A still from The Rabbi Goes West: one of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Chaim Bruk’s goals is to see a mezuzah on the door of every Jewish home in Montana.
In their documentary The Rabbi Goes West, filmmakers Gerald Peary and Amy Geller have succeeded in a difficult task – providing a balanced, respectful and entertaining glimpse into what happens in a state with a small, minimally affiliated Jewish community when Chabad-Lubavitch arrives.
A branch of Chassidism, Chabad-Lubavitch was started some 250 years ago in White Russia, in what is now Belarus. After the Holocaust, the movement began its outreach in earnest, trying to reach non-religious and unaffiliated Jews almost literally everywhere in the world. There are now approximately 5,000 Chabad emissaries in more than 90 countries.
While emissaries may receive some seed funding to start a new centre, they must raise their own funds to stay active. In 2006, Chabad Rabbi Chaim Bruk ventured from Brooklyn, N.Y. – Chabad headquarters is in Crown Heights – to Bozeman, Mont., to scout it out. Encouraged by the growing population and the amount of tourism, Bruk returned to Crown Heights to get the OK to set up a centre there. Given the green light, he and his wife Chavie did just that in 2007. The rabbi’s goal? To ensure that every one of Montana’s 2,000 Jewish families has a mezuzah on their door. One of the ways in which he makes headway on this task is by traveling all over the state, asking safe-looking strangers (who are the vast majority, he says) whether there are any Jews in the area and then, when he finds them, boldly introducing himself and his purpose.
As charming and open as Bruk seems, his presence, the ultra-Orthodox Judaism to which Chabad adheres and the movement’s expansionist mission – two more Chabad centres have opened since the Bruks arrived – are not universally welcomed by the Montana Jewish community. The Rabbi Goes West includes interviews with fellow rabbis Francine Roston (the first Conservative woman rabbi to lead a large congregation), who came to Montana from New Jersey in 2014; Allen Secher (co-founder of Chicago’s first Jewish Renewal congregation), who came to Montana after he retired in 2000 but retook the bimah when he found out he was the only rabbi in the state at the time; and Ed Stafman (a former trial lawyer), who came to the state from Florida. The film also includes commentary from local Jews from all four congregations.
While Bruk has limited involvement with the other congregations and rarely, if ever, joins their events – he contends that most of them violate some aspect of Judaism, such as the laws of kashrut, for example – the Jewish community does unite, along with other religious and secular groups and individuals in the state, when faced with neo-Nazi threats and cyberattacks.
The Rabbi Goes West is a documentary well worth seeing, both for its content and the way in which that content is presented. Sponsored by the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre, it screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival Oct. 7, 6:30 p.m., at Cinémathèque, and Oct. 8, 11:30 a.m., at International Village 10. For the full festival lineup, visit viff.org.
Éva Fahidi, in front, and Emese Cuhorka in a still from The Euphoria of Being, directed and written by Réka Szabó.
Éva Fahidi was 18 years old when she and her family were taken to Auschwitz. The men and women were separated. The women’s selection committee cut the line after Fahidi: “I went one way, and my whole family the other way. It was over. We are talking about a fraction of a moment, when one didn’t even have the faintest idea of what was really happening.” Forty-nine members of her family were murdered, including her mother, father and sister.
Fahidi tells this part of her story as dancer Emese Cuhorka, covered from head to toe in a black leotard, moves around her, expressing with her body some of what Fahidi is expressing verbally. This is but one of many moving scenes in The Euphoria of Being, written and directed by Réka Szabó. The Jewish Independent has chosen to sponsor the documentary’s screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 26-Oct. 11.
Szabó had heard Fahidi give a talk in Berlin, and she had read Fahidi’s memoir, The Soul of Things. She wrote to Fahidi about wanting to make a performance about her, with her it in. The almost-90-year-old Hungarian Holocaust survivor responded positively: “Every person should possess some form of healthy exhibitionism,” she says in the film. “I have more than is needed, so I don’t have any excuses.”
Cuhorka reminds Szabó of Fahidi. From this resemblance came the concept of a duet. At one of the first rehearsals, Fahidi shows Cuhorka what she’s able to do physically. “And, from the outside, it is like seeing an entire life at once,” says Szabó, as she watches them move together.
The documentary covers the three-month period prior to the October première of what would become Sea Lavender. The work is the collaborative creation of the three women and, while what we are shown of the final result is powerful, it is the process and the bonds formed by the women that have the most impact, and give the film its inspirational quality.
Fahidi is remarkable. She is smart, spirited, well-spoken and endearing. When she talks about her Holocaust experiences, it is as if she is reliving them; her eyes look unfocused, her body appears heavier, her anger remains. She says her family should have left Hungary in 1935. “But my poor father, he couldn’t see beyond his nose,” she says. So proud was he of what he had built, he couldn’t leave it behind and only go with the clothes on his back. “This is the eternal tragedy,” she says, “that you don’t see things for what they are when you see them. Absolute idiocy.”
The film then cuts to a photo of the family – her parents, sister and her – as Fahidi describes the way in which she imagines them being gassed. She talks about a documentary she saw on Zyklon B, how it was first tried on geese. Such factual expositions lay raw the depth of her grief.
Yet, when Szabó asks Fahidi to list some of the things that helped her survive, Fahidi remarks that you have to appreciate and value the fact that you’re alive. “The fact that you exist, in itself, is euphoric,” she says. Hence, the name of the documentary and of the choice of “the flying chair duet” as the final scene of the performance. In discussing the nature of tragedy, Fahidi concludes that it’s no use thinking about it because you always end up in the same sad place. “Meanwhile,” she says, “you live happily.”
Seeing Cuhorka and Fahidi work and perform together is delightful – the two really do bear similarities, and their mutual respect is evident. The closing text of the film notes, “At the age of 93, Éva is still performing regularly. So far, we have staged 77 performances of Sea Lavender in numerous cities, such as Berlin, Budapest and Vienna.” While it is too much to hope that the show will come to North America, it is satisfying to know of the project’s life-changing effect on Fahidi, who, apparently, “can’t imagine being alive and not performing the piece anymore.”
The Euphoria of Being screens Sept. 27, 12:30 p.m., at International Village 8, and Oct. 3, 7 p.m., and Oct. 4, 10 a.m., at Vancity Theatre. For tickets, visit viff.org.
Stills from the NFB’s Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile. Richmond Jewish Day School is one of the institutions featured in the short film, which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
The National Film Board short Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile, written and directed by Sandra Ignagni, is visually striking. For the most part, it lets the images do the talking, communicating more about cultural diversity than words could.
Part of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, Highway to Heaven introduces viewers to the multiple faith groups and institutions along a mile-long section of No. 5 Road in Richmond, which includes Richmond Jewish Day School. In the 17-minute documentary, this strip of road – which has been called “Highway to Heaven” – appears both full of colour and action, as well as remote and removed, not just geographically but with chain link fencing and other security measures.
“We share a world grappling with ethnic and racial tensions, religious xenophobia and violence,” writes Ignagni in her director’s notes. “Such realities are not limited to the world’s conflict zones – they are a part of everyday life, even in the most advanced democracies such as Canada. It was in this context that I was drawn to the peculiar landscape of No. 5 Road … where multiple cultural and religious groups share a short stretch of suburban road. I was curious about how groups pitted against each other in so many corners of the world appeared to be living relatively peacefully with one another, and in very close proximity, in an ordinary Canadian suburb.”
In showing the beauty of the area – both in landscape and in cultural acceptance – Ignagni also captures some of the tensions that exist. The camera jumps from a lush orchard to a mansion mid-construction to a for-sale sign in front of what seems to be part of a forest. In one scene, which looks like it was filmed at RJDS, police in full gear – bulletproof vest and holstered weapons – address RJDS and Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy students, introducing themselves so that the kids should feel comfortable going to the police if they have a problem. The police then referee the kids in a game of ball hockey – boys against the boys, girls against the girls – throwing in questions about boundaries and other issues for the kids to consider.
Referring to the police presence on the road, Ignagni writes that it could “be variously interpreted as bridge-building, protection or surveillance. I learned that, for more than one decade, the Richmond Jewish Day School did not have an exterior sign for fear of antisemitic attacks against its schoolchildren. And, in recent years, the secular residential community that surrounds No. 5 Road launched a major campaign opposing the proposed expansion of a Pure Land Buddhist temple, using the pejorative moniker ‘Buddha Disneyland’ to describe the proposed building in local media and public debates. The mere fact that zoning by-laws have ordered these communities – the majority of which play a critical role in new immigrant and refugee resettlement – to the fringe of suburban land is also ripe for reflection.”
The minimal use of narration or interviews in the film was a deliberate choice. To do otherwise, Ignagni notes, “would be an exercise in public relations, reducing complex issues to soundbites and polemics. Instead, I wanted to make a film that would at once capture the remarkable – because it is truly remarkable – diversity on No. 5 Road, as it actually exists, while gesturing to some of the unresolved issues that underlie Canadian multiculturalism. The film is, therefore, constructed as a ‘mosaic’ – defined by writer and activist Terry Williams as ‘a conversation between what is broken.’”
While she doesn’t rely on words to tell this story, sound plays an integral role in the film: calls to prayer, monks chanting, different languages being spoken (and not translated), kids playing, school bells ringing.
“My film invites audiences to sit with what is unknown, different, raw or only partially visible,” says Ignagni. “To me, a mosaic captures perfectly the subtle tensions one finds on No. 5 Road, where custom and ritual, language and cultural diversity are practised under surveillance cameras and behind locked doors and gates. In making this film, I am asking audiences to look with open eyes and hearts – with a spirit of curiosity – at themselves and their neighbours, and simply reflect on multiculturalism as an unfinished project in need of attention in Canada and around the world.”
In addition to RJDS and Az-Zahraa, the list of participating neighbours includes the Evangelical Formosan Church of Greater Vancouver, India Cultural Centre of Canada/Gurdwara Nanak Niwas, Kingswood Pub, Lingyen Mountain Temple, Mylora Executive Golf Course, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Richmond detachment), Thrangu Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Trinity Pacific Church, and Vedic Centre.
At VIFF, Ignagni will participate in one of a series of panel discussions presented by Storyhive on Totally Indie Day, Sept. 28, at Vancity Theatre. She will be on the hour-long panel called Not Short on Talent: The Rise of the Short Form Documentary, which starts at 3:45 p.m. For the full film festival lineup, including, eventually, the not-yet-listed screening time of Highway to Heaven – which was an Official Selection at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival – visit viff.org.
Finding Fukue follows Jessica Stuart’s journey to Japan to find her childhood friend.
To what lengths would you go to find a childhood friend whose letters stopped coming decades ago? When online searches proved fruitless, Vancouver-born, Toronto-based musician Jessica Stuart headed back to Japan, and her journey is recorded in the CBC Short Docs film Finding Fukue, which was produced with Real Stories. Since posted to YouTube last November, the charming and moving documentary has been viewed more than 3.6 million times to date.
“When I was 9 years old, my parents got English teaching jobs and moved us all to Japan for a year,” shares Stuart as the film starts. Among the images we see are clips of home movies from that year, 1988. “I was a blond kid, and that made me of interest to all the Japanese people because they had never really seen a blond-hair person before,” she says. “They would point at me or my sister, touch my hair, talk at me; I didn’t understand anything yet. The day after we arrived, I went to school for the first time and then that was crazy. I didn’t feel that anyone was interested in getting to know me, except for one person, and her name was Fukue, and we became best of friends.”
The Stuarts – Wendy, Ron and daughters Fiona and Jessica – settled in Saku, then a small rural village with no foreigners. Now, however, Stuart has to start looking for her friend Fukue in a city of 100,000 people. She visits the elementary school they attended and gets a yearbook, where she gets Fukue’s father’s name and an address from the year 2000, but this leads her to a new development, where she and her translator (for the more complex encounters) meet some women who remember her family but can’t help with finding Fukue.
At Saku City Hall, a press contingent meets Stuart and she gets the word out on television and in print. Finally, a clerk at City Hall manages to find a phone number for Fukue’s sister, who connects the two friends. The reunions – first by phone and then in person – are quite emotional. The two fall into a familiar comfort and get reacquainted. They have kept in touch since.
Maurice Yacowar and wife Anne Petrie. (photo from Yacowars)
Shtisel, the unlikely yet addictive hit television series about a Charedi family in Jerusalem, is now the subject of a new book, Reading Shtisel: A TV Masterpiece from Israel, an episode-by-episode analysis penned by Victoria writer and critic Maurice Yacowar, which he will share at the Jewish Community Centre of Victoria June 2.
Yacowar, a retired film professor, began his project in December 2018, as Netflix started airing the series that has become de rigueur viewing among Jews and non-Jews alike. As with many of the show’s aficionados and binge watchers, he was hooked, but his is the only book on Shtisel written thus far. The book’s first printing took place in March.
From his perspective, the show transcends what some may initially dismiss as soap-operatic tendencies. Not a character, not a scene, not an action in the two-season, 24-episode show is out of place, according to Yacowar.
“People (and animals) come and go, some questions may seem unanswered, but those elements are not relevant to the story. Nothing in the show is superfluous or unnecessary. Everything has a reason. We enter their domain, and we leave it, just at the right time,” he recently told the Jewish Independent at a Victoria restaurant.
Hence, the use of the word masterpiece in the book’s subtitle. “People from all cultures are able to relate to the drama and the compassion,” Yacowar explained.
“What’s more, no character stands for a safe idea,” he added. Shulem, the patriarch of the Shtisel family, is the most confounding of them all. At times, he is bullying to the point of being dictatorial; at other times, gentle and caring.
All involved do things that are not “in character,” said Yacowar, which takes viewers along various side streets or smaller stories within the story. There is the studious Zvi Arye, who, after watching a video taken in childhood, laments having had a shot at singing stardom thwarted; the scheming Lippe, who, for a time, abandons his family, though exhibits moments of great kindness and affection to those closest to him; and the show’s least sympathetic character, Nuchem, who doesn’t want his daughter, Libbi, to marry a deadbeat artist, aka his nephew Akiva, Shulem’s son.
Throughout the series are connections to the world outside the strict ultra-Orthodox confines of the Geula neighbourhood in Jerusalem, said Yacowar. Grandmother Malka is fixated by American daytime dramas, Giti’s need for money after her husband departs for Argentina leads her to seek work as a housekeeper for a clothing store manager, and cellphone use among this set of Charedim is ubiquitous.
It is Akiva’s desire to be an artist, though, which perhaps represents the greatest struggle between the secular and the religious in the show, not to mention the personal psychological conflict for the character himself. There are times, particularly those when he is immersed in his art, that Akiva appears to shift seamlessly from one world to another. And others, such as the scene where Akiva is presented with an award and funds for his art at an elite gallery, when the distinction between the pious Shtisel family and mainstream Israeli society could not be more pronounced.
Akiva, Yacowar pointed out, manages to rise in his battle and become his own person as the series concludes at the end of Season 2, no longer shackled by the vagaries of his father’s moods. In contrast, Shulem’s flaws – his conceit and ego, his inability to accept his son’s success in that other world – are on full display.
Yacowar doesn’t expect everyone to agree with his assessment of the series. “Other critics may well choose different points of emphasis, different connections and implications in phrase, situation or device,” he writes. “That’s the beauty, magic of connecting with a drama of such extraordinary richness and complexity.”
There is one point, however, on which he does expect readers of his book to be in agreement: “Let there be the illumination of a Season 3 – but only from the same creators and the same depth and integrity.”
Yacowar has written more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to the comic art of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. He has written two books about The Sopranos and a humorous work, Mondays with Moishe.
Reading Shtisel: A TV Masterpiece from Israel is available online and at Congregation Emanu-El and the JCC of Victoria. Yacowar’s June 2 presentation at the JCC will start at 11 a.m.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
The fear, bloodshed and massive loss of life in the cause of freedom are illustrated through remarkable – and convincing – dramatic reenactments in D-Day in 14 Stories. (photo from YAP Films and the History Channel)
The horrors and heroism of D-Day took place 75 years ago June 6. A remarkable new documentary, with distinct Canadian and Jewish connections, will air on the History Channel June 1. D-Day in 14 Stories includes firsthand recollections from Allied and German soldiers and French civilians – many of them kids or teenagers at the time of the conflict.
The massive battle of the Second World War saw more than 150,000 Canadian, American, British and other Allied soldiers storm the beaches of France, marking the turning point of Nazi – and Allied – fortunes.
D-Day in 14 Stories is a social history of D-Day, a joint production of YAP Films and the History Channel. The events on that long-ago day in 1944 are illuminated by eyewitness accounts from some of the few remaining veterans of that historic battle.
On D-Day alone, 359 Canadian soldiers were killed. More than 5,000 Canadian soldiers died during the succeeding weeks of fighting in Normandy. The fear, bloodshed and massive loss of life in the cause of freedom are illustrated through remarkable – and convincing – dramatic reenactments, visual effects and historical footage, including a trove of colour film taken by a soldier using an early Bell and Howell handheld movie camera.
Many soldiers on both sides were just following orders but, as Morton Waitzman recounts in the documentary, some Jewish soldiers felt a particular motivation.
“Being of the Jewish faith myself, and so many of my comrades, we knew we had to get over there as soon as possible to do whatever we could to stop this terrible curse,” he said. As a communications specialist, he connected American and British forces with members of the French Underground to help coordinate the battle.
The Germans were anticipating an attack, but had no idea when, where or how large a force the Allies would assemble. The documentary follows a wall of soldiers parachuting through a cascade of tracers. In all, 13,000 Americans dropped inland by air to support the amphibious landing and undermine the German response.
While one Allied soldier says, “Anybody who says they weren’t afraid is not telling the truth,” a German soldier recounts, tellingly: “We had no fear. We were convinced that we would win.”
Until D-Day, the British Air Force had strafed the Normandy coast, but returned to their island redoubt. French residents of the area were familiar with the routine: take shelter when the alarms go off and come back out when they ring again.
Bernard Marie was a 5-year-old child in Normandy at the time.
“The big difference is that, on June 6th, the siren never came back,” he said.
In all, 7,000 vessels embarked from Britain to the French coast. The Allies had no illusions about the cost of the operation. Casualties were anticipated to reach 25 to 30%.
Emotionally powerful dramatizations follow 16- and 17-year-olds as they face the life-and-death moment for themselves and the free world.
“Some never got off the boat,” recalled one soldier. “They were shot, bodies laid all over, boats turned upside down, real chaos. We still kept going forward.… Soldiers.”
One survivor remembers that, despite the explosions all around him, his sole consideration when coming ashore at Normandy was that his socks were soaked through.
The average soldier was carrying 35 kilograms on his back and, for those whose vessels did not manage to make it close to shore, jumping off the ship, in many cases, led to almost instantaneous drowning.
If they survived the initial landing, the soldiers had to confront the German enemy firing down from above at Allied soldiers who were effectively sitting ducks. A German soldier recalls: “We merely had to point that machine gun and it was like cutting wheat with a scythe. For the odd miss, we had a thousand hits.”
The film admirably makes the effort to capture the particular experiences of African-American and First Nations soldiers.
Waitzman, the Jewish American soldier, went on to fight in Europe and participated in the liberation of concentration camps.
“We became eyewitnesses to the Holocaust by what we saw,” he says in the film. “We were very compelled to tell the details to young people. We had to talk, to fight this as much as possible.”
Another veteran of the battle reflects on the loss of life, but ponders the alternative: “God knows what would’ve happened if we hadn’t done it.”
Prof. Yehudit Silverman’s The Hidden Face of Suicide is helping people talk about a topic still surrounded by stigma. (photo from yehuditsilverman.com)
Concordia University professor Yehudit Silverman’s award-winning documentary The Hidden Face of Suicide focuses on the world of survivors – those who have lost loved ones to suicide – and reveals their remarkable stories.
Wanting to learn the story behind the silence in her own family, Silverman offered suicide survivors a creative way to express themselves – using masks. In the documentary, she highlights the danger of secrets and the cost of silence.
Produced and directed by Silverman, The Hidden Face of Suicide features the Montreal group Family Survivors of Suicide. It has screened at Cinema du Parc in Montreal, Curzon Theatre in London, England, on PBS television in the United States, and at various international festivals and theatres. It was also shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as part of the Seeds of Hope project, and is being used in diverse locations in Montreal as an education tool around the issue of suicide.
At Concordia, Silverman leads a graduate program that trains therapists in three different programs – art, drama and music therapies – with the goal of soon adding dance therapy.
The Hidden Face of Suicide, which was released in 2010, came out of a five-year research project about suicide.
“I was interested in the stigma that surrounds it and the fact that it’s not talked about or mentioned,” Silverman told the Independent. “I did a lot of reading about it. Then, I found the Montreal group Family Survivors of Suicide and I met the woman who was the facilitator, named Caroline, and then she invited me to the group.
“I started attending the group and hearing the stories. They all lost family to suicide. I listened and, after I got to know them … I was there for about six months and I wrote down some of the themes that came up, kind of field research – identifying common themes … and a lot of it was having to hide, having people turn away, having to wear a mask.
“And so, out of that, I asked if they would be part of a film. Then, we started working on the film and part of it was them creating masks, since that had come up for them. So, they created masks, wore them and worked with them. And that became a very powerful tool and also a metaphor for those who are left behind.”
Doing this research also spurred Silverman to ask her parents about her uncle’s suicide for the first time. She did so on camera. “I was intrigued with the fact that I had never known about this,” she said. “And, why was that … why was there shame and stigma?”
As well, during high school, Silverman knew fellow students who had taken their own lives – and these suicides, too, were never talked about. She felt compelled to learn more about why that was and to create a film to help break the silence.
While the release of the film and its being so well received was a high point, Silverman also noted an article she wrote reflecting on the whole process – called “Choosing to Enter the Darkness – A Researcher’s Reflection on Working with Suicide Survivors: A Collage of Words and Images” – which was published in Qualitative Research and Psychology.
“I wanted the audience to hear the experience of survivors – what it’s like to be left behind – and to also break the stigma and shame around it. And, it has. People in the audience often stand up and share their own stories for the first time,” she said. “I had a woman in one of my screenings and she said, ‘I’m 84. When I was 24, my mother took her own life and I’ve never talked about it until now. I was too ashamed.’ So, for 60 years she held that in.
“So, that was the goal. I feel like it has been helpful in terms of … breaking the silence. It’s also been used a lot to encourage discussion for people to talk about it, and it’s in universities, libraries and all the suicide organizations.”
Silverman contends that using art to broach such taboo topics allows people to confront issues without feeling overwhelmed. This approach fits with her therapy practice in general, as she uses art as a gateway for patients to share emotions they likely would not share otherwise.
“Talking can often just go around and around in circles, where nothing new is actually being discovered,” she explained. “I’m not saying that always happens. But, I think that using art as another tool can be incredibly powerful.”
Silverman has received positive feedback about the film, including from people who said they were feeling suicidal and that the film helped, as it talked about suicide openly and showed the pain of those left behind.
“I think it can be used to initiate a discussion in a safe way,” said Silverman. “It would be great if someone would use it to create an educational kit…. For me, the emphasis is that, if suicide is still surrounded by shame and stigma, it’s harmful for those who are suicidal. If they feel like people are so ashamed that they can’t even mention it, then how can they reach out for help? So, that’s my message. It feels very sad to me that I made the film in 2010 and I still feel like there’s a lot of stigma around suicide.”
On the other hand, Silverman said she thinks some things are slowly getting better; for example, that clergy are discussing the topic more with their congregations.
“Some rabbis, priests and ministers now mention the word ‘suicide,’” she said. “I’ve been to a few funerals where it’s mentioned very sensitively, but honestly, with, of course, the family’s permission. I think that’s helpful for everyone there, because everyone knows.
“I feel like schools are trying to deal with it in a better way, too. We recently had a suicide at Concordia. I was called in to help with the response. And so, I feel like there is a real desire now to be more honest about it and to try and find the best way, because college kids are very susceptible.”
According to Silverman, suicide is the biggest killer of adolescents and people in their early 20s in Canada, though different cultures and populations experience different rates. The elderly are also vulnerable, due mainly to loneliness.
“With the Inuit population, First Nations, there’s a really high incidence of suicide,” added Silverman. “I’ve gone out north and it’s really sad. They’re also doing some wonderful grassroots stuff to address that.”
Celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer started life as Karola Ruth Siegel in Weisenfeld, Germany. (photo from Mongrel Media)
Before she rocketed to 1980s TV fame as sex advisor Dr. Ruth, she was simply Ruth Westheimer. And long before she was Ruth Westheimer, she was Karola Ruth Siegel of Weisenfeld, Germany.
It is those formative early years that provide the most resonant and affecting passages in Ryan White’s solid documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, which is scheduled to open in Vancouver May 10. I’ll go even further: They provide the film with its raison d’etre.
Sure, lots of people were helped in ways big and small by Dr. Ruth’s high-profile acceptance of (almost) every form of sexual behaviour and by her uninhibited, direct language about intimate acts and love relationships. But what lifts Ask Dr. Ruth above a “where are they now” profile of an old-media, pop-culture celebrity is Karola Ruth Siegel’s experiences before, during and immediately after the Second World War.
Most audiences, especially non-Jewish viewers, will come to Ask Dr. Ruth for the sex. The mitzvah of the film, as it were, is that they will get the Holocaust.
To be clear, Dr. Ruth doesn’t see herself as a Holocaust survivor. She is “an orphan of the Holocaust,” which is the most poignant and wrenching phrase you’ll encounter all week.
Born in 1928, Karola Ruth was the sole child of observant Jewish parents. She was too young to fully understand when the Nazis sent her father to a labour camp in the 1930s. And, as bright as she was, she couldn’t fully grasp the long-term implications when her parents put her on a train to Switzerland with a group of Jewish children.
Placed in an orphanage, Karola Ruth and the other Jewish kids were handed housekeeping duties and some responsibilities for caring for the Swiss kids. They received food and shelter, but zero love and little compassion. A natural ringleader – on the train, she’d organized a sing-along to distract the homesick youngsters – Karola Ruth figured out ways to educate and entertain herself.
She discovered boys, of course, and the film accompanies her abroad to a warm reunion with her first boyfriend, Walter Nothmann. It’s pretty chaste stuff, presented by Westheimer with nostalgia and charm, which conveys universal attitudes of adolescence.
At the same time, though, Karola Ruth was devouring and savouring every letter and poem she received from her mother and father – until weeks, and then months, passed without any communication. (She preserved and protected these treasures throughout her travels, and keeps them in plastic sleeves in a notebook.)
The animation style used by filmmaker White to illustrate Karola Ruth’s Swiss period is annoyingly juvenile, unless one presumes that children are one of the intended audiences of Ask Dr. Ruth. Admittedly, those experiences are as accessible and relevant to today’s children as Anne Frank’s, if not more so, but parents and guardians would need to know that the focus of a documentary about a sex therapist isn’t, uh, sex.
At some point after the war, Westheimer accepted that her parents had been killed by the Nazis, but she never sought out the details. All these years later, while visiting Israel during the filming of Ask Dr. Ruth, she goes to Yad Vashem and learns that her father died in 1942 in Auschwitz. The notation for her mother is “disappeared/murdered.”
Ask Dr. Ruth skilfully weaves three threads and three distinct time frames: its subject’s biography from the 1930s to the 1960s, her high-profile heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, and her peripatetic schedule of speaking engagements and family contacts, climaxing with her 90th birthday last June.
The trek to Israel, fascinatingly, includes a visit with a friend from Kibbutz Ramat David, where Ruth Siegel – persuaded that Karola was too German, she dropped it – landed in Palestine at age 17. This remarkable chapter of her life includes ceding her virginity, being trained as a Haganah sniper and, on her 20th birthday during the War of Independence, being injured so badly in a bombing that there was a question whether she’d be able to use her feet again.
The next 70 years of Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s life, spanning Paris, New York, three husbands, two children, a doctorate at age 42, a radio show, household name recognition and four grandchildren, are acutely interesting. But the imprint of coming of age during the war, without her parents but with determination, resourcefulness, intelligence and humour, defined Karola Ruth Siegel and infuses Ask Dr. Ruth with timeless importance.
“From my background, all of the things I’ve survived,” Westheimer declares, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
The cast of the Disney Channel’s Andi Mack included, left to right: Asher Angel as Jonah Beck, Peyton Elizabeth Lee as Andi Mack, Joshua Rush as Cyrus Goodman and Sofia Wylie as Buffy Driscoll. (photo by Disney Channel/Mitch Haaseth)
Before it was canceled two weeks ago, after three seasons, the Disney Channel’s Andi Mack covered new ground. The tween coming-of-age show not only had a Jewish character, Cyrus Goodman, but he was the first openly gay character on the channel. The coming-out storyline, which aired earlier this year, received high praise for the way it was handled. The show’s inclusivity is one reason fans are still fighting – via social media – to keep the show on the air. New episodes will run through the end of summer.
Joshua Rush, who played Cyrus, is Jewish himself. On the ABC TV show Good Morning America, Rush, who is 17, said that the response was overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve really gotten to see the myriad ways that both this new coming-out scene for Cyrus, and this Jewish representation of his family, has affected the fans,” Rush said.
The scene in which Cyrus comes out to his friends is set in front of a buffet spread of traditional Jewish food at his grandmother Bubbe Rose’s shivah. While explaining the foods, such as kugel, classic bagels and lox and gefilte fish, he blurts out that he is gay. The episode, called “Once in a Minyan,” was written by Jonathan Hurwitz, whose credits include The Daily Show. Hurwitz shared in a guest post for GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) that he was driven from personal experience to write this episode as “someone who’s Jewish, has dealt with long-term anxiety and has come out to his friends and family.”
Cyrus’s Judaism allowed the writers and show’s creative team to incorporate Jewish traditions and rituals. In one episode, Cyrus has a bar mitzvah – and, in it, Rush recites the same Torah portion from his own bar mitzvah. Another example is the shivah scene, where the writers included Jewish bereavement rituals like covering mirrors and the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish; there is also a yahrzeit candle on display.
Prior to the announcement of the show’s cancelation, the Jewish Independent spoke with Rush, who was born in Houston, Tex., but now resides in Los Angeles.
JI: Did you have any input in the character being Jewish?
JR: Our show’s creator, Terri Minsky, is Jewish, and so am I. From the beginning, there had been discussions of the character being Jewish, but actually acting on it in the context of the bar mitzvah and shivah episodes came later, after the character was more fleshed out. The storylines themselves were all Terri’s though.
JI: Did you suggest the bar mitzvah storyline, since you had recently had one?
JR: After learning of the character’s Judaism and being more comfortable with Terri and the writing staff, I was immediately very excited at the idea of giving Cyrus a bar mitzvah. I loved mine but, because I celebrated mine in Israel, I didn’t get all the accoutrements of an American bar mitzvah, so I really enjoyed the massive party we had for the “bash mitzvah”!
JI: What kind of feedback have you gotten from family, friends and fans about your character being gay? Being Jewish?
JR: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I think, a lot of the time, the media, and especially kids shows, display Jewish characters in side plots. See Chanukah being “Jewish Christmas,” Pesach being “Jewish Easter,” etc. With this great representation of the religion in the cast and writer’s room, we were able to show a Jewish character who is a main character, who has his own life, his own story, and being Jewish is just a part of that. Not being the butt of jokes as a result of his faith has given me a lot pride.
JI: What messages do you hope viewers will get from your storylines?
JR: I think something that’s really special about Cyrus is that he knows that he doesn’t know everything about the world and about himself. But he’s never afraid to ask the tough questions about who he might be and what that means for his life. That’s an incredibly honourable thing, and I think we can all learn from that.
JI: On a personal note, does your family celebrate Jewish holidays?
JR: We celebrate most holidays and being Jewish is a big part of our household. The show was very flexible with allowing us to celebrate Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and we even cooked traditional Jewish foods for Chanukah every winter, much to the delight of the crew. (My dad makes the best matzah balls on planet earth!)
Alice Burdick Schweiger is a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
Ai Weiwei is among the artists featured in Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, a documentary by Larry Weinstein, which will screen twice during DOXA. (photo from DOXA)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival lineup includes Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, which “explores a diverse range of mediums, from well-recognized symbols of fascist movements, to more subtle forms in political satire and online slander.” Ahead of the festival, veteran filmmaker Larry Weinstein spoke with the Jewish Independent. Propaganda screens twice during the festival, on May 9 and 10.
JI: Can you share a bit about your background a few key moments on your path to being a documentary filmmaker?
LW: I’ve been directing for 35 years and have made close to 40 films in that time. But I actually started in high school and especially became interested in documentary (and propaganda) when I made a film about a slaughterhouse soon after I had become a vegetarian. It was the usual stuff – slow-mo shots of slit jugular veins and unborn calves being ripped from their slaughtered mothers all set to the music of Debussy.
After the film screened in my school, a good percentage of the students became vegetarian and I realized that, with this power to persuade, I wanted to make more documentaries. But, my first professional film 10 years later was quite different and a bit more subtle – Making Overtures: The Story of a Community Orchestra was a film which seemed like a home movie but it did very well, including an Oscar nomination. It set me on the road to a long series of music films, especially those about composers like Ravel, Schoenberg, Falla, Rodrigo, Weill, Beethoven and Mozart. It’s hard to refer to key moments. Each of the films is special to me. I’ve been very lucky.
JI: The topics you’ve covered are wide-ranging, from music and the performing arts to global politics to Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas and the documentary on Maya Farrell. How do you choose your subject matter?
LW: Originally, all my films were music based but, more recently, I’ve made three sports-based films. The latest, The Impossible Swim, is on three generations of marathon swimmers and was co-directed with my filmmaker daughter, Ali – something very special for me.
Our Man in Tehran is a documentary about the 1979 hostage crisis that corrects the inaccuracies of Argo; Inside Hana’s Suitcase is [a] Holocaust film. But, to tell you the truth, many of the music films also deal with history, with science, with politics, with culture and they are quite varied in form as well as content. Many of the films have come out my own dreams and interests. Many have been suggested by broadcasters and other sources, but those must also become internalized and feel like they come from me before I can really proceed with them.
JI: Propaganda has existed since humans appeared on earth. The DOXA blurb asks, “How do we know what we know?” But is it possible to not sell a specific perspective, if not a lie. Someone’s truth is another’s lie? What’s your diagnosis of the problem and do you have a suggested remedy? Or is propaganda a problem that can never be solved?
LW: Propaganda has indeed existed from the beginning. It was born along with the birth of art, of language, of spiritual thought. Orwell said that all art is propaganda. That’s debatable but probably accurate.
Propaganda is mind-control. It’s not necessarily sinister but I subtitled the film The Art of Selling Lies because I was in a bad mood, often reading Trump’s tweets first thing in the morning, fed up with his lies. Nothing he says is the truth; seeing that he was directly inspired by rhetoric of Stalin and by the speeches of Hitler. But propaganda is everywhere – it surrounds us and seems to be flung at us exponentially with social media – whether politically, socially, economically, religiously, too. We are fed lies and untruths from the moment we are born. Coke tastes good. You want a Barbie doll. You want a Corvette. This political party will save you; that one will destroy you. Religion is your salvation. There is an omnipotent, omniscient God who loves you but you’re [screwed] if he’s angry. All that stuff. Lies. Propaganda.
The remedy? Think about what you are being force-fed. Be rational about it. Propaganda feeds on emotion, on your fears, on your anxiety, on your superstitions. Resist and don’t accept crap just because somebody says it’s true, when it’s obviously questionable.
Propaganda screens May 9, 8:30 p.m., at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, and May 10, noon, at Vancity Theatre. The May 10 screening is part of Rated Y for Youth and includes a post-film discussion. Tickets to DOXA can only be purchased online: doxafestival.ca. For more information about the festival, which runs until May 12, call 604-646-3200.