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.

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