“Except for health and money, all’s well with me,” a matchmaker cheerfully proclaims in The Vow (1937), one of the last Yiddish films to be made in Poland. From terrorist attacks in Argentina to the Hollywood blacklist to the wrath of God (in the gorgeous Hungarian biblical silent Szulamit), this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival offers both a world of afflictions and proof that Jewish resilience springs eternal.
The Vow draws upon the same legend that inspired the Yiddish classic The Dybbuk. Two Polish yeshiva students vow that their firstborn children will marry each other. One man dies, while the other becomes a wealthy miser. The son and daughter, unaware of their fathers’ promise, fall in love years later in Vilna, but only the supernatural spirit of the prophet Elijah can vanquish the worldly obstacles to their union. In this fascinating hybrid, director Henryk Szaro melds Jewish mystical and Jazz Age conventions; the drama of assimilation takes center stage, as the film breaks free of the doomed shtetl culture to embrace a glossy musical finale.
A Polish-Jewish identity crisis also lies at the heart of The Secret, a deeply affecting documentary about the growing number of Poles revealed or suspected to have Jewish roots. Words spoken by a dying grandmother, a family habit of avoiding pork, a face in the mirror resembling Kafka’s—such traces are leading more and more Polish adults to question their Catholic upbringing. Some were adopted as infants while their birth parents were murdered in the Holocaust; others are the children of survivors so traumatized that for 50 years they concealed all signs of Jewishness; still others will never be certain. Israeli filmmaker Ronit Kertsner captures at once the fragility of these people and the hope that inspires them.
In The Travellers: This Land Is Your Land, documentarian Robert Cohen follows the rise of the Toronto-based folksinging group that helped forge Canadian national pride in the 1950s. Three of the four original Travellers were Jewish, and all were Communists or committed leftists. The disclosure of Stalinist atrocities and anti-Semitism, followed by the quartet’s 1962 tour of the Soviet Union, splintered their utopian ideals and celestial harmonies. Cohen, who interviews all four, is acutely attuned to the complexities of group dynamics; their continued infighting after 40 years only makes his film more tender and engaging.
Further south, the fights got even nastier. One of the Hollywood Ten, a feature by Karl Francis, tells the true story of Herbert Biberman, a director who was blacklisted and jailed for his leftist sympathies during the McCarthy era. Expelled from the Directors Guild and harassed by the FBI, Biberman went on to make Salt of the Earth (1954), an independent, neorealist film about striking miners in New Mexico. As Biberman, Jeff Goldblum mutes his considerable charisma; his stilted intellectual is so consumed by ideology that he hardly notices the harm done to his wife, actress Gale Sondergaard (played by firebrand Greta Scacchi), whose Oscar-winning career was cut short by his unflinching idealism. But director Francis shifts skillfully between scenes of glamour and oppression, sticking close to this compelling history.
It’s a cold night in Brownsville, my father would say on chilly winter evenings, as if that Brooklyn neighborhood were the place from which the world’s temperature could be taken. Brownsville Black and White chronicles changes in the ‘hood, a cradle of African-American/Jewish alliances in the 1940s. Two decades later, white flight and hastily constructed housing projects created instant ghettos, and a rancorous strike pitted the largely black community against a mostly Jewish teachers’ union. This film was completed after director Richard Broadman’s death by friends and colleagues; though it needs more editing, its tragic story contains the seeds of the city’s increasing racial polarization.
Eerie echoes of New York’s most recent crisis can be heard in Ton Vriens’s To Live With Terror, a wrenching documentary about two bomb attacks that hit Jewish targets in Buenos Aires during the 1990s. The first, in 1992, destroyed the Israeli embassy, killing 29 people; two years later, 85 others died when a downtown Jewish community center was demolished. These atrocious crimes have never been solved; many suspect Islamic terrorists working in collusion with long-standing fascist elements in the Argentinean police and military, and a government cover-up. Every Monday morning, a group called Memoria Activa blows the shofar before the city’s main courthouse in a call for justice. “The right-wing elements in our society are like Boy Scouts,” a relative of one victim explains. “They’re always ready.” Let’s hope history proves him wrong.