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East and West

Morris Brown, a New York clothing manufacturer, visits his brother Mottel Brownstein in Poland on the occasion of cousin Zelda’s wedding. Mottel, a wealthy merchant, lodges a young Talmud scholar, Jacob. Morris brings his daughter Mollie.

The spritely girl arranges a mock wedding of her own, the quiet scholar is haled from his reading in the noisy kitchen. He loves her, the joke goes too far, the ring is on her finger, they are married. “No power on earth could make me give her up,” he tells a rabbi consulted by both families. Five years he asks for her to decide, then he will divorce her if she wishes. He accepts a rich uncle’s invitation to live with him in Vienna.

There he studies, gets a shave and a haircut at the Frisier-Salon, buys a new suite of clothes and writes a book, Mazel Tov, under the nom de plume Ben Alli. The five years are almost up, he gives a reading at The Oriental Academy. Morris and Mollie are at the Park Hotel, they get a flyer (“the new genius in person”).

Ben Alli signs autographs for admiring girls. “Daddy,” says Mollie, “that gang looks like the Beef Trust.” She dreams of Jacob that night in white tie and new spectacles, but also as the scholar in “curls, knee pants and a kimono” (thus his uncle’s gardener describes his appearance at the gate).

“The last trump” is a disguise as his former self, with the divorce papers.

Ben Alli is really Jacob

in the guise of greater fame

but Jacob surely loves you

so what is in a name

They kiss to conclude a great film by a great director if ever there was one (he plays Morris). The first part is concerned with the Day of Atonement, “you can’t bluff,” says Mottel to Morris at the synagogue, “that’s a prayer book, not a check book.” Mollie slips a novel in hers and goes to the kitchen to feast on chicken, challah and apples. “Oi gewald,” screams Molche the cook, “a ganif! A thief! Aha! Dat American shikse, she ate it up!” The “fresserke” is said to have “an appetite like a Helefant!” Mollie puts on her boxing gloves and knocks Molche out. Her father spanks her. She teaches the cantor’s choir not to “dance like a rocking chair” but “shake it up”, she shimmies on the table to demonstrate. She hides from her father in boy’s clothes on the eve of the wedding and is spanked again. In her room, unable to sit down, she receives a visit from the bride and bridesmaids, tries on the veil and dreams up the mock wedding.

Ancient tradition honors Jacob with patronage, Mottel tells his servant to “see that he is cheerful”, Shabse takes him to the kitchen, “another idler”. Molche is Shabse’s wife, they stint him angrily.

The exquisite timing, the fineness and accuracy of the performances, ten thousand nuances of satirical observation and Mollie Picon as Mollie.

“Religion is in the heart,” Jacob’s uncle tells him, “not in the whiskers.” The scholar is so enraptured by the sight of Mollie at dinner he turns toward her and stares while eating his noodle soup (“a luxury” that the Americans suck up noisily), unaware he has begun eating out of Shabse’s bowl next to him. She makes a face.

Jeremy Paul Kagan’s The Chosen is a relation, but so is Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, and so is Henry James.