Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Future of the Past of Yiddish Cinema

My latest Golden City is up and in honor of this summer's Film Forum retrospective **, it's all about Yiddish Cinema.

In the last few years we’ve seen a mini-explosion of new films entirely or partly in Yiddish: Felix and MeiraRomeo and Juliet in Yiddish, and Menashe to name a few. I asked Sara Feldman, preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University, what she thought these films had to say about the future of Yiddish cinema. Feldman teaches a course on Yiddish cinema at Harvard, one of few such academic courses in the world. She told me that “much of the current revival of Yiddish film is not conscious of its connection to classic Yiddish films, but rather emerges from a desire to portray the lives of contemporary Yiddish-speakers in Haredi communities. …”

It's understandable that filmmakers will be inexorably drawn to the stories of the modern Hasidic community. It's an exotic world apart, right there in the middle of Brooklyn. And it also makes sense that those who want to create new Yiddish drama will set their stories in a community where the presence of Yiddish is natural. But it's a challenging proposition for outsiders to pull off.

First, there's the question of who will be in their Yiddish movie? A number of fine Yiddish speaking actors have emerged from the ex-Hasidic community recently. As I was researching this latest column I messaged my friend Eli Rosen. He's in Berlin right now shooting a new mini-series based loosely on the story of Deborah Feldman, a Hasidic woman who left the community and moved to Germany. The production is in English and Yiddish. Eli only started acting recently but he's been busy with many Yiddish speaking roles, appearing in numerous plays, tv shows, independent films and more.

Then there's the question of the outsider's gaze upon the Hasidic world. There's a very real danger of falling into romantic and exoticising tropes about the 'tragic' lives of those on the inside. And filmmakers who don't speak Yiddish may end up making artistic choices that create unintended subtexts, as in Menashe. The director chose to cast one of the main roles with an actor who came from outside Hasidic Brooklyn and speaks a distinctly different kind of Yiddish. Young Ruvn Niborski was a fantastic find for the role of Menashe's son, but his presence is an interesting slippage of the mimetic veneer of what I called the first Yiddish mumblecore

I spoke to Harvard Yiddish professor Saul Noam Zaritt about Menashe and the figure of the Hasid in modern Yiddish cinema. He pointed out that it was Menashe Lustig (who plays Ruvn's father, the title role of Menashe) who had to conform his Yiddish to Ruvn's, because young Ruvn wasn't going to be able to speak Borough Park Yiddish. This raises questions about the impossibility of 'authenticity' of modern Yiddish cinema as it tries to square the circle of 'ethnographic fiction.' “This authenticity is so important to the film maker trying to repair the objectification of the Hasidic figure. But in clinging to this authenticity they usually reconstitute these objectifications.”

Zaritt told me, “Menashe is a movie that begins from a documentary perspective, and so it evokes a sense of perfect mimesis. All parts of the film have to conform to that conceit, even if the reality is a bit messier.” The film “invades his most intimate of worlds”, yet Menashe Lustig as Menashe the movie character “must change the way he speaks in order for it to remain legible as ‘Yiddish’ film, in order to preserve the sanctity and coherence of that world.” 

I don't think outsiders should stop trying to make movies about the Hasidic/Haredi world, but it's important we unpack the narrative and cinematic implications of outsiders telling these stories. 

One story I'd love to see told in Yiddish is that of Sarah Schenirer, mystic visionary, mother of the Bais Yakov school system. I see her story as akin to another mystical visionary who joined a community of women: Hildegard of Bingen, a woman powered by wild talents and driven to serve God in radical ways. Surely there's some former Bais Yakov girl out there who went to film school and watched too many Ken Russell films...

...Eric Goldman started researching his foundational book Visions, Images & Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present in the late '70s, when any scholarship on the field was scattershot and difficult to find, forget about actually locating the movies! Since then, there has been some amount of scholarship on Yiddish cinema, including J. Hoberman's essential Bridge of Light. But the corpus of Yiddish film has exploded in the last few years, and even Goldman's 2010 revised edition is now out of date. Given recent exciting developments in academic Yiddish studies overall (as with the journal In Geveb) it looks like the scholarly study of Yiddish film may finally catch up. When I asked Harvard's Sara Feldman where she saw the academic study of Yiddish film going, she said "...I expect that the new generation of young, queer Yiddishists will expand the work that has already begun regarding queer subtexts in Yiddish film..." At this point I have to give a shout out to drummer, bandleader and film archivist Eve Sicular, who has been researching and presenting on queerness in Yiddish cinema for years and really laid the groundwork. She speaks frequently on the Yiddish celluloid closet and has generally broadened the way we think about the tradition. She's also a maven of movie music in general and if you're in DC this week, you can catch her Music in Yiddish Cinema lecture and concert at the JxJ festival

LATE ADDITION**I just learned that there will a couple very special pre-screening events including:  
Sunday 26 May at 3:50 - Shane Baker introduces The Dybbuk  
Wednesday 5 June at 12:30 - Shane Baker sings comic Yiddish songs with Steve Sterner at the piano as an introduction to American Matchmaker  
Sunday 30 June at 1:35 pm - Shane Baker recites the Yiddish bullfight poem by way of introduction to Overture to Glory
Sunday 23 June at 3:10 - Yiddish film historian Jim Hoberman introduces Mir Kumen On 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Archival Treasures

My latest GOLDEN CITY is up and it celebrates the hidden heroes of the Yiddish world: the archivists. Really, it was just an excuse to go downtown and finally see the new home of the Forverts and, most importantly, hang out with Forverts archivist, Chana Pollack. 

(1944 Forward Association board ballot, courtesy of the Forverts photo archive)

I won't say too much about my visit with Chana because I want you to read the column. But even given the ups and downs the Forverts archive has been through, its very existence something of a gorgeous miracle. In this age of declining heritage media, it’s far from certain that a publication will even be able to retain its own archive. The recent case of Johnson Publishing, the parent company of Jet and Ebony, is an object lesson in the vulnerability of magazine archives..

Since 1942 Johnson has been the owner and publisher of Ebony and Jet. Over the decades it assembled an astounding archive of some five million photographs. (Compare that to the 40,000 photos held by the Forward, many of which were purchased from news services.) As the climate turned sour for magazines in the last few years, Johnson Publishing tried to use its photo archive to stabilize its finances. It first tried to sell the archive outright and then used it as collateral for a loan from a venture capitalist firm. That firm happened to be run by Mellody Hobson, a high powered financier who happens to be married to a director you might have heard of, George Lucas. 

Johnson Publishing ended up defaulting on the loan. The latest news from various law suits related to Johnson's finances make it look like the photo archive will be acquired by Hobson and Lucas. In recent court filings, they argued that, despite the archive’s high-tech preservation system, it was sitting on uninsured rental property and thus incredibly vulnerable. That may be lawsuit filing exaggeration but... still. Y i k e s.

This article says the archive may yet end up in a museum. It’s not a terrible outcome, or rather, no worse than the many sad endings of many other beloved publications and their associated commodifiable assets. Ebony and Jet will continue in some form, with new owners. But considering how integral their photographs were to their identity, their future seems questionable. The archive will take on a new kind of life elsewhere, possibly with a new audience for its riches.  

But consider this: At one point Johnson Publishing was the largest African-American owned business in the country. Its photography documented the Civil Rights struggle and won Pulitzer Prizes. Johnson’s five million photograph collection is far larger than the 300,000 photographs at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the mere 37,000 items held by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Johnson Publishing’s photo archive could be the largest extant photographic archive documenting African-American life. Its dispersal via lawsuit may turn out to have serious, unintended consequences. The constitution and control of archives are of utmost importance in writing history, all the more so when it comes to minorities and marginalized peoples. 

I'm reminded again that with no Office of Patrimony (or something similar), precious American historical materials can end up at the mercy of the free market.  As legacy publications face uncertain futures in the face of declining ad revenues (and the domination of social media)  I hope that the story of Johnson Publishing's photo archive will spur a conversation between commercial publications and archival and museum specialists. How can these different sectors come together to make long term plans for commercial archives?It remains to be seen...