Monday, July 7, 2008

What Kind of Jew Am I?

If there is one thing that can drive a Jew crazy, it's questioning his or her identity. If you try to distinguish between an American Jew, a European Jew and then add the concept of an "Arabic Jew" to the discussion, a heated argument will surely ensue. Two documentaries to be screened at the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival tackle complex Jewish identities and examine them through new and questioning lenses.

Rachel Leah Jones, the Berkeley-based director/producer of Ashkenaz, interviews a wealth of subjects in her attempt to nail down an ethnic definition of what it means to be an Ashkenazi Jew. The results range from those who want to bury the old ethnic divisions between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim in the past forever and those who -- pointing to the Rhineland roots of European Jews who subsequently migrated to Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine -- try to split the word "Ashkenazi" into two parts: "ash" (meaning "nose") and "nazi" (which needs no translation).

In her documentary Jones examines both the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Ashkenazi Jews (who tend to have fairer skin) and the darker-skinned Mizrachim from northern Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean. Jones interviews Israeli women who never knew their lineage until they joined the Army and were asked to identify what kind of Jew they were. One recalls asking "What are my options?" Others portray Ashkenazim as cold and unemotional, on a par with the American WASP.

Interesting perspectives on how double-standards are fed by various levels of self-loathing pepper this documentary, perhaps best expressed by the Palestinian intellectual who worships the writing of Sholom Aleichem but feels nothing but contempt for Jews who arrive singing "Havenu Sholom Aleichem" before launching physical attacks on the previous inhabitants of the land. "How you can you claim that you are a victim in one breath and then attack someone else in the next?" he asks.

One of the Arabic Jews interviewed for this film wonders what it takes to wake up and look in the mirror for approval and then go on to spend the rest of the day hating yourself. His question reminded me of a friend's description of what it is like to be a gay alcoholic in San Francisco. Having been sober for several years, he named the various bars in the Castro, explained how much drink prices varied from one bar to another and described how, as one slid down the slippery slope of alcoholism, the basic cost of a night out would force a serious drinker to gravitate toward certain bars. "Of course," he scoffed as he pointed to one of the lower dives on the totem pole, "I would never drink there. I'm not that kind of an alcoholic." In Ashkenaz, one senses certain people thinking "Sure, I may be Jewish, but I'm not that kind of a Jew!"

The basic problem I had with Ashkenaz had nothing to do with the its content. Many of the people interviewed for the film offer interesting observations about the ethnic identities of Ashkenazim. But any documentarian who starts a film with subtitles translating an intense conversation held in a moving automobile (with her camera pointed at the seascape as the vehicle rolls down a highway) needs a much, much stronger artistic vision. While many of the shots in this film are beautifully set up and lit, there is a shocking lack of life in a documentary trying to define a life force. Jones's interview segments have been interspersed with clips of a nightclub singer performing songs with highly controversial lyrics that make it seem more like the filmmaker was choosing segments from column A and column B to add to a reel of film until it felt long enough to be called a documentary.

Michael Goldman's At Home In Utopia offers a far more satisfying experience as he explores how the labor movement of the 1920s led to the development of various worker-owned cooperative housing developments in the Bronx. The 1,000 rooms created for "The Coops" were a unique product of their time. Goldman's affectionate documentary offers insights into a time, place, and kind of political activism that today's political bloggers might be hard pressed to understand.

Narrated by Linda Lavin, the film describes how the struggles of many garment workers (mostly Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe) combined with their political activism helped to create a large swath of worker-owned real estate. This film will especially hit home to survivors of my father's generation who still remember what it was like to have a neighborhood filled with passionate intellectuals, Communists and/or Socialists.

As Daniel Libeskind (who designed the new home of San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum) examines the blueprints for the Coops, he comments on the forward-thinking, socially-conscious architectural plans which included space for vegetation (large portions of the Bronx were undeveloped in 1925) as well as basement spaces that were used as community rooms. One apartment building even had its own library!

At Home In Utopia also describes how the social safety net of the Coops kept many families in their homes during the Great Depression by including a clause that forbade eviction if a family missed its rent payment. Goldman's documentary includes a good deal of footage from home movies showing how the Coops made early efforts to integrate the community by favoring applications from African American families as well as embracing the interracial relationships which ensued. The film harks back to a much more idealistic time when labor was valued, unions had strength, and the American melting pot offered great potential for an exciting future.

As a group of friends who grew up in the Coops returns to visit their old stomping grounds -- and explain to the current tenants what life used to be like in an apartment building whose entrance is graced by a hammer and sickle carved into the cement -- visions of a lost world dance before the audience's eyes.

Put this documentary on your must-see list. It's quite a charmer.

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