YIDL MITN FIDL
Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt is one of several Ellstein songs from what has been called the most successful Yiddish film of all time: Joseph Green’s 1936 romantic musical comedy Yidl mitn fidl (Yidl with His Fiddle). Shot on location in Poland, it became one of Molly Picon’s signature roles for many years thereafter. The film tells the story of a young woman posing as a male in an itinerant band.
Facing poverty in his hometown, Ari, a bass player (presumably a widower), takes his violinist daughter on the road to play with him as a traveling duo. Out of fear for her safety in strange territory, she takes on the disguise of a young man—clothing, mannerisms, and a male name, Yidl (little Jew). As they embark, Yidl sings the title song, Yidl mitn fidl, ari mitn bass, which Ellstein based on a European folksong and which asserts that life is just a song.
Ari and Yidl meet a similar duo, Isaac and Froim, also a fiddler, and they decide to join forces as a traveling quartet. Yidl becomes increasingly attracted to Froim and falls completely in love with him. When Froim pats her cheek condescendingly as he would a little boy, she is in agony both at the tantalizing vibration and at her predicament. Left alone, she launches into the song Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt (Oh, Mama, Am I in Love!). Yidl sings the song to herself in frustration, pouring out her heart. She even imagines him speaking to her as a girl.
The quartet takes on yet another performer: Tauba—a runaway from an imminent arranged marriage with an elderly rich man. To Yidl’s dismay, Tauba and Froim begin a love affair. When the quintet decides to settle in Warsaw, Tauba’s singing talents are recognized by a theater director, and she is invited to sing in the theater—with Froim playing violin in the orchestra. Unable to keep up the ruse any longer, Yidl tells the truth of her plight to Isaac, who agrees to help her by locating Yosl, who was Tauba’s true love (before her arranged match), certain that she would not hesitate to leave Froim for him. Yosl shows up backstage at the theater, he and Tauba are instantly reunited, and the two run off together after Tauba has left a good-bye note in her dressing room. Yidl, in the theater to see if the plot will work, comes into the dressing room, sees the note, and goes out onto the stage to announce the cancellation of the show in light of Tauba’s escape.
The action then becomes a bit of a “play within a play,” as the director pleads with the now undisguised Yidl to sing in Tauba’s place. When Yidl asks from the stage what she should sing, Froim, in the pit, begins playing the melody of Yidl mitn fidl. Yidl picks up the cue and begins singing that song, but she also tells the audience her story: how she had been a fiddler disguised as a boy, and how she had fallen in love with a fellow musician in their group who ignored her. As she begins to cry, she repeats her love song, Oy, mame, bin ikh farlibt, and the audience, assuming it is part of a prearranged performance sketch, roars with laughter. After the show, Froim comes back to the dressing room, where Yidl confesses her love for him as real. From her success singing in the theater, Yidl is offered performances in America, but Froim cannot be released from his orchestral obligation. Aboard the ship to America, Yidl, agonizing over the separation, suddenly hears Yidl mitn fidl being played on a violin. To no one’s surprise, it is Froim, who has secretly run away from the orchestra, and the two are finally united.