Stroy of beloved film star Charlie Chaplin, the jewish film and him as a “Jewish character”.
Jewish audiences, mainly in Eastern Europe, were ardent moviegoers since the days of early cinema and for a reason: Electricity allowed the town's two little cinema halls to show moving pictures and to bring the inhabitants of Yurburg [Lithuania] in touch with the beautiful world outside. They could get to know Emil Janings, Konrad Veidt, Pola Negri, Charlie Chaplin, and all the other famous actors. The town's youth loved the movies, which took them out of their isolation. The movies would stir up longings for the world outside, would entice people to leave the town and its boring life behind. One of their most beloved film stars was Charlie Chaplin and for a reason too. In his play The Great lottery winning (1915), the world famous Yiddish author Shalom-Aleichem, tells of a poor Jewish tailor from “the pale” that wins the great prize in the lottery. Two crooks persuade him to invest his money in film production. They easily con him because like many of his people he is enchanted by cinema. As the play’s hero Simon Soroker put it in his own excited words: Oh, yea, wonderful brains! A person mind inventing… cinema… screen… film… and it’s living! It’s moving! And it’s all for us common people. No wonder that at the end of the second act the two charlatans run away with his money and he remains empty handed. Shalom Aleichem used the illusion of cinema as a metaphor of Jewish life. Simon Soroker dreams that after the miracle of winning the money the next miracle of cinema will bring him new life and success. But his illusions are shattered by harsh reality. On the third act Soroker learns that good life and success on the screen are just an illusion and that dreams of miraculous solution to his problem won’t bring him anywhere, hard work and efforts in the real world will do. In that sense the Jewish cinema fans could easily felt in love with the film art of Charlie Chaplin whose on-screen dreams of new life and success was much like their own. He seemed to be like one of them.
Birth announcement of Chaplin, “The Magnet”, a music hall professional weekly, 11 May 1889
In the novel Mottle the son of Paysee the Cantor (1915) Shalom Aleichem described a group of Eastern European young Jewish emigrants in New York City walking to their neighborhood cinema hall to see Charlie: Every Sunday we go to the cinema to see the greatest clown Charlie Chaplin. My brother Eliyahoo and our friend Pini also go with us. All the way they praise him: that he is a great person, his income is tremendous, and that he is of the seed of the Jews. Shalom-Aleichem was a phenomenal observant author. His characters literally and truly demonstrate the manners of Eastern European Jews. Undoubtedly these youngsters in his story readily assumed that Charlie Chaplin was in fact a true son of their nation, already in 1915. But not all were so confident like Mottle and his fellows. In 1929 the Jewish kid David L. from Vilna wrote a letter to the editor of “Eaton Katan” a Hebrew weekly for children in Warsaw, Poland: I beg you to write to Pat and Patachon, Harold Lloyd and Tom Mix to come to Poland. I would like to meet them. I wonder how Tom Mix did it: he fought so many times, robbers always attacked him and yet he managed to come out of it healthy and complete in body! I send New Year’s greetings to Pat and Patachon for a year of redemption and salvation, because they are gentiles and their New Year eve was last week. Is it true that Charlie Chaplin is a Jew?
Unlike little David the editorial staff of the Jüdisches Lexikon [Jewish lexicon] printed in Berlin (1927) had no doubts as for the nationality of Chaplin. They were a unique group of Jewish intellectuals, active in academic, scientific and Zionist circles that marked in the entry of Chaplin, written by Dr. Ludwig Davidshon: One of the greatest actors of our time. Born in 1889 to an Eastern European Jewish family, that came to England in the mid 19th century, by the name of Thonstein. It seems to be that from this Lexicon this surprising piece of information went all over the world. Leo Glassman, who edited the “Biographical Encyclopedia of American Jews” (1935) in English, added some more details on the Thonstein family: Charles Spencer Chaplin, Motion Pictures comedian, Producer, Director, Author, born April 16,1889, in London. He is the son of Charles and Hanna Thonstein which professionally Known as Charles Chaplin and Lilly Harley. The Thonstein family came to London in 1850 from Eastern Europe. The father was a variety comedian and the mother a singer.  From German and English the story went on into Hebrew. The editors of the Encyclopedia Klallit [General Encyclopedia], published in Tel-Aviv (1935-1937), were also confident in Chaplin’s Jewish identity. They also were a very distinguished group of intellectuals and scientists that approved the entry: Chaplin Charlie (Charles Spencer), the best-known film actor in our time. He was Born 1889 in London, of Jewish Origin”. So did the Hebrew “Encyclopedia Klallit Izre’el” (1961), to follow the “Jewish” lead on Chaplin’s parents: Chaplin Charlie (Charles Spencer), born 1889 (London). He is an Anglo-American actor of Jewish origin. His parents Charles and Haya [Khaya] Thonstein came to London in 1850 from Eastern Europe. All these sources didn’t bother to corroborate this announcement and generations of Hebrew readers (as well as other languages) grasped it as a true fact supported by academic authorities. I have met a well-educated lady who told me that she learned in school in Israel that Charlie and Sydney Chaplin went to America as Jewish Immigrants. Among my childhood relics I cherish another example of the belief in the alleged Jewish birth of Chaplin. It is a pack of picture cards called “Images of famous Jewish personalities”, distributed by the Cigarettes Company “Kedem” [Orient] in the 1940’s, in pre-state Israel. Beside world famous figures like Albert Einstein, Max Brod, Jascha Heifetz, Lord Reading or film stars Paul Mooney, Elisabeth Bergner, Abel Gance and Johnny Weissmüller, card number114 bears up the smiling face of Charlie Chaplin.
It is a common occurrence that Anti-Semites exploit arguments used by Pro-Semites for their own false purpose. Thus we find Anti-Jewish writings that make use of the alleged Jewish connection of Chaplin to support their racist agitation that he is just another ugly offspring of this Jewish satanic nation. In Der Evige Jude [The Eternal Jew], 1937, an album published by the Nazi party of Germany, the inscription for Chaplin’s photograph contains, “The Galician Charles Chaplin (whose mother was born Thonstein)”. Later on, in the Anti-Semitic documentary film Der Evige Jude (1940) cinema industry was presented by the Nazi propaganda as the playground of Jewish intellectuals. In order to show how deep they had infiltrated into the cultural life of Aryan Germany the film narration added: Even the Jew Chaplin was accepted in his visit to Berlin by an enthusiastic audience. By a strange twisted way the American FBI embraced this attitude towards Chaplin in its campaign against the “Reds” in the 1950’s (along with Eastern European Anti-Jewish pogroms organizers practice to label all Jews as born Communists). FBI Investigators referred to Chaplin as “Israel Thonstein” and reports on him were generally headed, “alias Charlie Chaplin, alias Israel Thonstein”. The same approach was adopted by several American writers who spread the poisonous equation “Jew = enemy to society”, like Frank L. Britton or George Lincoln Rockwell who wrote: At first glance, it is very difficult to see why a man who has enjoyed such largesse and wealth from America as Chaplin could possibly be a Communist. But we have only to learn one fact, the same fact you will find at the bottom of almost all Communist activities, to understand "Charlie Chaplin's" Communist tendencies: Chaplin's real name is ISRAEL THORNSTEIN, and he is neither an American nor an Englishman -- BUT A JEW! They and others labeled Chaplin as Israel Thonstein, a Jew that was passing as a gentile in order to infiltrate into American Christian society and harm it from within. À propos, some researchers suggested that the presumption of Chaplin‘s half-brother Sydney being half-Jew (son of Sydney Hawks, a Jewish booking agent) had been used to annoy Chaplin.
To-day biographers of Chaplin clearly agree that he was born April 16,1889, in London, to Charles and Hanna Chaplin (nee Hill) and he had no Jewish connection. But the old story never dies. For instance, the “Neue Lexikon des Judentums” (2000 Edition) re-cycled the old Davidshon’s entry of Chaplin from 1927: Chaplin, Charlie (Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin), Actor, Director, Author, Producer, Composer, Born 16. 4. 1889 London Died 25. 12.1977, Vevey, Schweiz. The son of Eastern-Europe emigrants to Great Britain. And in 1997, sixty-eight years after little David (Lithuania) asked if Chaplin was a Jew, we find that Andrea Penkower Rosen (USA) inquired by the web on behalf of her Brother Dr. Monty L. Penkower if Charlie Chaplin had Jewish ancestry. The answer was: See Hannah Arendt, the Jew as Pariah, in A. Cohen, ed., Arguments and Doctrines. Arendt states that Chaplin was not Jewish. She then proceeds to analyze his film persona as a Jewish character. Of course, only one of his film characters was explicitly identified as Jewish, namely the non-title role in his wartime The Great Dictator “. Ms. Penkower and her Brother are only two out of many other inquirers still looking for an answer on the same question at Q&A sites on the internet. In many cases the answer is still “Chaplin is a Jew”, like this Spanish entry on the Internet: En el seno de una humilade familia de actors Judios.
Arendt is only one of a long line of writers which analyze Chaplin as a “Jewish character”. One of the most amazing expressions of the “Jewish Chaplin” myth I know of is a Hebrew humoresque from 1932, The Child Chaplin (new evidence to his life history). It was published in the pre-state Israeli illustrated magazine “Callnoa” [=all in movement]. According to the writer this document was based on facts revealed to him by a reliable witness. Read and laugh (or cry).
Young Chaplin while performing with “The Eight Lancashire Lads”, c. 1899
(New facts about his life)
By: Sh. Earnest
Charlie Chaplin, the most famous actor in the world who is familiar to young and old, to men and women, is remarkably good in capturing the comical aspect of human nature. This is the core of his incompatible artistic power. But despite his world-wide fame many details of his life story are still unknown. Luckily a tremendous discovery has been made recently. Mrs. Perkoff, a relative of Chaplin from London, now in Tel-Aviv, revealed to us the till now concealed interesting facts that prove to be crucial for the understanding of the wonderful personality of this genius artist.
Charlie Chaplin was born April 16, 1889, in London. His father was a typical Jew of the East End, who migrated in the mid 19th century from Russia to London. Already in his childhood young Chaplin was distinguished by his successful mimicry and exclusive imitation talent of the Jewish specific mannerism; the despaired melancholy, Jewish tragic, etc. His genial traits caused him many disputes with his father and a lot of grief to his family.
Many of his father’s immigrant fellows used to come to his home for a cup of tea and to talk of old times and country. Every one of them brought with him the specific manners and habits, modes of speech and uniqueness of his homeland. Young Chaplin observed them in order to learn their mannerisms and the way they spoke. Soon after they left he used to impersonate them. His imitations were so accurate that there was hardly a difference between him and these Jews. If he wore a long coat and grew a beard he would have been just like them. His father used to reprimand him, “What is the matter with you Charlie, Have you no respect to your elders? It is an outrage! Don’t you ever dare to do it again, do you listen to me?” But when his father left home Charlie went on with his play with more intensity and success because now he was sure that nobody would interrupt him.
The same happened in the “Kheyder” where Charlie studied in his childhood. He used to copy every movement and grimace of the Rabbi, from the chanting of the Pentateuch to the blowing of his nose, till all the pupils burst into laughter. Because of Charlie’s clowning the kids didn’t pay much attention to the subject of learning. The Rabbi turned to Charlie “Can you tell me where are we in the Pentateuch?” Charlie put his hand on the big book, spoke earnestly in an accurate imitation of the voice and grimaces of the Rabbi, “Here, Rabbi, here”. Once and again the Rabbi complained to Charlie’s mother that his mimics and imitations disturb the course of the class. The mother always answered that she could do nothing and that in home they suffered from his behavior too.
A notable event with Chaplin was when a famous cantor came to London to pray in the synagogue of Whitechaple. The cantor prayed with great will and devotion and performed his praying “by broken heart”. His bitter sighs touched the soul of the worshippers and they all sighed together with him. Charlie imitated him with wonderful accuracy and great success. A vast crowd gathered by his home windows and in an intense attention and bated breath heard this “show” that reflected the eternal Jewish pain mingled with Jewish humor and the humor of the ghetto mixed with the Jewish sore laugh. Here we can already see Charlie Chaplin the humorist of the Jewish ghetto.
The hallmark of Chaplin’s ingenuity is to surround us by a strange feeling that brings us to tears in spite of his cheerful sticky laugh. Such a comic nature could grow only on the ground of the sufferable Jewish reality. Only the contrasts of Jewish life could create such wonderful figure of an artist. Chaplin symbolizes the Jewish life in the exile, full of sadness and melancholy but yet does not worry about tomorrow. He characterizes the Jew that lives poor life but never loses hope and looks forward for better days. The genius acting of the genius person Charlie Chaplin reveals to the spectator all the complexity of Jewish life.
It was remarkable that in the same volume and on the same pages of the magazine another biographical item of Chaplin was published, “My life story”, a personal account by the actor himself. In a typical public relations office product the great comedian told of his life from the day he was born till after the filming of City Lights (1931). The gap between these two pieces of history is immense. The only information they shared was date of birth and the East End of London as Charlie Chaplin’s childhood environment. They differed in all other details. Such an occurrence brings up the question of what is the idea of pressing such extremely different two life-stories of Chaplin together. And why the evidently “true” story of the Jewish child Chaplin was written in the first place?
The writer of “The child Charlie Chaplin (new facts about his life)” was the Hebrew humorist Shimon Earnest. Although it seemed to the common reader’s eye as a realistic reportage it was in fact a masterpiece of fiction, a fantasy. In order to attract the reader and win his full attention he disguised it as a journalistic scoop, a success of a reporter to unveil the secrets that till then were hidden. To credit his article with more reliability Earnest invented the figure of Mrs. Perkoff, next-of-kin to Charlie’s family, and put her in the role of the teller of the story that was clearly based on the Chaplin’s entry in the Jüdisches Lexikon. He also inserted some true facts of Chaplin’s life. The real birth date for one, the poor quarter of the East End as his childhood place and the comic talent of the child Chaplin. The episode of the imitation of the cantor reminded the biographical episode in which the child Chaplin had impersonated his Mother. On the other hand, Earnest used pure fiction when he described Chaplin’s home as a typical orthodox Jewish family nest where his Mother and Father took good care of him and tried to make “A Mentch” out of him. But what was the point of this legendary tale of the young Chaplin as a Jewish unruly kid?
It is obvious that as a well-read man Earnest knew the true facts of Chaplin’s life as could be proved by the personal account of the actor himself published beside his article. My assumption is that Earnest wrote such a fantasy to illustrate the notion of the striking resemblance between the artistic nature of Charlie Chaplin and the phrasing of the Jewish fate and humor.
Shmaryahu Gorelick, an Yiddish writer, remarked in one of his essays: Chaplin’s Victories are in no time turn to be defeats [---] he has nothing but owns everything [---] Chaplin’s art is to cast a spell upon reality, to spread dreaminess on it, to cast scorn and derision on the inferno that people have made out of their lives. He has the most valuable human asset: the optimism, the belief that he has a lucky star that will redeem him from every mischief.  These attributes in Chaplin’s living art had captured the heart of the Jewish spectators as they felt his own fate was much like theirs. The Jewish audiences watched Chaplin’s constant fight against a hostile world that could be challenged only by wit and sharpness, just as they did and by the same results. They could easily identified Chaplin as their ally in the day-to-day struggle against “the entire world is my enemy” and to develop empathy for him in his role as the underdog of society. As a result they transposed their favorite gentile English clown to turn of the century Jewish ghetto court jester. One example for the application of this idea is to be found in a criticism on the Yiddish film Der Purimspieler (Poland, 1937), “The magnificent film acting of Zygmund Turkow who impersonating a Jewish-Chaplinian hero”. Turkow, one of the great actors on Yiddish and Hebrew stage, was presented just like the kid in Earnest’s article, a Jewish-Chaplinian hero.
In his article Earnest wanted to shed light on the mutual qualities of Chaplin’s art and Jewish humor and wit. He thought that the best way to do it was to write a fantastic story using an imaginary image of Chaplin as seemed to appear in the minds of his Jewish spectators. He had no problem with the two Chaplin’s biographies printed side by side. Chaplin’s own story was a real dry explicit description of the artist life. The article of Earnest “spread dreaminess” on it and explored the spiritual inner sight of the facts, describing Chaplin as a could-be representative of Jewish life on the screen. The match between the two issues just helped to emphasis the message Earnest wanted to send to his readers: “Chaplin symbolizes the Jewish life in exile, full of sadness and melancholy but yet does not worry about tomorrow. He characterizes the Jew that lives a poor life but never loses hope and looks forward for better days”.
On the set of “The Great Dictator”, 15 November 1939. From right to left: Reginald Gardiner, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin
It’s worth adding that the idea of “Chaplin the humorist of the Jewish ghetto” (1936) won a heavily support when he performed the role of the Jewish barber trying to survive in the Jewish ghetto in Nazi Germany (The Great Dictator,1940). That counts even to Chaplin himself, ”During World War II he stopped denying he was Jewish, since he felt that to do that was‚‘playing into the hands of Anti-Semites‘. Presumably he meant that denial implied shame“. It is amazing how many of the film spectators mistook his fictitious role for a performance of reality and concluded that the movie was produced by a Jew. ”As a non-Jewish, Chaplin had no equivocations in his determination to complete his film and to present it to the American public, although some adverse criticism also insisted that Charlie Chaplin was a Jew and his film was transparently Jewish propaganda.
I will conclude with an important remark: this article is dealing with Chaplin as an Ashkenazi Jew, but there is also a legend of Chaplin as a Sephardic Jew. It is a subject for another work.
Pictures by the courtesy of Mr. Livio Jacob, President of the festival of “Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto and were taken from the book: “Chaplin: 100 years 100 images 100 documents”.
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
I like your article enormously - I think it is a great contribution to Chaplin scholarship.
(The authorized biographer of Chaplin).
 Memories of Mordechai Zilber. The Memorial Book for the Jewish Community in Yurburg [Lithuania], p. 41. Published by the “Organization of Former Residents of Yurburg”, Tel-Aviv, Israel, 1991.
 Shalom Aleichem [Aleykhem] (pen name of Shalom Rabinovich), 1859-1916, the most famous Yiddish author.
 The expression “He is from the Seed of the Jews” is based on the Bible old teatament, The Scroll of Esther, Chapter 6, Verse 13.
 Vilna [Vilnius – The capital city of Lithuania]. Till the holocaust it was one of the most important centers of Yiddish and Hebrew culture, known as “Jerusalem of Lithuania”.
 Pat [stage name of Herald Madsen] 1890-1949, a Danish comedian, one of the film comedies pair Pat and Patachon.
 Patachon [stage name of Carl SchenstrØm] 1881-1942, a Danish comedian and the other partner of the pair Pat and Patachon.
 Harold Clayton Lloyd, 1893-1971, was one of the most famous comedians of the screen from silent films era to talkies.
 Tom Hezekiah Mix 1890-1940, was a famous western films hero of the silent film period.
 Eaton Katan [Little Newspaper], 19th Teyvet, year 5689 [1st January 1929], vol.15, p. 3.
 Jüdisches Lexikon, Ein Enzyklopädisches Handbuch Des Jüdisches Wissens in 4 Bänden. Founded and Edited by George Herlitz and Brunu Kirschner. 1st Edition by Jüdischer Verlag, Berlin, 1927. p. 1329.
 Dr. Ludwig Davidshon was a Jewish-German historian, writer, editor and publisher. I haven’t found any source to the name Thonstein. There were certain Jewish families in Eastern Europe named Thon, but no connection to Chaplin. The word Thonstein is used much in Geology as a name to Kaolin, Tuff or Clay stone. Why this name was attached to Chaplin is an unsolved riddle. Is it possible that the Jewish spectators of young Chaplin from the East End and Whitechaple nicknamed him by this name?
 Biographical Encyclopedia of American Jews, Editor: Leo. M. Glassman, Pub: Maurice Jacobs & Leo M. Glassman, New York, 1935, p.77.
 Encyclopedia Klallit, [in Hebrew], “Masada Publishing house”, Tel-Aviv, Palestine, 1937, Vol. 6, column 200.
 Encyclopedia Klallit Izre’el [in Hebrew], “Izre’el Publishing House Ltd.”, 1961, Volume 12, 6th edition, pp. 3581-3580.
 Mrs. Gabby Lövenstein of the “Göthe Institut” in Tel-Aviv (On January 10th 2002).
 Galicia – The southern-eastern part of Poland. In mid 19th century was under Austrian rule and had great Jewish population. One of their families was Thon, but I have failed to find any connection to Chaplin.
 Der Evige Jude [The Eternal Jew]. Zentral Verlag Der NSDAP, Münich, 1937. Ed. Franz Eher, Nachf.
 Der Evige Jude,1940, Germany, 62 min. Production: Film department of the Third Reich; Producer-Director: Fritz Hippler; Idea: Dr. Eberhardt Taubert; Supervision: Dr. Josef Göbbels.
 That was another Nazi practice to call all Jewish males by the collective name “Israel”.
 I am indebted to David Robinson for the citation.
 Frank L. Britton,Behind Communism, 1952 (?).
 George Lincoln Rockwell. White Power, Chapter 4.
 To the trivia lovers, according to the Jewish religious law the child goes after his Mother. Thus Sydney was not Jewish by the rules of Judaism. But by the Israeli “Law of Return” (1949) Sydney could have had the full rights of a newcomer and Israeli citizenship. Sydney himself never denied his Jewish ancestry.
 Hale Aaron: Chaplin, 1999 (on the Internet).
 Neue Lexikon des Judentums, Von Prof. Julius H. Schoeps (born 1942, a historian and German-Jewish cultural issues scholar), Red. Des Salomon Ludwig Steinhiem – inst. – Gütersloh; Münich: Bertelsmann – Lexikon Verlag. Band 2, page 97.
 Mail. Jewish Mailing List. Vol. 26, № 36, April 15,1997.
 Sic. Vol. 26, № 36, May 5, 1997.
 Carlos Bautista,”Cine Silent“ (Spanish site), 2006.
 The Child Charlie Chaplin (new evidence to his life history), by Sh. Earnest. ”Callnoa” fortnightly-illustrated magazine, 23 December 1932, vol. 26, pp.15-16. Tel-Aviv, Palestine. In Modern Hebrew pronunciation, the word “Callnoa” resembles “Kolnoa” – talking Cinema.
 This phrase reminds what Ludwig Davidshon wrote in Chaplin’s entry in the Jüdisches Lexikon (1927): By his laugh he pictures eternal sorrow, typical Jewish tragic mood, and mute disappointment that bring a very deep shock.
 “Kheyder” (the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word “Kheder”) means “Room”, the name for the classroom of the elementary stage of the Jewish traditional educational system. The teacher was called “Rabbi”.
 By Jewish tradition all Jews that live out of Israel are in the state of exile. The distribution of Jewish communities in the world is known by its Greek name: Diaspora.
 It was one chapter out of a series of film-stars telling their own life story.
 Shimon Ernest (1898-1967) – An Authorized Rabbi, educator, librarian, journalist, publicist and editor in Hebrew and Yiddish. He specialized in humoresques and satiric writings.
 A Mentch – in Yiddish: A Man. To make one “A Mentch” means to make him civilized, worthwhile, somebody.
 Shmaryahu Gorelick, (1877-1943), Journalist, essayist and writer in Russian and Yiddish. The citation is from his essay “Again with Chaplin”, an impression from the screening of “Modern Times”, 1936. Published by the author in the Hebrew translation of his collection of essays, Masot [“Essays”], Tel-Aviv, Palestine, 1937, pp.63-66.
 There are other cases of such transformation. One well-known example is “Mirele Efros – The Jewish Queen Lear”, filmed in 1930 (USA,B&W,80 min., D: Joseph Berne) after the Yiddish play of Jacob Gordin. In 1935, Harry Tomashefsky directed “The Yiddish King Lear” (USA, 86 Min, B&W) after the same play. Gordin (1853-1909) was Dramatist, Writer and Journalist in Yiddish, Russian and English, active in social reforms.
 Nowy Dziennik, 260 (1937). A Jewish paper in Polish. Purimspiler is an actor in Jewish popular and religious plays of the carnival of Purim (see: The Scroll of Esther).
 Mehlman, Harry Chaim. Is Charlie Chaplin Jewish? Mail. Jewish Mailing List. Vol. 26, № 40, May 7, 1997.
 Avisar, Ilan. Screening the Holocaust, 1988. Chapter 4, p 101. One of the outcomes was that several countries put a ban on the film, like Ireland and Argentina, not to mention Germany and Italy.