Saturday, January 19, 2019

Who Will Write Our History

Brief post to say I have a think piece up at Tablet about the remarkable new movie Who Will Write Our History. The movie is part dramatization, part documentary, which manages to balance story telling with traditional talking heads. In the piece I argue that WWWOH isn't just essential viewing, it can, and should, make us reevaluate the state of Holocaust education.

Today, as even the youngest generation of survivors reaches old age, anxiety about the disappearance of firsthand testimony has risen, and we’re seeing more public concern about a looming demographic reality: “The youngest survivors are in their mid-70s, with most in their 80s and 90s. In a future no longer beyond the horizon, no one will remain to testify firsthand to Nazi Germany’s systematic effort to exterminate the Jews in the territory it controlled.”  
Some have turned to technology to fight the clock. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center recently unveiled their New Dimensions in Testimony oral history project, featuring holograms of 15 Holocaust survivors. Each of the 15 participants has gone through a rigorous filming and testimony process, making it possible for museumgoers and students to ‘interact’ with the simulated survivors.
There’s no question that first person survivor testimony will continue to have an important place in contemporary Holocaust education for Jews and non-Jews. But the release of Who Will Write Our History has the potential to effect a sea change in the way we think about Holocaust education. Indeed, I would go so far as to call it the most important Holocaust movie in decades. Who Will Write Our History is the first Holocaust documentary that centers victim stories along with the written and visual materials they created to document their lives.

Of course a 90 minute movie cannot begin to communicate the whole story of the Oyneg Shabes as told by Sam Kassow’s book or the vast treasures of the archive. This beautiful and sensitively done documentary adaptation of Kassow's book is, in a sense, an appetizer, an introduction to the story that is only now finally available to Jews all over the world. We should see it as an invitation to rethink our relationship to the Jews of Poland, not as a faceless mass of victims created between 1939 and 1945, but individuals shaped by life before the war, and who fought to live, and die, with dignity.

Who Will Write Our History is playing now at Quad Cinema and theaters around the country.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Three Identical Strangers

I have a new piece up at Hey Alma about one of 2018's most intriguing documentaries, Three Identical Strangers. I found the movie compelling, but, as you will see in my analysis, I was disappointed that the filmmakers didn't, or couldn't, explore the particular Jewish dimensions of the story:
Three Identical Strangers is a story about power: the power of social service agencies to create, and destroy, families, as well as the power of the scientific establishment to turn human beings into subjects. One of the urgent questions raised by the movie is what, if anything, will it take to force the powerful to admit fault to the powerless? 
That all the players in the triplets’ story — social service agency, scientists, parents, babies, even the newspaper editor who broke the story — were themselves Jewish, makes the whole thing even more disturbing. In this story, rather than conflict between Jews and non-Jews, the key distinctions fall along lines of social standing, education, and class. And yet, the filmmakers seem reluctant to explore the deep, complicated Jewishness of the story.

There's one aspect of the story, or my take on it, that didn't make it into the piece. Three Identical Strangers is a movie propelled by the question of nature versus nurture and the belief that the nature/nurture equation could be solved if we just had enough data. 

But what seems equally important to me is a third variable, self-knowledge. The ability for a human being to know who they are, and where they come from, is as crucial to the fulfillment of human potential as genes or environmental blessings. The triplets and twins in Peter Neubauer’s study were cruelly denied that self-knowledge.

In 2019, American Jews, especially those of Ashkenazi heritage, are similarly adrift, cut off from their specific histories. If you've been a reader here before, you already know the many ways and wherefores of this situation. I was reminded again of our dilemma of historical amnesia at the gorgeous, recently closed Jewish Museum exhibit CHAGALL LISSITZKY MALEVICH. The exhibit, on tour from the Centre Pompidou, is a fascinating look at the city of Vitebsk, a second tier provincial city which, for a few years, was at the cutting edge of modern art. What you don't get from the exhibit, though, is that the city was almost 50% Jewish and Yiddish speaking. 

I'll bring just one example of how the exhibit misses an opportunity to bring out the particular Yiddish quality of Vitebsk and its art scene. An entire set of Lissitzky's Had Gadya lithographs is on display. It was published by the Yiddish language culture organization the Kultur-Lige. The lithographs themselves are captioned with the Yiddish words on top and the Aramaic on the bottom.

iz gekumen di kats un fartsukt dos tsigele
At the Jewish Museum, however, the explanatory cards that accompany the series of lithographs only refer to the Aramaic text. I started grumbling out loud and ended up talking to a couple of older ladies next to me. They had no idea that there was Yiddish in the illustrations, or even that Yiddish was written with Hebrew letters. 

If the curators can't even be bothered to accurately describe the artworks, no wonder they describe the Kultur-Lige-  the Yiddish cultural organization of the early post-Revolution period par excellence-  as "an organization that promoted Jewish culture."


Despite the care and resources put into the show, these errors of omission end up obscuring as much as they illuminate, and for an American Jewish public, which, in the main, cannot tell the difference between Aramaic and Yiddish, this is yet another tragic missed opportunity to educate.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Very un-Yiddish Scandal

I'm two-thirds of the way through the new Amazon Prime mini-series A Very English Scandal and let me say, I'm kind of obsessed. I'm not usually that interested in political scandal stories, but if you're any kind of Anglophile, you will be sucked in immediately by its dry, semi-horror semi-comic tone, sweeping green vistas, and numerous cozy pubs. In between the buggery, attempted murder and the endless search for one National Insurance card. Also, Hugh Grant is a revelation as Jeremy Thorpe.

But, this isn't about that. First, let me say, there's absolutely nothing Jewish about A Very English Scandal. Isn't that the whole point of being an Anglophile? The fantasy world where one's own angst is blissfully non-existent?


I was indeed taken aback in episode one, when the Hugh Grant character (Jeremy Thorpe) takes his new would-be lover, Norman Scott, back to his *mother's* house and, once there, woos him (??) by playing this duet with his mother, I mean, Ursula.

(Apologies for the very stupidly shot video. Stay with me.)

Anyone who's spent a minute in the world of klezmer would recognize this tune, sometimes labeled as a Cirba and usually as Hora Staccato. I know it from versions by Moishe Oysher, Oysher and the Barry Sisters, as well as Dave Tarras. 

Here's Moishe Oysher and the Barry Sisters absolutely killing it. Apologies for the video; I couldn't find the version I wanted on Youtube. 

In the past, it had never occurred to me that this tune that felt so incredibly Yiddish might actually be... not.

But, it did occur to me just now, when the producers of A Very English Scandal decided to use it for a particular emotional moment. This very powerful man, Thorpe, has brought home a very vulnerable younger man, Scott, and is in the process of wooing- or more like wowing- him into doing what he wants. But, still, it struck me as odd that the producers would choose this tune, of all things, for that moment, especially when Hugh Grant appears to be struggling to keep up with his violin finger miming. Why pick a piece that was so difficult to pull off? And so Jewish??? 

A little more research showed me that this Hora Staccato is not by Moishe Oysher, or even Dave Tarras, but was composed in 1906 by a Roma violin virtuoso named Grigoraș Dinicu. The tune probably gained its greatest fame with another virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz often saved Hora Staccato as a show stopping encore number.

So, that makes a lot more sense. Thorpe was a very confident, indeed, arrogant man. Of course he'd pull out a literal virtuosic show stopper to try to impress his young friend, and of course he'd think he had the chops to pull it off. Faster, he cries. That moment so perfectly encapsulates Thorpe's arrogance and vanity, some of the very qualities that would, we know now, end his career in total ignominy.

Anyway, Hora Staccato is a great tune. And I'm glad I can give props to the real composer, the great Grigoraș Dinicu.