Recent Empowerment series session featured the screening of the film A Song for Marion (Unfinished Song). (photo from JSA)
On Jan. 16, more than 60 older adults gathered in the auditorium of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver to watch the heart-tugging film A Song for Marion (Unfinished Song), starring Vanessa Redgrave and Terrance Stamp. This was the second session of the 2018-19 Empowerment series, and it was co-sponsored with JCC Seniors.
Before the film, attendees were welcomed by the smell of fresh popcorn, provided by Lisa Cohen Quay, coordinator of JCC Seniors program. She introduced the film and welcomed the audience. The JSA’s Gyda Chud gave an introduction describing the alliance and the Empowerment series.
The film portrayed the relationship between an elderly couple, husband and wife, with very different personalities. Marion, who is suffering from terminal cancer, is an outgoing and friendly person who is very involved in a community seniors choir. Arthur, on the other hand, is a grouchy character, who is over-protective of his wife and disdainful of the choir. After Marion’s death, Arthur is lost, but he honours her memory by joining the choir that brought her so much joy. His journey of self-discovery helps him build bridges with his estranged son.
This thought-provoking, beautifully acted movie delivered several messages, one of which is to open yourself up to new experiences and not be afraid to be you; to allow yourself to think beyond the scope of what is, and reach for what could be. It was an empowering experience.
After the movie, there was coffee, pastry and shmoozing. The work of Cohen Quay, Liz Azeroual and Raylene Burke made this event successful.
This year’s Empowerment series is on the theme of renewing and reinventing ourselves as older adults. The first session, The Role of Stories, was held Nov. 30, with the Sholem Aleichem Seniors of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. The next event will take place on March 5, 2:30 p.m., at the Weinberg Centre.
Shanie Levinis an executive board member of Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Line magazine.
A still from Éléonore Goldberg’s animated short film My Yiddish Papi (Picbois Productions/NFB).
On Jan. 25, the National Film Board of Canada released Éléonore Goldberg’s animated short film My Yiddish Papi (Picbois Productions/NFB). It can be streamed free of charge across Canada on nfb.ca, as well as on NFB’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.
The online release of the film marked the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, which is observed on Jan. 27. With My Yiddish Papi, Goldberg has made a personal short film about filial love, duty and the transmission of memory by honouring a promise made long ago: that of illustrating the adventures of her grandfather, a resistance fighter during the Second World War.
Produced by Karine Dubois (Picbois Productions) and Julie Roy (NFB), the film was presented as a world première at the 2017 Ottawa International Animation Festival, and was also selected for the Sommets du cinéma d’animation de Montréal and the London International Animation Festival, among others.
Goldberg is an award-winning Franco-Canadian filmmaker, animator and cartoonist. In My Yiddish Papi, using ink-on-paper animation, she relates the story of her grandfather, Georges (Josek) Goldberg, who became a resistance fighter at age 20 during the Second World War. “He saved many lives and he and his family narrowly escaped Auschwitz,” said Goldberg in an interview on the NFB website. He died, in Paris, in July 2009.
“He would sometimes share his wartime memories when we dined together during the time I lived in Paris,” Goldberg told the NFB. “He never bragged; he was a humble, shy person. He would have liked me to make a graphic novel or film about his resistance adventures, and I had committed to doing it. But time passed and I did nothing. At his death, my promise came back to me.”
One of the apartment buildings at the
HKP complex. (photo from Richard Freund)
Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Shoah ended, we are still learning about aspects of what happened. For example, the documentary The Good Nazi tells the little-known story of a Nazi from Vilna who tried to rescue more than 1,200 Jews. It airs on VisionTV Jan. 21, and again April 29.
In 2005, Dr. Michael Good sought out Prof.
Richard Freund of the University of Hartford to tell him about Maj. Karl
Plagge, a Nazi who oversaw a military vehicle repair complex that was used as
cover for 1,257 Jews in Vilnius (Vilna). Good described how his father, mother
and grandfather were saved within this complex, and later wrote about it at
length in his 2006 book The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews
(Fordham University Press).
While interesting to Freund, who works within a
department known for its Holocaust studies, nothing further came of that
meeting. That is, until 2015.
By then, Freund had directed six archeological
projects in Israel and three in Europe on behalf of the university, including
research at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. In 2015, he was in
Lithuania doing research on a Holocaust-era escape tunnel, adjacent to the
Great Synagogue of Vilna. He and his team had brought with them specialized
equipment that enabled non-invasive examination of the ground and walls, and
they offered it to anyone wanting to do such research. The Vilna Gaon State
Jewish Museum came calling, and brought Freund to a site on the outskirts of
Vilna, where he was told about Plagge.
Of that moment, Freund told the Independent,
“I’m sitting there and I say, ‘Karl Plagge? I know that name!’”
Freund connected with survivor Sidney Handler,
who was 10 years old when he hid from the Nazis in the work camp. After the
Nazis left in July 1944, Handler was forced to move dead bodies, and could
point out decades later where 400 Jews were buried.
“We could have gone through the entire 20 acres
and not located exactly where that was,” said Freund.
Using scanners, thermal cameras, radar and
other methods, Freund’s team discovered and recorded the various hiding places,
also called malinas. Under Plagge’s plan, Jews had built malinas in building
crevices, behind the walls, to keep out of sight when Nazis came to “liquidate”
The garage (repair shop) was dubbed HKP. It was
on Subocz Street and is likely the only Holocaust-related labour camp left
completely intact. Until recently, people had been living in the two six-floor
buildings, which comprised 216 apartments.
Freund reached out to filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, telling him how important it was to document the site, the story, and reveal it to the world. Things were made all the more pressing when Freund and Jacobovici discovered that developers were going to demolish the site. Fortunately, before this happened, Jacobovici took a film and photographic crew to HKP, in January 2018.
The Turning of Plagge
In 1941, Karl Plagge was placed in command of
the HKP 562, a unit responsible for repairs of military vehicles damaged on the
eastern front. Plagge experienced something of a pang of conscience – he hadn’t
signed on to genocide. He made the decision to leverage his position and use
Jews as “slave labour” for HKP, pleading the case to his superiors that, if
Jews didn’t work there, there would be no one to fix the vehicles.
Virtually none of the 1,200 Jews was knowledgeable
in fixing cars; they were accountants, lawyers, hairdressers, academics, cooks
and others. They all learned various HKP tasks on the job, and Plagge somehow
convinced the Nazi SS that every single one of them was necessary for HKP.
Even though the entire charade was met with a
barely tolerated wink and nod by Nazi brass, Plagge had a deep (and correct)
hunch that their patience would eventually wear thin.
Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS,
announced, in the summer of 1943, that he wanted every Jew in Eastern Europe
eliminated, irrespective of whether they were contributing to the war effort in
a work camp. So, with Plagge’s approval, his workers carved out malinas in the
walls of the buildings and in attic rafters.
As the Soviet Red Army approached the outer
edge of Vilnius in June 1944, it was a sign that the Allies were nearing
victory. In this context, on July 1, 1944, Plagge made an impromptu
announcement in front of an SS commander and the Jewish workers, who gathered
to listen. He explained that his unit was being transferred westbound and,
though he requested his labourers be allowed to join, his superiors wouldn’t
permit it. All of this was code for the Jewish prisoners to take cover. Roughly
half of the workers – some 500 of them – hid away in malinas or ran from the
camp, while others decided to stay.
When Nazi troops took over the camp two days
later, 500 Jewish workers appeared for roll call, and were killed. It took the
Nazis three more days to comb the camp and the surrounding area for any
survivors, eventually finding roughly 200 Jews, all of whom were shot.
When the Soviets finally took over Vilnius
later that week, approximately 250 of HKP’s Jews in hiding emerged.
When the war was over, Plagge returned home to
Darmstadt, Germany, where, for the next two years he lived quietly, until he
was brought to court as a former Nazi. Somehow, word traveled to a displaced
persons camp in Stuttgart, a three-hour drive away, where many survivors of HKP
had ended up. In Plagge’s defence, the survivors sent a representative to
testify to the court in the hopes the charges would be overturned.
The testimony resulted in a favourable judgment, and Plagge received the status of an exonerated person. In 2005, after evidence and survivor testimony, Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre posthumously bestowed the title Righteous Among the Nations on Plagge.
The Good Nazi was produced in Canada for VisionTV by Toronto-based Associated Producers. Jacobovici was writer and executive producer, Moses Znaimer executive producer, Bienstock producer and co-director, Yaron Niski co-director and Felix Golubev line producer/executive producer.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in
more than 100 publications around the world.
Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) arrive at court in On the Basis of Sex. (photo from Focus Features)
A news flash for members of the tribe who’ve
been kvelling over a Jewish woman on the U.S. Supreme Court for fully a quarter
of a century: Ruth Bader Ginsburg long ago matriculated beyond a symbol of
Last year’s hit documentary, RBG, noted
that Justice Ginsburg is an enormously popular role model for women in their
teens and 20s, and she has achieved pop culture celebrity to boot. The latest
film – released recently in Canada and, as of press time, still playing in
Metro Vancouver – is On the Basis of Sex, which applies the Hollywood
treatment to Ginsburg’s beginnings as a smart but struggling lawyer and
situates her smack in the mainstream. To coin a Lincolnesque testimonial, now
she belongs to the masses.
Director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel
Stiepleman (who happens to be Ruth and Marty Ginsburg’s nephew) frame On the
Basis of Sex as an underdog saga. And, like a lot of underdogs in Hollywood
movies, our heroine has a superpower that she only discovers – and masters – on
The movie is effective, and ultimately
inspiring, in a way that doesn’t remotely challenge viewers other than to ask
them to follow clever legal strategies.
The film opens with Ginsburg’s first days at
Harvard Law School, where her husband Marty is in his second year. Immediately
and repeatedly, she (and the viewer) is reminded of her second-class status as
a woman in a man’s world.
It takes awhile to reconcile the confident
Justice Ginsburg of public record with the somewhat skittish character that
British actress Felicity Jones creates. On the one hand, as a wife and a mother
who – like every other aspiring woman professional of the time – never wears
pants, Ginsburg is plainly a grownup. But she’s patronized by everyone from the
law school’s WASPy dean (a villainous Sam Waterston) to her husband (a stalwart
Armie Hammer), and she risks being seen as a rabble-rouser (it’s the late
1950s) simply by standing up for herself.
Although the film does not conceal or finesse
the Ginsburgs’ Jewishness, it presents casual misogyny and the entrenched old
boys’ network, not antisemitism, as the obstacles Ruth needs to navigate.
Consequently, she has to devise ways – both direct and elliptical – to raise
the consciousness of every ally, including her devoted husband, before she can
even challenge potential adversaries. While Marty certainly recognizes his
wife’s brilliance, he’s a product of his upbringing and the times.
On the Basis of Sex or, as it’s
referred to at your favourite corned beef dispensary, “RBG: The Early Years,”
devotes considerable screen time to the couple’s relationship and, for many
viewers, that will serve as the emotional heart of the film. Others will derive
more pleasure from Ginsburg finding her footing and her voice as a scholarly
As Stiepleman noted in an interview during a
recent visit to San Francisco, “Coming out of law school, [Ginsburg] had three
strikes against her: she was a woman, she was a mother and she was a Jew. Any
one of those things alone, law firms had taken the risk. It was the three
together that made her unhire-able in their eyes.”
Unable to find a job practising law, she takes
a teaching position. Through a combination of determination, persistence and
luck, she comes across a unique case that addresses the inequities of gender
discrimination. The complainant, who looked after his mother but was denied the
tax deduction for caregivers, is a man.
Earlier in the film, there’s a crucial chain of
events when her husband is diagnosed with cancer. Ginsburg not only took care
of him (and their small daughter), but got them both through law school. That
experience as a caregiver gives her both the empathy and the understanding to
identify with and persuade her would-be client, as well as to research and
argue the case.
The lengthy courtroom scene that comprises the
film’s last 20 minutes or so is genuinely effective and even emotional, despite
the formulaic staging and the fact that we know Ginsburg will prevail. At the
pivotal moment, we witness a character coming into her own, grasping her
abilities and realizing her destiny. And with that, the underdog becomes a
On the Basis of Sex is rated PG-13
for some language and suggestive content.
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Dr. Jessica Zitter has both written a book and a movie about death and dying. (photo by Rikki Ward Photography)
Dr. Jessica Zitter, who works as an attending physician at a public hospital in Oakland, Calif., struggled with her job’s protocols for years. Until the day a nurse opened her eyes to the possibility that there was a better way, one that involved more compassion in the treatment of patients.
Zitter comes from a long line of doctors.
“They were into the art of medicine,” she said of the mentors she had when she first began her studies. “By that, I mean the art of surgery and intervening, and of doing things in a very precise way. There was something about that that I found heroic, and I wanted to be part of that world.
“So, I went to medical school – pulmonary and critical medicine – which I thought of as the most heroic of the specialties. I went on to start to focus on the machines, technologies, protocols and things that were part of the trade of being a pulmonary critical care physician. I tried to really perfect them … [thinking that,] if I use these perfectly, I’ll be able to help a lot of people.”
But, as she went along, she started to think differently. At first, she suppressed the feeling. “It was truly uncomfortable,” she said. “It caused me a lot of suffering.”
Zitter was using techniques and protocols on people who were not going to benefit from them, knowing full well that they would not benefit from them. Not only was she following her training, but she also wanted to please her patients – give them mainly good news and information about various procedures, instead of telling them the whole truth about their condition.
“I didn’t want to tell them, ‘Hey, I don’t think you’ll survive,’” said Zitter. “I didn’t want to say that because it’s too sad. I would communicate about things that were more practical like, if this happens, we will try this.”
A pivotal moment
Zitter’s approach changed after an encounter in the intensive care unit with a nurse from the family support team, called Power to Care.
“One day, I was about to put in a line [catheter] into someone who was really, really sick and likely dying, and the woman who headed that family support team was standing in the doorway watching…. I was about to put the needle in and she put her hand up to her face and she said, ‘Call the police,’ on a pretend telephone…. She said, ‘Call the police. They’re torturing a patient in the ICU,’” said Zitter. “And that was my epiphany moment. All these moments, I had this doubt. This was like a relief – you’re right, I am torturing the patient. What the heck? There was a clarity there that was really powerful.
“But, the sad truth is that I still put that needle in. I still put that catheter in that woman. The force of what I call the end-of-life conveyor belt is so powerful … not only the conveyor belt itself, but the drive to ‘protocolize,’ heaping on treatments … the culture in the hospital. It’s hard to break out. It’s hard to stop and take a pause, and say, ‘Wait a minute. What the heck?’”
The intervening nurse, Pat Murphy, in some ways became Zitter’s mentor on what it meant to be a doctor.
“I came to it late and from a place of profound dissatisfaction and moral distress, and I was just extremely lucky that I happened to be in one of four hospitals where this movement was starting to take hold,” Zitter told the Independent.
“And, I happened to have been open to it,” she added. She was able to get over her “human defence of not wanting to look stupid or like I didn’t understand … and to be able to say, ‘OK. Teach me.’
“I feel lucky that those two things were in check at that time,” said Zitter. “Not to say that I wasn’t filled with shame and embarrassment about what I’d been doing all that time, but the psychology…. Once you admit there’s a problem, then find a way to fix it.”
After years of immersing herself in this new paradigm, Zitter felt ready to share what she had learned. She published a book about it, called Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life, in 2017.
As she was writing it, Zitter realized that, if a picture can impart a thousand words, maybe a movie would be able to convey even more. So, she put together a 24-minute documentary, Extremis.
Of the award-winning film, Zitter said, “It really shows the issues that come up in an ICU…. There is also a discussion guide that goes with it, so people can watch it and then come away from it with some lessons learned.
“This movie reaches a wide audience about really advanced care planning,” she said. “A lot of synagogues are using it, medical schools and nursing schools.”
Zitter was asked to teach sex education at both of her daughters’ schools.
“I want them to be able to make the best decisions they can make about their bodies and their health, and to be empowered to live the best they can,” she said.
But what about death education?
Extremis came out in late 2016. “It was nominated for the Oscars and a lot of my kids’ friends were watching it. And all these kids were really blown away by the movie and they were having a positive response to it,” said Zitter. “It made me think, ‘Why the heck aren’t we teaching kids about death? Why aren’t we having a conversation in high school, just like with sex ed?’ So, a friend of mine designed ‘death ed.’ We did it in her kids’ and my kids’ schools. It was really impactful.”
Zitter would love to see such a class in every school in the United States and Canada, along with other heath education classes, so everyone can have the opportunity to learn about a range of issues and discuss them.
Both the teachers and the students appreciated the lesson on death education, said Zitter. “There were no negative responses. Although some kids cried, and it was terrifying at first, they would then say, ‘That was sad, but I’m OK.’
“I was like, ‘It is sad that we are all going to die.’ But, you know what? It’s really good for these kids too, [because] it’s part of life. If we pretend no one’s going to die and don’t let our kids go to funerals, etc., we aren’t doing anyone a service.”
So far, Extremis has been translated into 90 languages and has been shown in 160 countries.
“We’ve got to tell people what’s actually happening and try to understand,” said Zitter. “I use myself as a prime example…. Why was I putting that catheter into a woman I knew was dying? What are these factors that are propelling me to do things that don’t make sense to me? The idea is to be more conscious of it, aware of it, and change it.”
Shira Geffen shares how she met her husband, Etgar Keret, in the film Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story, which screens Nov. 14. (photo from facebook.com/etgarkeretfilm)
“I want to write stories so the readers will like mankind a little bit more,” says Israeli writer Etgar Keret in the documentary Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story. Similarly, as depicted in another film, the Israel Museum aims to uplift and educate visitors with its artistic, cultural and historical displays, and The Museum offers a glimpse into the breadth of its collections and the diversity (and quirkiness) of its employees. Both of these award-winning films screen during the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which started this week.
Danish filmmakers Stephane Kaas (director) and Rutger Lemm (writer) do an excellent job of introducing viewers to what makes Keret tick. They do so using a creative mix of interviews with Keret and his family, friends and colleagues; reenactments of sorts of a few key points in Keret’s life; and a few of Keret’s stories, the portrayal of which is mainly done in animation. Not surprisingly for anyone who has read Keret’s short stories, there are several laugh-out-loud moments in Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story, but there are also sombre elements, as we learn about how Keret has been impacted by tragedy, including the suicide of one of his best friends.
One of the funniest scenes is when Keret shares his first story with his brother, Rodi (Nimrod). Rodi brings his dog along for the walk and, after he finishes reading Keret’s story and praises it, he asks whether the typed copy he’s holding is the only copy. When Keret says no, Rodi uses the paper to pick up his dog’s poo. Perhaps a lesson in humility, Keret explains that it was at this moment he realized that a story is not in the piece of paper on which it has been written or typed – once a story has been read, it is in the mind of the reader. Keret calls this ability of a writer to transfer their ideas to another person a “super power.”
While many of Keret’s stories have gloomy aspects to them, the stories as a whole generally leave readers feeling good. He describes his stories as “an advertisement for life,” saying that he writes to answer the question of why he wants to live.
“I think the need to tell stories is, basically, the need to put a structure to the reality around you. And I feel that the more chaotic and the less sense it makes, the stronger the need I have to tell a story about it,” he explains in the film.
Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story screens Nov. 14, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas (19+), following the 22-minute short Large Soldier, directed by Noa Guskov. “It’s 1973 and all that Sherry, a 15-year-old Israeli girl, wants is a boyfriend,” reads the synopsis of the film, which is in Hebrew with English subtitles. “A letter exchange with an unknown soldier makes her believe that it’s going to be her first love. But what will happen when the imaginary soldier becomes real?”
* * *
The opening of Ran Tal’s documentary The Museum grabs viewers’ attention: a black screen, the sound of footsteps, some shuffling about, then a woman asks a man, “What do we have?” “That’s a huge painting,” he begins. When the scene is revealed, we see the man and woman sitting on a bench, looking at the painting, but the woman seeing it only through his eyes, as she is blind. Later in the film, this woman is part of a group of blind people visiting the museum – she and others touch various sculptures, feeling how the works are made.
The Museum makes clear the enormous responsibility and privilege of caring for, handling and presenting art and artifacts. Over a period of one-and-a-half years, Tal interviewed several museum staff – including a security guard who is also a cantor; the institution’s kashrut inspector, who notes that “a museum doesn’t replace spirituality”; and the then-museum director, who sadly had to miss his mother’s funeral because it took place on the day the museum reopened after an extensive renovation. Tal also films visitor interactions over that time, and highlights a 50th anniversary event (in 2015) featuring Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and members of his government. Netanyahu remarks that the museum shows three things: “One is our bond to this land in a very dramatic display, and one of humanity’s most significant archeological finds, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Another is the great cultural treasure of the Jewish people in Israel and the world over, which symbolizes our contribution to humanity.”
Admittedly, The Museum only touches upon more serious concerns – there is a scene where a group of museum staff discusses a collection of traditional Palestinian clothing that is in storage, and the potential impacts of displaying (and not displaying) them – but it at least does bring up such issues, which will hopefully open the door for more in-depth discussion.
The Museum screens on Nov. 17, 6:45 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre. For the full festival schedule and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Filmmaker Michelle Paymar. (photo from D-Facto Filmstudio)
In the 19th century, the hunt for ancient manuscripts was in vogue, and a tip from two Scottish Presbyterian identical twin sisters – Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson – led talmudic scholar Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University to one of the most incredible discoveries. In 1896, he headed to Egypt, to Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, where he climbed through an opening high in a wall of the synagogue and found himself standing on countless documents that have “revolutionized our understanding of Jewish history.”
The documentary From Cairo to the Cloud, produced, directed and filmed by Vancouver-based filmmaker Michelle Paymar, chronicles the history of the search for the Cairo geniza, or storeroom, which contained more than 900 years’ worth of material – more than half a million fragments. There were religious texts, personal letters, bills, bureaucratic
reports, a child’s practise of the alphabet, artwork, prescriptions, what someone had for lunch and even handwritten drafts penned by 12th-century rabbi and physician Moses Maimonides. The geniza contained a written record of almost every aspect of Jewish life, in multiple languages: Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Persian and Yiddish.
From Cairo to the Cloud sees its North American première at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 12, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas. It had its world première at the Cambridge Film Festival earlier this week.
“Many years ago, I learned about the existence of an archive that was essentially a time capsule of Jewish life in medieval Egypt,” Paymar told the Independent. “Then, in 2011, two books about the Cairo geniza appeared – one by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole called Sacred Trash and one by Mark Glickman entitled Sacred Treasure.
“I was captivated by the immediacy of the voices from the geniza, the richness of Judeo-Arabic culture, and the sophistication of their milieu. When I learned that Cambridge was in the process of digitizing its final geniza documents for the Friedberg Genizah Project, I called Ben Outhwaite, the head of the geniza collection at the Cambridge University Library, to find out if any film crews would be documenting this momentous event. No one was planning to film the digitization of the last documents, so I grabbed my camera and my gear and went to Cambridge to film it myself.”
Using narrations of various texts (translated into English), archival images, animation, visual effects and lots and lots of interviews, From Cairo to the Cloud does indeed take viewers from Cairo to the Cloud, or the internet. Thanks to the Friedberg Genizah Project, all the geniza fragments are now accessible by researchers around the world. With the physical manuscript pieces stored in different institutions, it used to be that, to study one document, a researcher might have to go to several cities just to puzzle together part of a page. Not only is that travel no longer necessary but, because every scribe writes in a unique way, computer programs have been able to match texts using a technology like that which is used in facial recognition, making it possible to join hundreds of pieces of a document within a couple of months.
Wherever you have a Jewish community, you must have a geniza, explains Prof. Hassan Khalilieh (University of Haifa) in the film. Rabbi and author Mark Glickman then explains that a geniza is a place to store damaged Jewish religious texts and documents. Geniza is a Hebrew word for hide, adds Prof. Yaacov Choueka (Friedberg Genizah Project). In Jewish law, he explains, you are not allowed to destroy or deal disrespectfully with written material with God’s name on it.
So, continues Prof. Janet Soskice (University of Cambridge), that document has to be treated with the reverence you would accord to a human body. Once a home’s or synagogue’s geniza is full, the stored material gets taken to the cemetery and buried. But, what author Dara Horn notes is that the Jews of medieval Cairo had a different method – they not only saved documents with God’s name in it but any document written in Hebrew letters, and they didn’t empty their geniza for more than 900 years.
Quick snippets of information from academics, librarians, writers and other experts keep From Cairo to the Cloud moving at a good pace, while not losing its educational aspect.
“I started with a few names and those names begat more names,” said Paymar. “I soon discovered that these ‘geniziologists’ were wonderful storytellers and passionate about the geniza. I ended up interviewing about 40 people representing a wide range of interests and three generations of geniza scholarship. The oldest – Mordechai Friedman, Avraham Udovitch and Mark Cohen – studied with [ethnographer] S.D. Goitein himself. Then there are the students of Goitein’s students, like Marina Rustow, and her student, Arnold Franklin.
“I have about 60 hours of interview material. Once I started piecing together the story, it became more or less clear which selections to use from each of the interviews.”
And what a story it is, between how the geniza was found – meeting people like the sisters Smith Lewis and Dunlop Gibson, who were academics in all but name, knowing 14 languages between them and taking multi-continent excursions, often in search of ancient manuscripts – and the documents from the geniza itself. The material in the storeroom roughly covers the period 1000 to 1250 in Fustat, which started as a separate city than Cairo, and was a major hub for trade.
“Gaining permission to film in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo,” explains Paymar in her director’s notes, “required nearly seven years, three Egyptian governments, gaining the support of representatives from the Jewish community of Cairo, the assistance of the Canadian consulate in Cairo, approval by the Egyptian ministries of the interior and antiquities, the Egyptian state police, the Egyptian tourist police, the Egyptian Press Office and the Jewish community of Cairo. I was the first filmmaker in decades to be allowed to film inside the synagogue.”
Because of Paymar’s efforts, the rest of us can see inside the Cairo geniza’s treasures much more easily. We should take the opportunity to do so. It is a fascinating journey.
For the full Vancouver Jewish Film Festival lineup, visit vjff.org.
Still from If You’re Hungry, Sing. If You Ache, Laugh.
When Vancouver freelance director and writer Michèle Smolkin interviewed her uncle, Sam Rechtman, he was 103 years old. Born on July 7, 1914, he has experienced two world wars, pogroms, poverty, hard manual labour, military service, loss, love and so much more, and yet he still approaches life with energy and cheer. Si tu as faim, chante. Si tu as mal, ris (If You’re Hungry, Sing. If You Ache, Laugh) is the perfect name for the documentary Smolkin has made on him.
The adage is an old saying from Chelm, explains the film, which happens to be the village in which Rechtman was born. At the time of his birth, Chelm was part of the Russian Empire. He was the second of four siblings.
We are merely introduced to Rechtman in this documentary, which runs just under an hour. With delightful, simply drawn animated sequences, along with music, archival film footage, old family photos and, of course, the interview with her uncle, Smolkin has created an inspiring reminder of just how much our attitude affects our lives.
In a brief interview for the DOXA Documentary Film Festival this past May, Smolkin explains that the film is “more than just a portrait of a man’s life and time, it’s also the portrait of a century in Europe. My uncle went through so much ordeal and such a dramatic life and is still this happy, simple, fun person who enjoys life and is not bitter or complaining. We are so privileged, that we should sometimes think, oh yeah, we could also enjoy life. That’s a life lesson.”
If You’re Hungry, Sing. If You Ache, Laugh screens on Nov. 11, 1 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas, as part of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, vjff.org.
Tzahi Grad, left, and Ala Dakka are great together in The Cousin. (photo from Shaxaf Haber/Venice Film Festival)
The 30th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-Dec. 2, has an impressive lineup. Not only is there a wide range of quality films from which to choose, but the reach of the festival has widened, with screenings this year also taking place in West Vancouver and Port Moody. Here are just some of the great films you’ll be able to see.
After Naftali, a successful Israeli actor-director, proudly shows his newly hired Palestinian worker, Fahed, the trailer for his latest creation – an internet series called One by One, which will bring Israelis and Palestinians together to talk and, eventually, Naftali believes, help bring about peace – Fahed’s response is, “Yes, it’s nice. It’s a little, um, a little naïve, isn’t it?” Begrudgingly, Naftali admits, “Totally, but not impossible.”
Maybe not impossible, but certainly beyond the scope of a web series, as Naftali soon finds out in The Cousin. When a ninth-grade girl is attacked in the neighbourhood, suspicion immediately falls on Fahed, who is arrested, then let out on bail – bail paid for by Naftali, who is pretty sure that Fahed is innocent. As the film progresses, Naftali’s beliefs are seriously challenged, both by his neighbours, who are champing at the bit to mete out their own justice on the not-proven-guilty Fahed, and by his wife, who wasn’t comfortable having a Palestinian worker in the first place. The pressure forces Naftali to confront his own latent racism, which arises rather quickly.
The acting in this film is excellent. Writer, director and star Tzahi Grad is convincing as the somewhat pompous but well-meaning Naftali and Ala Dakka is wonderful as Fahed, a compassionate, laidback, not-so-handy handyman who shows some promise as a rap musician. The supporting characters fulfil their roles believably. The oddball neighbours, who at first just seem to have been added for comic relief, become truly menacing, and Osnat Fishman as Naftali’s wife aptly portrays her transformation from merely nervous and annoyed to scared and angry.
The writing in the film is mainly good. The serious dialogue and action are compelling and there are humourous interjections that work to both lighten the material and shed light on it. However, there are other attempts at humour that are inconsistent with the overall mood and message. And the last three minutes of the film are completely bizarre, and really should have ended up on the cutting-room floor. But this should not stop you from seeing what otherwise is an entertaining, gripping and thought-provoking movie because, if nothing else, it’s such a bad ending that it’s almost good; at the least, it’s memorable, in a shake-your-head-in-wonder way.
The Cousin has three screenings: Nov. 10, 6:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas; Nov. 25, 2 p.m., at Kay Meek Studio Theatre (West Vancouver); and Nov. 26, 6:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre (Port Moody).
A tragic thriller
Bram Fischer is one of the great Jewish heroes of the 20th century, yet he is not widely remembered outside his native South Africa. The crackling moral thriller An Act of Defiance, which recreates the attorney’s gutsy exploits during the Rivonia Trial in the early 1960s, brilliantly revives his legacy.
From the outset, the film defines Fischer (played with verve and intelligence by Peter Paul Muller) less by his considerable legal skills and reputation than by the company he keeps: he is a strategist and ally of Nelson Mandela and the other leaders (several of them Jewish) covertly plotting against the apartheid regime. In fact, Fischer is supposed to be at the meeting where the police bust in and arrest the activists.
Free and available to represent the accused against charges of sabotage, Fischer is more than their defender and advocate: he’s an active member of the resistance whose actions – epitomized by a tense, protracted sequence in which he smuggles key documents out of a government building, inadvertently placing his family in danger – express his commitment and courage even more than his legal challenges and parries.
Fischer’s extracurricular activities have the effect of pushing An Act of Defiance out of the realm of courtroom drama and into a full-bore thriller. That said, the film never loses sight of the plight of the Rivonia defendants, who face death sentences if convicted.
Dutch director Jean van de Velde fills the cast with South African actors such as Antoinette Louw, who imbues Molly Fischer with backbone, wit and warmth to match her husband. Along with its other attributes, An Act of Defiance is a moving love story.
An Act of Defiance screens Nov. 11, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue.
Faith and family
Redemption, which is called Geula in Hebrew, after the main character’s daughter, is a powerful film, the emotional impact of which builds up imperceptibly, such that you may only find yourself teary-eyed awhile after it has ended, when all the feelings it evokes finally reach the surface.
Co-directors and co-writers Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov grab viewers’ attention right away, with a lyrically and musically edgy song accompanying us as we follow Menachem through the streets to the drugstore, where he gets his photo taken – even though his attempts at smiling fail – then pausing to have a smoke before returning to his apartment to relieve the babysitter. Within the first five minutes, we know he is an awkward, sad, kind and generous Orthodox Jew, as well as an attentive, caring and loving father.
Other aspects of his life come into focus as he reconnects with his former friends and band mates, including his reason for reuniting them. Menachem’s 6-year-old daughter, Geula, needs expensive cancer treatments if there’s a chance for her to survive the cancer that killed her mother. Menachem, who works at a supermarket, needs the money that the band could make from playing at weddings.
The renewal of the friendships involves the reopening of some old wounds, and the men’s paths to healing are stories well told, though the film is mainly about Menachem, who, we find out, broke with the group when he became religious 15 years earlier. Moshe Folkenflik plays the widower with nuance, humility and depth, and Emily Granin as his daughter, Geula, captures the strong will, intelligence, bravery and fear of this young girl, playing with subtlety what could have been a maudlin role.
Redemption will be screened twice: Nov. 12, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue and Nov. 29, 8:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre. [It will also screen as part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival on nov. 4, 1:30 p.m., at the Vic Theatre. For tickets and information to the Victoria festival, visit vijff.ca.]
Smiles and belly laughs
Sam Hoffman’s resoundingly funny debut feature, Humor Me, imagines a well-appointed New Jersey retirement community as the setting for mid-life rejuvenation and resurrection. Neatly avoiding or flipping every cliché about seniors (cute, crotchety or flirtatious), the adult son-aging father dynamic and the theatre, Humor Me is a warm-hearted, flawlessly executed fable.
When his wife takes their young son and leaves him for a billionaire, talented-but-blocked playwright Nate Kroll (New Zealand actor Jemaine Clement) has to move out of their Manhattan brownstone and into the guest bedroom at his dad’s town house at Cranberry Bog. Bob (a note-perfect turn by Elliot Gould) is an inveterate joke teller, but his repertoire doesn’t work on a 40-year-old failed artist.
“Life’s going to happen, son, whether you smile or not,” he declares, a philosophy that the audience can embrace more easily than Nate can. If it contains a bit of Jewish fatalism, well, that’s Gould’s voice. So Bob’s jokes, which are consistently risqué and constructed with an ironic twist, have a faint air of the Borscht Belt about them. (It’s not a coincidence that Hoffman produced and directed the web series Old Jews Telling Jokes.)
There’s not a single stupid character in Humor Me, including Nate’s bland, successful brother (Erich Bergen), and this generosity of spirit means we’re always laughing with Nate’s foils, not at them. It helps immeasurably that Hoffman (best known for producing the TV show Madame Secretary) assembled a veteran cast – Annie Potts as Bob’s girlfriend, Le Clanché du Rand as a flirtatious senior and Bebe Neuwirth as a theatre heavyweight – that nails every last punch line and reaction shot.
Humor Me plays out the way we hope and expect it will, which is to say it delivers on its implicit promises. En route, it provides lots of smiles and several belly laughs. Even Nate, who’s well aware that he’s earned every joke that he’s the butt of, gets his share of one-liners. There’s plenty to go around, you see.
Humor Me is at Fifth Avenue on Nov. 14, 1 p.m.
For the full Vancouver Jewish Film Festival schedule and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
A scene from Who Will Write Our History, about the secret Warsaw Ghetto archives that were hidden from the Nazis. The film screens Nov. 1 at the Rothstein Theatre. (photo by Anna Wloch / Katahdin Productions)
One of the better known documents of the Oyneg Shabes Archive is written by David Graber, who was 19 at the time. In his will, he wrote: “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world, we buried in the ground…. I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world…. May history attest for us.” While Graber did not survive Holocaust, his words did. As did the words and tens of thousands of pages of material collected by historian Emanuel Ringelblum and the 60 Oyneg Shabes members in Warsaw from 1940 to 1943.
The documentary Who Will Write Our History, written, produced and directed by Roberta Grossman, highlights the story of the archive and some of the Oyneg Shabes members, only three of whom survived. It will be screened by the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre on Nov. 1, 7 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre and Grossman, along with executive producer Nancy Spielberg, will be in attendance.
The film is based on the book of the same name by Samuel D. Kassow.
“When I read Sam’s book, I was just absolutely shocked that I didn’t know the story because I’ve done a lot of work and been very engaged in learning about this period of time my entire life and, to me, it seemed like a travesty that it was so little known outside of academic circles and it seemed that it really should be known,” Grossman told the Independent. “To my mind, it is the most important unknown story of the Holocaust.”
Being a filmmaker, Grossman said, “I felt that the best way to help Ringelblum and the other members of the Oyneg Shabes achieve what they wanted, which was to tell the story of the war from the Jewish point of view and to be remembered as individuals,” was through film, that the “medium is the best way to tell stories that will reach a lot of people and not just scholarly circles.”
Grossman optioned Kassow’s book in 2012.
From that time to the finished film, she said, “The goal and the vision for the film stayed the same, it just took a long time to figure out how to achieve that because you need to set the story of the Oyneg Shabes Archive in the historical context. You need to know what’s going on between the wars [and] during the war; you need to know the story of the Warsaw Ghetto; you need to know the story of the Oyneg Shabes and how they operated; and then you need to know the individual story arcs of the people that we chose to highlight…. It’s a lot to pack in, so the challenge was in figuring out the pieces of that puzzle.”
Of the three caches of material hidden by the Oyneg Shabes, two have been found, in 1946 and 1950. They contained more than 35,000 pages of material, including letters, artwork, photographs, circulars, posters and so many other documents, which are housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. In 2008, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre mounted the exhibit Scream the Truth at the World: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Hidden Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, which presented parts of that extensive collection to Vancouver. But the exhibit must have been a relative rarity because Spielberg also hadn’t heard of Ringelblum – who was among those murdered by the Nazis (in 1944) – and the archive.
“We worked together on Above and Beyond,” Spielberg told the Independent about how she came to work with Grossman on the documentary. “I came to Vancouver with that film and showed it in the [2014 Jewish] film festival there…. She had just bought the rights to Who Will Write Our History? and she left the project to come on board to direct Above and Beyond. We were spending time together, we were in the car, we were driving to locations, [and] I’m listening to her on the phone talking about this other project, and then she started telling me the story, and I knew nothing about this.”
Grossman eventually asked Spielberg if she’d be interested in joining the project and, having worked with Grossman before, Spielberg said, “We’re a wonderful balance and I loved this story. And we did [the film] with the idea that someone could come out of their immediate misery and sit down and do something with eyes to the future when it looks like there’s no tomorrow for you.”
“We know about people who, against all odds, rose up to the best of their ability militarily against the Nazis,” said Grossman, “but we haven’t spent a lot of time necessarily paying attention to and giving honours to people who resisted in other ways and, to me, this is an incredible example of spiritual resistance. They saw themselves as being literally engaged in a battle of humanity versus barbarism and I think that, especially now, the idea of or the question, who writes our history, and what is true and what is false, and what is propaganda and what is truth, and who controls the narrative is as important today as it’s ever been.
“In an era,” she continued, “where truth is not particularly valued in some of the most powerful corners of our world and a lot of lies and hateful propaganda is being propagated, especially vilifying the other, whether they be immigrants or Muslims or whoever ‘the other’ of the moment is, we know from history, if we pay attention, that’s an extremely dangerous – very powerful and, therefore, dangerous – way to operate. It’s important for people who are victimized or marginalized to tell their own story.”
The upcoming screening here of Who Will Write Our History is part of a tour of the film. Both Grossman and Spielberg have been attending various screenings, sometimes together, sometimes not.
“I think that the most common reaction is twofold,” said Spielberg. “One is of gratitude that the story was told. That may come in many ways, first of all, from people who are hungry for more knowledge and didn’t know anything about this … and also, of course, from survivors and their children; keeping these stories alive and honouring these people so that their lives would not have been in vain.
“And the other response is ‘I didn’t know that, how come I didn’t know that?’… Then you know you’ve unearthed a gem, that you were able to teach somebody another aspect of the Holocaust, just when we thought we’ve heard it all. Getting this out to the general populace will be really, really important, Jewish and non-Jewish.”
“I feel very proud to have fulfilled in some small way the wishes of the members of the Oyneg Shabes to tell the story from the Jewish point of view and to be remembered as individuals,” said Grossman. “I get the feeling, when I watch the film with audiences, that there is a way in which people sitting in the audience feel as if they’re honouring those people just by watching the film, and that’s really exciting.”
Tickets to the Vancouver screening of Who Will Write Our History are $72 and can be purchased via vjff.org.