Monday, July 21, 2008

Wandering Jews

Each year, as one browses through the program for the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, one wonders if films should be divided into a section that deals with Jewish life before the creation of the state of Israel and what life has been like for Jews since the creation of the state of Israel. Following the flight of the Jews from Egypt -- and their 40-year trek through the desert -- from the Holocaust until May 14, 1948, Jews were essentially without a homeland. Sixty years after the state of Israel declared its independence, the Middle East remains a hotbed of seething tensions.

When one thinks about Jews taking a voyage on the Queen Elizabeth, the ship that instantly comes to mind is the famed Cunard superliner. However, it was a riverboat named Queen Elizabeth, traveling up and down the Danube during the 1940s, that played a pivotal role in the lives and deaths of many European Jews.

Directed by Peter Forgacs, The Danube Exodus focuses on the plight of Jews from Poland and Bessarabia who sought to escape from the Nazis by traveling down the Danube River. Using the home movies taken by the ship's captain. Nándor Andrásovits (who was an amateur photographer), Forgacs captures the sense of casual luxury aboard the Erzsébet Királyné in good times, the growing sense of uneasiness aboard a boat filled with Polish Jews trying to make their way to Palestine, and the restless confusion as Bessarabian Jews are transported back up the Danube to occupy previously-evacuated Polish settlements before being sent to concentration camps.

The intimacy of the footage, which captures both the good times (dancing, an on-board wedding and great camaraderie) as well as bad times (what happened when the Erzsébet Királyné remained stuck in international waters as local customs officials succumbed to pressure from the Germans not to let its passengers disembark) is heartbreaking. In an odd way, the amateur touches of Andrásovits's home movies give the audience a perverse, almost voyeuristic, look at history gone wrong. Indeed, when the first boatload of Polish Jews eventually made its way to the Black Sea -- and from there to Palestine -- they were arrested by British authorities soon after they landed.

Forgacs' film (first released in 1999), which documents a slow and increasingly grim picture of river transport up and down the Danube, will certainly have a deep impact on viewers. Its effect is similar to what happens when one cooks a lobster. Rather than throwing the lobster into boiling water which will cause it to react in shock, by slowly raising the temperature of the water one can essentially lull the lobster into a warm and only mildly befuddled death.

By contrast, Paula Weiman-Kelman's documentary Eyes Wide Open focuses on the experiences shared by modern American Jews who visit Israel and discover they must deal with a variety of emotional conflicts. The increasingly militant state of today's Israel offers a less rosy picture than the heady days of the 1960s, when a musical like Jerry Herman's Milk & Honey could seem like such a refreshing breath of sabra life for American audiences.

While some of the tourists interviewed in this documentary are making their first trip to Israel, others are returning yet again to a place which gives them renewed spiritual strength, where they feel free to probe deeper into their identities as Jews. Whether orthodox or secular, straight or gay, they find themselves thrust by circumstances into the Talmudic tradition of asking questions of themselves, of the people around them, and last, but certainly not least, of God.

Emotional conflicts rise to the surface, whether due to the erection of a wall meant to separate Israelis and Palestinians or because of the onset of war with Lebanon. While some tourists are ecstatic to be on Israeli soil, others find themselves torn between a loyalty to Zionism and the plight of the Palestinians. Regardless of where one's emotions lie, it makes the relative safety, luxury and comfort of American Jews a reason for deep reflection.

One of the delights shared by San Franciscans who attend screenings at the Castro Theater is the moment when the theater's organist segues into the song (which has long been a local anthem) composed by Bronislaw Kaper and made famous by Jeannette MacDonald. Bay area filmgoers merrily sing along with the music and clap their hands in rhythm whenever this tune is played on the mighty Wurlitzer organ. But take a moment to read Gus Kahn's lyric aloud:

San Francisco, open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door.
San Francisco, here is your wanderin' one
Saying "I'll wander no more."

Then, just for a minute, stop and think how lucky we are to live in what so many people derisively refer to as a "sanctuary city."

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