Jewish history can seem like one long case of multiple personality disorder, the story of a people riven by diaspora and the conflicting demands of loyalty to tradition and assimilation to a broader culture. The 33 productions in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival offer fragments from this over-5000-year-old journey, with heavy doses of Yiddishkeit and wanderlust in a host of documentaries and features set in exotic locales from Kenya to Budapest.
Aviva Slesin’s Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During World War II is a wrenching insider’s look at the complex emotions surrounding the thousands of Jewish children saved by gentiles who hid them in wartime. Director Slesin was smuggled out of a Lithuanian ghetto at nine months, and reclaimed by her mother (by then a total stranger) at age three. The dozen subjects she interviews (mostly now in their sixties) and their rescuers describe the deep currents of feeling that still unite them, in many cases after half a century of separation. Some of those saved recount their strained, post-war reunions with their own family members, who survived the war but were ravaged by deportation. Though these darker corners of the story are explored with remarkable honesty, Secret Lives offers proof of courage, resilience, and redemption.
A surprising documentary from Canada, Je Me Souviens (I Remember) lifts the veil on a very different secret—the anti-Semitism, since papered over by historians, that once formed part of Quebecois high society. Fiercely nationalistic and protective of the French language and culture, some French Canadian intellectuals in the 1930s and ’40s admired Maréchal Pétain (the wartime collaborationist leader of France) and boycotted Jewish stores. After the war, French informers for the Gestapo found refuge in Montreal universities. Eric Scott’s video focuses on the case of a graduate student, Esther Deslisle, whose recent dissertation on the topic caused an academic uproar.
To find the mostly non-professional actors he used in his first two films (including Voyages, which screened in New York two years ago), French director Emmanuel Finkiel advertised in Parisian newspapers for native Yiddish speakers between the ages of 60 and 90. Their auditions form the basis for Casting, his engaging and rare glimpse into the disappearing world of Yiddishkeit. His subjects are people whose mother tongue is the only real homeland they have ever known, through lives buffeted by exile and occupation. Yet it is a rich and lovely country, filled with zest, irony, and a deep melancholy, where old men—mostly tailors—recall the diminutives of names they murmured long ago in Poland. Casting is playing in a double bill with Finkiel’s award-winning short, Mme. Jacques sur la Croisette. Set on the broad boulevard in Cannes better known for its parade of starlets, it’s a winning and sensitive tale of elderly Jewish romance.
This year’s archival film selections (always among the festival’s highlights) include Motl the Operator, a 1939 Yiddish-language feature directed by Joseph Seiden. Issues of class mobility and assimilation lie at the heart of this immigrant’s story, straight from New York’s Lower East Side. Sweatshop worker Motl toils for his wife and infant son, but can’t make a living wage. First the workers strike, and then tragedy strikes—add one smirking adoption agent and a wealthy, childless Jewish lawyer, and you’ve got a recipe for melodrama. Comic relief is provided in a scene-stealing performance by renowned Yiddish actress Yetta Zwerling, playing a nosy neighbor who comes up in the world but can’t shake her shtetl sensibility.
Among the feature film premieres, Smouldering Cigarette is a sensual romp through wartime Budapest, where a glamorous chanteuse hires a penniless Jewish songwriter to compose her lovelorn ditties. Hungarian director Péter Bascó endows his hero’s near-escapes from death with the madcap charm and seeming effortlessness of a Cole Porter lyric.
Yiddish is just one of a bouquet of languages spoken in Kedma, Israeli auteur Amos Gitai’s visionary re-imagining of his country’s birth in 1948. (This closing-night feature will receive a two-week run at Makor beginning January 27.) The film opens with a mesmerizing traveling shot aboard a ship carrying Jewish immigrants from Europe to Palestine. Upon landing, they’re swept up into the confusion of battle between British, Arab, and Jewish forces. Gitai’s Holy Land is a locus of displacements: The British soldiers are pathetically absurd, and Jewish and Arab refugees cross paths without understanding. The problem is that, some 50 years later, neither Gitai nor anyone else for that matter can see a clear solution to this dilemma. And so his film turns into an existentialist rant about the end of history.