because his daughter Hannah Belle Kehlmann, played the role of Khavah’s younger sister. Eventually, the prints were passed down to Hannah’s granddaughter Sharon Josepho. In 2015, Josepho got in touch with the mother-daughter team of Sharon Rivo and Lisa Rivo at the National Center for Jewish Film, housed at Brandeis University. Would they be interested in looking at what, to her, was more of a family heirloom than a lost film? Yes, they very much would. Using the best material from each of the two prints, the Rivos stitched together a surprisingly sharp 35mm negative, from which a DCP (digital cinema package) was rendered for digital projection. After hitting the Jewish film festival circuit, Khavah is slated for a DVD release.
Gauging the running time and the ideal speed of projection for the film proved a nettlesome calculation. In the early silent era, films were usually measured only by the number of reels, not a set running time calculated in minutes. In Khavah’s case, “seven reels” might mean anywhere from 70 to 105 minutes. To run the film at 24 frames per second, the rate that became standard after the onset of synchronized sound, was fast and jerky, like a Benny Hill video. After repeated viewings, the Rivos settled on 18 frames per second as the speed which rendered the most natural movements. They cut a few frames from the intertitles to tighten up the running time, which clocks in at 78 minutes. The other big question was what to call the film: it was billed under two titles, Broken Barriers and Khavah. A title card on the 16mm prints read “Broken Barriers” — but trade press advertisements often said “Khavah.” To give priority to the Aleichem short story on which the film was based — and to honor the strong-willed female protagonist — the Rivos mocked up a title card that reads: Broken Barriers (Khavah).
A century on, the film is apt to strike today’s audiences as constricted, tribal, and pathologically resistant to exogamy. In 1919, the United States was still a pot that many Jews were reluctant to melt into — or at least official Jewish culture did not want to publicly admit to the attractions of assimilation. Just a few short years later, the deep dive immersion of Jews into American culture would enrich — if not define — vaudeville, Broadway, radio, and the Hollywood screen. In 1922, Anne Nichols’s open-armed Abie’s Irish Rose — an all-American merger of Jew and Gentile, consummated for purposes of rom-com assimilationism, was a huge Broadway hit. Certainly, by the time of The Jazz Singer (1927), the notion that a hip-swiveling entertainer like Al Jolson would forsake Broadway stardom for the sedate life of cantor at a Lower East Side synagogue would be eye-rolled off the screen by Jew and Gentile alike. Besides, the Hollywood moguls were never just cynically selling a tonic of assimilationist snake oil to Christian America; they — and their audience, Irish, Italians, and Poles no less than Russian and Eastern European Jews — had drunk too deeply of the American Dream to wax sentimental about an old country where the struggle was not for success — your name on a studio water tower, or in lights — but for subsistence and survival.
Indeed, the Jew-is-Jew-and-Gentile-is-Gentile-and-never-the-twain-shall-wed mantra may have already been out of step with the target audience in 1919. “Too long and poorly titled but may find appeal among Jews,” shrugged Motion Picture News, a trade magazine that advised exhibitors in Jewish enclaves to highlight the Sholem Aleichem tie-in and lure in the rubes with taglines such as “Can an Orthodox Jewess be happy with a Gentile Husband?” Billboard figured the film might “attract largely Hebrew communities,” but without a boy-girl clinch in the final fade out “to the modern woman in our Eastern country this picture will puzzle and distress.” The wise exhibitor was advised to balance the downbeat severity of Khavah by programming it with “something lively — a cartoon preferably.”
That works for me. Watching Tobias and his family trudge away from their beloved homestead into an uncertain fate, I thought of Bugs Bunny turning to the audience at the end of What’s Opera, Doc? to explain the downbeat and decidedly un–Looney Tunes ending — only this time asking sarcastically, “It’s a story of Jews in Czarist Russia. You were expecting a happy ending?”
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist (Columbia University Press, 2018).