Jewish Experience Study Abroad
JHVC -- International Jewry


International Jewry
International Jewry



At the Crossroads: Jews in Eastern Europe Today
Before World War II more than four million Jews lived in Eastern Europe, outside of the Soviet Union. Today only a handful are left. At the Crossroads searches for clues to the quality of life among the small numbers of Jews who remain. The filmmakers interviewed people in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia about what it is like to be Jewish in Eastern Europe today. Yale Strom, a young American klezmer violinist who conducted many of the interviews, encounteredmusicians who continue to play Jewish music in performance. Their per formances affirm the importance of music in defining Jewish identity. Also included is very moving footage of a concert in Budapest of American Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, performing for a large Hungarian audience. 1989, 59 mins. 

Chariots of Fire
While open discrimination against Jews did not exist in post-World War I England, antisemitism could be found in more subtle and genteel forms. I'm semi-deprived, says Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire, based on a true story. They lead me to water, but they won't let me drink. Called arrogant and defensive, he is a Cambridge student and the son of a Lithuanian Jew who can provide his sons with everything except total acceptance. Chariots of Fire tells the story of the British runners competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Abrahams and the Scotsman Eric Liddel run in the 100 meter race, each driven by personal passion: Liddel, a devout Christian, runs for the glory of God; Abrahams runs in anger and defiance to prove that he is ñas good an Englishman as any of them. Each ultimately finds his assumptions challenged as they prepare for the race of a lifetime. 1981, 124 mins. 

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, a bitter Civil War was fought between the Red Army Bolsheviks and the White Army. Many of the battles raged in areas of Jewish settlement, resulting in great devastation and, often, in widespread massacres by reactionary elements. Commissar, set against these events, was banned by the Soviet government for 21 years and was only given new life with the coming of Glasnost. A tough Red Army commander's military career is disrupted by an unwanted pregnancy. Forced to stay with a poor Jewish family until her child is born, she comes face to face with a different culture and finds herself transported by the warmth and compassion of her hosts. Ultimately, she is forced to make a most difficult decision: to rejoin her troops or stay with her child. 1967, 105 mins. 

East and West
East and West, a silent comedy made in Vienna in 1923, takes a satirical look at some of the stereotypes of the Jewish world shortly after World War I. It is the earliest extant film with Molly Picon, one of the most prominent actresses of Yiddish stage and film. Molly Brown, a young American woman, and her immigrant father, a wealthy businessman, are invited back to his Polish hometown for a family wedding. Molly finds her Old World relatives old-fashioned, while they are shocked by her modern, carefree ways. Molly's rebellious pranks are climaxed by a mock wedding, in which she unintentionally becomes married for real to a devout yeshiva student. The deed, it turns out, is not easily undone. 1923, 85 mins. 

Fiddler on the Roof
The brilliant and poignant musical Fiddler on the Roof astounded audiences and critics when it debuted on Broadway in 1964. This film adaptation, which was nominated for an Academy Award, serves to reaffirm the show's stature as one of the greatest musicals ever written. Based on Sholem Aleichem's stories, this fable takes place in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka. It follows a poor milkman named Tevye, who is loud and tender, strong and sentimental. Together with his wife, five daughters, and neighbors, Tevye struggles to preserve tradition in the face of religious persecution. Yet even as the hostile outside world encroaches, there is joy in Anatevka. Songs such as If I Were a Rich Man, Sunrise, Sunset, and Tradition are gems that lift the heart amid the tears. 1971, 180 mins. 

Get Thee Out!
Get Thee Out! is based on the stories of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, who wrote about shtetl characters in tsarist Russia, and the stories of Isaac Babel, who chronicled Jewish and Ukrainian life in Odessa. The film takes place at a time when political and popular antisemitism is endemic but so is a familiarity and accommodation between Jewish and Christian neighbors. Still, it is not unusual for a drinking partner to join a pogrom. Motl is a successful businessman who has just opened a dairy outside the shtetl. He wants to believe that with ña good head and a pair of hands, everything is possible. After all, his habits and appetites are not so different from those of his neighbors. Indeed, the son of his Christian friend Ivan is courting his daughter. Yet Motl can never feel secure, and this affects the wrenching choice he makes at the end. 1991, 90 mins. 

Homage to Chagall: The Colors of Love
Throughout his life, painter Marc Chagall drew upon his Jewish roots for inspiration. Born in tsarist Russia in 1887, Chagall derived much of his artistic sensibility from his shtetl childhood. In his 98 years, he painted hundreds of scenes from the Bible in a distinctive fairy-tale style Ü dreamy and unpretentious, with sublime color. Narrated by James Mason, Homage to Chagall celebrates the artist's life and work. An extensive interview with the artist and his wife at their home in Southern France reveals his deep affection for the poetry of the Bible, and his faith in the Jewish people. Throughout the film, we see hundreds of examples of Chagall's work, from paintings to stained glass windows. 1977, 90 mins. 

Image Before My Eyes
Before World War II Poland was the largest and most important center of Jewish creativity, scholarship, and culture in the world. Jews had lived in Poland since the twelfth century, and in 1939 Poland's 3.5 million Jews comprised about one-tenth of the population. Image Before My Eyes depicts the full spectrum of Jewish life in Poland from remote villages and small towns to major cities, from the traditionally pious to the ardently secular. It shows the great range of Jewish involvement in political and cultural movements such as bundism, Zionism, and anarchism, and in the creation and sustenance of educational and social institutions. Through interviews, photographs, and rare and remarkable film footage, the film pieces together a warm and evocative portrait of Jewish life in Poland between the wars. 1980, 90 mins. 

Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler's House*
If there's any kind of music I can call my own, it's klezmer music. Of course, I haven't done it before Ü but I like the adventure. So begins this entertaining and poignant documentary, in which the classical violinist Itzhak Perlman explores his roots and plays some terrific music with top klezmer bands. Red Buttons and the actor Fyvush Finkel share some Yiddish vaudeville numbers and memories. Klezmer was the music of European Jewry, and with that world's destruction, klezmer too was almost eradicated. But some dedicated American artists have introduced to a new generation this music that is soaked with Jewish joy, pathos, and dancing energy. For Perlman, it is the music of his Polish-born parents and his childhood; within minutes of fiddling with it, he's at home. The film travels to Cracow, Poland, where Perlman meets klezmer musician Leopold Kozlowski, and to the wedding of Perlman's daughter, where klezmer contributes to the joyous celebration. 1995, 55 mins. 

The Last Marranos
In the late fifteenth century, the glory of Sephardic Jewry on the Iberian peninsula came to an end. In 1492, the Jews of Spain were expelled; in 1497, the Jews of Portugal forcibly converted. Now they were subject to the Inquisition's harsh punishment for heresy. Despite the danger, however, many of the converted called marranos (or pigs) by Christians continued to secretly practice Judaism. Five centuries later, The Last Marranos takes a fascinating look at the village of Belmonte, Portugal. Its rites and prayers are an amalgam of Christianity and bits of Judaism tenaciously preserved through the ages, a tradition that bears the scars of history distorted by clandestine practice and couched in symbols of fear. Now, brought into the open and reacquainting itself with mainstream Judaism, the community faces a new challenge. 1990, 65 mins. 

Mirele Efros
No playwright had more impact on the character of the Yiddish theater than Jacob Gordin. Gordin was born in the Ukraine and moved to New York at the turn ofthe century. On New York's Jewish rialto, his plays became renowned for their sophisticated narratives that expounded on the ideals of menschlichkeit the practice of honesty, decency, and devotion to family and community. Mirele Efros, often called the Jewish Queen Lear, is considered Gordin's masterwork. It tells the story of a pious widow named Mirele who handpicks a wife for her oldest son, Yossele. But after the wedding, Mirele discovers that her new daughter-in-law, Shaindele, is selfish and conniving. The resulting conflict between mother, son, and wife provides fertile ground for exploration of themes inherent in Gordin's works. 1939, 80 mins. 

Operation Moses
For more than 2,500 years the Jews of Ethiopia lived cut off from their people, believing themselves to be the last remnant of the religion they fiercely preserved. A strong nation within the African continent, it was not until 300 years ago that they were subjugated by their neighbors, stripped of their landowner status, and forbidden to practice their religion. Nevertheless, they struggled to observe, and shared with Jews worldwide a desire to return to Zion. Return began with a trickle following the founding of the State of Israel. When famine ravaged sub-Saharan Africa in the mid 1980s, many of Ethiopia's Jews were forced from their villages in an attempt to find food and refuge from political oppression. Families were shattered, and many died along the way. But the international Jewish community responed, clandestinely assisting their flight and resettlement in Israel. Operation Moses describes this saga. 1985, 27 mins. 

Prisoner of Honor
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French artillery, was convicted of betraying military secrets and sentenced to life imprisonment. Four years later, the evidence used in his trial was exposed as a forgery, but it was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was exonerated. The case became a cause cÚl¶bre in French political and intellectual circles and focused world attention on antisemitism in an enlightened democratic nation. Prisoner of Honor dramatizes the reopening of the case by Col. Georges Picquart (played by Richard Dreyfuss), the new head of Counterintelligence, whose code of honor is stronger than his personal distaste for Jews. Ultimately, one man's conscience forces a nation to face its prejudices. 1991, 88 mins. 

Routes of Exile: A Moroccan Jewish Odyssey
Since Jewish traders settled in the Land of the Berbers more than 2,000 years ago, Moroccan Jewry has had a unique culture, mingling Jewish and North African influences. It also constitutes one of the most successful models of political and religious coexistence in the Islamic world. But with the upheavals of the twentieth century, the question is whether Moroccan Jewry will retain its character and identity into the twenty-first century. Routes of Exile traces the history of this branch of Jewry from the first Berber Jews to the vast migration and new tensions set off by the creation of the State of Israel. The film takes a particularly probing look at the most recent stage of the journey social and political changes in Israel, the struggle for identity in France and Canada, and the increasing isolation of the remnant that remains behind in Morocco. 1982, 90 mins. 

The character of Tevye the Dairyman originated a century ago in a series of stories by Shloime Rabinovitz (1859-1916), the immensely popular Yiddish writer who went by the pen name Sholem Aleichem. Some of the Tevye stories were adapted for the stage and silent screen by Aleichem before his death. Much later they were seen in musical form in Fiddler on the Roof, the tremendously successful American play and film. This Tevye, directed by and starring the great Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz, is considered a classic of the Yiddish cinema. It focuses on the story of Chava, one of Tevye's daughters, who falls in love with a Ukrainian peasant who reads Gorky. The film explores issues of assimilation and intermarriage, tradition and modernity, as well as antisemitism and the future of Jewish existence. Made in New York on the eve of World War II, the film depicts a life that was already threatened. 1939, 80 mins. 

The role of women in Judaism is an issue that has become the focus of considerable attention in recent years, but it has always been a source of frustration for some. Yentl, directed by and starring Barbra Streisand, tells the story of a determined and resourceful Jewish girl who wants to study the Torah. However, in the traditional society in which she lives, in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, girls are forbidden Torah study. So Yentl masquerades as a boy, and gains entrance to a Yeshiva, where she learns much about her religion and herself. Based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, this movie explores the limits that religion can place on people, and questions the wisdom of exclusion and separation by showing how a person can find fulfillment and love by ignoring the constraints of social convention. 1983, 134 mins. 

©2003 Jewish Studies Program, Michigan State University. Read about the images on this site.