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.
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, 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.
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! 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.