The Shmooze

Remembering Molly Picon, Yiddish Cinderella

By Masha Leon

  • Print
  • Share Share

A sparkling gem of the New York Jewish Film Festival is the U.S. premiere of the restored Joseph Green-Konrad Tom’s 1938 Yiddish film “Mamele.”

Starring Molly Picon, the 5-foog-tall, 100 lb. phenom of Yiddish stage and screen, the film is set in Poland’s textile hub of Lodz, but was shot in just six weeks on a Warsaw back lot.

Picon’s character Khavtsi, a daughter of a ne’er do well widower, is dubbed “mamele” (little mother) as she tirelessly caters to a seven-strong, unappreciative and demanding family. A Yiddish Cinderella, Picon shops, schleps, cooks, cleans, dreams of love and is the ”go to” person when someone has a problem — be it romance, or rescuing a youngster caught up in a shady scheme.

Karen Leon
Masha Leon and Molly Picon

The setting is urban, the young men and women are 1930s fashionably dressed. There is nightclubbing, drinking, double-dealing, and– a handsome sweet musician across the courtyard. As tireless as the Energizer bunny, Picon is so delicious and quirky, you want to give her a knip in bekl (pinch her cheek).

In a dreamlike montage, she morphs — in stages — from a dancing little girl to a frail 78-year old dancing with her fingers and bobbing her head. Picon also launches the hit song “Abi Gezunt” (as long as you are healthy) which has become a standard for Yiddish performers down the decades. As for the romantic finale — it involves a scene-stealing ketzele (kitten) which will have cat lovers purring.

getty images

In his invaluable 2011 reference “Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film — Past and Present,” film maven Eric Goldman, founder and president of Ergo Media, notes that in 1976, as curator at YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research) “my first task was to work with 35 mm nitrite prints” on preserving ‘Mamele’ whose original negative was lost in Poland during the war. It has been restored with new English subtitles, by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University.

Though I had seen “Mamele” as a child in Warsaw, my encounters with Picon included the 1979 Queens College Sholem Aleichem Festival at which she got a standing ovation as she walked down the aisle to her seat! In 1982 I visited her at her Lincoln Center apartment for a Forward interview where she greeted me with a headstand in the doorway having just finished jumping rope.

Karen Leon
“Thank You” note from Molly Picon to Masha Leon

Changing out of her stretch pants, she insisted on dressing up for the Forverts photo. Covering her long career with her husband —fellow actor Joseph Kalish — Picon recalled meeting Chaim Weizmann at Baden Baden where she performed; her trips to Israel (where she adopted four children) and meeting Golda Meir and Henrietta Szold. She and her husband entertained survivors in DP Camps.

“People came to see me, who had seen my films all over Europe. They’d call out:” Molly! “Gedenkst”(remember!) Vienna!. Warsaw! Kishinev!“

Explaining her palpable appeal, Picon cited a French poet who, despite an entourage of young beautiful mistresses, kept introducing his old mistress. “His explanation,” said Picon “ was ‘she had my youth’— and I have the youth of all these people [worldwide].”

Picon succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 1992.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: molly picon

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.