Sholem Aleichem, like many of his characters, always kept an eye out for new ways to get ahead. After failing to strike it rich in New York’s Yiddish theater, he returned to Europe from 1907 until the 1914 outbreak of World War I. On his return to the United States, the new medium of the cinema caught his eye. Together with his son-in-law, Dov Berkowitz, and the journalist Ben-Zion Goldberg, he put together a scenario for the adaptation of Motl into a silent film. (Much shorter than a script, film scenarios outline scenes and plot events and would be used to pitch an idea to a production studio.) Little Motl Goes to America reimagines the scenes and schemes from the novel’s Kasrilevke chapters. It concludes with an early version of Motl’s arrival in the United States—one that provides an interesting contrast with the chapters that would begin the novel’s second half.
The focus of this resource is on Ellis Island, the immigration processing center open from 1892 to 1954. From 1905 to 1915, approximately 5,000 immigrants arrived each day, making it a central and shared experience of Eastern European Jewish immigration. While most only spent several hours on Ellis Island and approximately two percent were refused entry, the fear of delays, disease, and deportation was widespread.
Suggested Activity: Students should read at least through the departure of Motl and his family from Ellis Island in the novel’s second part before coming to class. Begin by having students—individually, in pairs, or in small groups—summarize the experiences of the characters at Ellis Island. What are the major events? What themes, concepts, and/or disappointments are present? Now introduce the resource. Note that it was designed to be the closing scene of a film incorporating many of the events from Part One of the novel, not the opening of its second half. Read Little Motl Goes to America. Pay attention, as before, to the major events and themes. How does this Ellis Island experience compare with that in the novel? What’s different? What stays the same? How is Ellis Island, and the United States itself, depicted here, as compared to the novel? Zero in on the ending of the film scenario: What kind of symbolic importance could the “message from Washington” have? How does it compare with the way the family gets out of Ellis Island in the novel (bribes, the kindness of neighbors from Kasrilevke)? What different commentaries do the two endings offer on the United States, the experience of immigration, and our expectations for Motl’s future? How do the specific qualities of each medium—silent film and serialized novel—affect the scenes?
Additional Activity: Working collaboratively as Sholem Aleichem did on his film scenario, ask students to outline their own sketch of a short film based on Motl’s adventures. Afterwards, ask students to reflect on their choices: What did they include or leave out? How did they make these decisions? Did they need to add any original scenes or characters to make their scenarios cohere?