The Arty Semite

Uncovering the Remains of Treblinka

By Curt Schleier

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls is a British forensic archeologist. Much of her work is with police departments, often literally digging up missing persons — so she’s used to uncovering remains.

Still, what she discovered during her research at the Treblinka death camp was so emotionally wrenching, it forced her to tears. A riveting account of her work there, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” airs March 29 at 8 pm on the Smithsonian Channel.

Treblinka was actually two camps. Treblinka 1 was supposedly a labor camp. Treblinka 2 was almost certainly the most efficient murder operation in the history of mankind. About 900,000 people fell victim there in a little more than a year. Camp commanders bragged about their efficiency.

But, facing an oncoming Soviet army, the Germans destroyed the buildings, dug up mass graves and burned the bodies, forced local people to spread the ash and planted trees to cover over what had been the camp.

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Growing Up in a Former Synagogue Sanctuary

By Renee Ghert-Zand

For the many people walking through New York’s Lower East Side on any given day, 70 Hester Street is just one of many historic buildings. But for 37-year-old filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski, this former synagogue is home. He grew up in the loft space on the upper two floors, which his artist parents, Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, used as their studio for 45 years until they were evicted in 2012.

With a sense that 70 Hester Street would likely the suffer the fate of so many other buildings in the old neighbourhood and be torn down to make way for a new, sleek condominium or commercial space, Nozkowski started filming his childhood home in June 2012. His premonition turned out to be correct. Not long after, his parents received notice that the building was being sold and that they, as rental tenants, would have to move out.

“I went in to overdrive when we got the eviction notice,” Nozkowski told the Forward. “I started editing as I was still filming, and finished the film toward the end of 2013.” Fortunately, he completed the documentary in time to submit it for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which accepted it for its City Limits: New York Shorts program. In its world premiere, “70 Hester Street” will be screened five times between April 17 and 27.

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Some Jews Are Funnier Than Others

By Curt Schleier

A popular form of entertainment is watching comics analyzing comedy — a subject that doesn’t easily lend itself to analysis. Simply: What’s funny is what makes the lady in the third row laugh. You cannot tell her she’s wrong; if she doesn’t laugh it isn’t funny, she does and it is. End of story.

Still, shows like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” David Steinberg’s “Inside Comedy” on Showtime and the DVD “When Comedy Went To School” (about the Catskills) are all the rage.

I suspect the DVD release of Alan Zweig’s documentary, “When Jews Were Funny” will swiftly put an end to that. Zweig interviews about 25 comics of various ages and levels of success: Howie Mandel, Shecky Greene and the late David Brenner, among others in the top tier, and numerous others I’d never heard of before.

Part of the documentary’s problem is visual. Even under the best of circumstances, a film made up almost entirely of talking heads lacks tempo. It simply moves from one face to another, in this case with each face saying almost the same thing we’ve heard over and over again: Comedy comes from suffering and who has suffered more than Jews?

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Aaron Swartz Story Comes to Sundance

By Piya Sinha-Roy

(Reuters) — A year after Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, a new documentary brings to light the young computer prodigy’s earnest battle to bring online freedom of access to information for everyone.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday and director Brian Knappenberger was joined by Swartz’s father Robert and two brothers, Noah and Ben, all of whom received a standing ovation.

“It’s unbelievably hard for us, but Aaron is dead, there’s nothing we can do about that,” Swartz’s father told the audience, saying he hoped the film would raise awareness of Aaron’s activism and encourage others to fight on his behalf.

Swartz died aged 26 in his Brooklyn, New York apartment on January 11, 2013, after facing felony charges brought by a federal grand jury that included theft, wire fraud and computer fraud.

The federal indictment said Swartz, a fellow at Harvard University, had downloaded millions of articles and journals from digital archive JSTOR through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology servers. Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted.

In the film, which is a contender in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition, Knappenberger focuses on Swartz’s intellect and growing political ambitions, with interviews that shed insight into his personality from Swartz’s family, friends and colleagues.

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The Mischievous Life of Marcel Ophüls

By Allen Ellenzweig

The documentary “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — which received its American premiere January 8 at the New York Jewish Film Festival — is a significant change of pace for its director, Marcel Ophüls. Previously, Ophüls has given us magisterial inquiries into 20th century moral outrages, including his pre-eminent “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a disturbing exploration of French collaboration during the Nazi occupation, and “The Memory of Justice,” which examined the postwar world’s legal and ethical sense in the wake of the Nuremberg trials.

In “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — a terrible English title for what should have been a direct translation from the French, “A Traveler” — Ophüls is up to something decidedly more mischievous: He offers a self-portrait in late age, a memoir of youth, the tale of a family’s diaspora in the face of the Nazi menace, and a distinguished filmmaker’s tribute to his father, Max Ophüls, who himself had a legendary career in Germany, France and Hollywood, with films of dark romanticism including “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “The Earrings of Madame de,” and “Lola Montès.”

Using still photographs, clips from his father’s films and his own, and interview footage shot in various world capitals and resorts, Ophüls fils presents himself as a travel guide of his family’s enforced peregrinations, a self-styled failed roué whose adored wife has separated from him, and a filmmaker whose nearly two-decade retirement this film ends.

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Hitchcock Holocaust Doc To Be Screened At Last

By Renee Ghert-Zand

A Holocaust documentary by Alfred Hitchcock will be screened in theatres and at festivals later this year, and on television in early 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Europe at the end of World War II.

It was not widely known that Hitchcock was enlisted in 1945 by his friend and patron Sidney Bernstein to assist with the making of a documentary on German atrocities. The Guardian reports that Hitchcock was so traumatized by the footage shot by British and Soviet film units at liberated concentration camps that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, where he filmed some of his films, for a week. “Hitchcock may have been the king of horror movies but he was utterly appalled by ‘the real thing.’”

The idea was to produce and show the film to the Germans to make them face and take responsibility for what they had done. However, production was delayed, and by late 1945, there was less interest. Apparently, “the Allied military government decided that rubbing the Germans’ noses in their own guilt wouldn’t help with postwar reconstruction.”

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My Marvin Hamlisch Moment

By Curt Schleier

The only thing wrong with the latest American Masters profile is the title.

Courtesy Hamlisch Family

Officially it’s “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love.” More accurately, it should have been “Marvin Hamlisch: Mensch.”

Hamlisch was a musician of almost unrivaled accomplishment. He provided the music for numerous plays (“A Chorus Line,” “They’re Playing Our Song”) and films (“The Way We Were,” “The Spy Who Loved Me”). He wrote pop songs (his first hit was “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows”). He conducted major symphonies and, famously, was musical director for Barbra Streisand’s concert tour.

His work made him an EGOT — the term given to someone who’s won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only 11 people have ever done that. But Hamlisch also added a P — a Pulitzer. The only other person to do that was Richard Rodgers.

Hamlisch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna who, fortunately, saw the storm clouds early and left. Much of the rest of the family perished in the Holocaust. His widow, Terre, said: “He used to say, ‘Do you know how lucky you are to have your grandparents?’ That’s why he loved family and appreciated the things he did have.”

His father, Max, was a professional musician and his mother, Lily, was the prototypical Jewish mom. Marvin’s cousin, Rabbi Paul Kushner, tells a story that proves that point.

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Claude Lanzmann and the Boss of Theresienstadt

By Allen Ellenzweig

“The Last of the Unjust” is at once a documentary on the Holocaust, a character portrait, an inquiry into the nature of evil, a rumination on drawing moral distinctions, and a lesson on the pedagogical limits of film. This well over three-hour documentary, directed — or should we say “constructed”? — by Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-and-a-half-hour “Shoah” of 1985 set the bar impossibly high for anyone foolish enough to take on the same subject, is an adjunct to that earlier project. In “The Last of the Unjust,” Lanzmann takes a massive amount of interview footage with one Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, originally intended for “Shoah,” and uses it to home in on this particular Jew caught up in the ethical quagmire of the concentration camps.

In this case, the “camp” is the model village Theresienstadt, the former Czech garrison Terezin, “given to the Jews” by Hitler, but used for propaganda purposes such that the International Red Cross was taken in by the elaborate subterfuge. As a Nazi “public relations” film of the period shows, Theresienstadt was populated by happy, well fed children playing games, vigorous Jewish athletes engaged in a soccer match around a large inner courtyard for the pleasure of a packed “house,” and talented Jewish musicians performing symphonic music for the interned masses. Factory workers industriously produced goods for the self-sufficient village, and so purposeful and idealistic are the looks on all of these Jewish faces, one wonders if Leni Riefenstahl could have produced any more invigorating picture of Jews as their own master race. Indeed, in this piece of twisted propaganda, Theresienstadt is made to appear a homeland for which any Jew would seek to make aliyah.

But Lanzmann’s film does not provide a historical reconstruction of the town itself; instead, in a week’s worth of interviews conducted in 1975 with Murmelstein, the third Jewish elder to have administrated the town, and thus a man at the will and whim of the Nazis, Lanzmann forces us to measure the guilt or innocence of a Jewish “collaborator” — one of those Jewish elders whom Hannah Arendt fingered with contempt.

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Stephen Sondheim in Six Songs

By Curt Schleier

Once upon a time, Americans grew up humming show tunes. They dominated radio airwaves, so, even if you hadn’t seen the musicals (or the films made from them), you knew the melodies and words to the songs of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady.”

But that changed as pop, rock and rap started to control airtime. Today, it’s a rare Broadway song that cracks the national consciousness. It’s in part for this reason that James Lapine’s HBO documentary, “Six by Sondheim,” which debuts December 9, is so fascinating and important.

Courtesy HBO

Lapine uses archival footage as well as fresh performances by Audra McDonald and America Ferrera of six Stephen Sondheim songs to tell the story of the composer’s fascinating and troubled life.

Some of the stories will be familiar to Sondheim enthusiasts, especially those who’ve read Meryle Secrest’s outstanding biography, “Stephen Sondheim: A Life.” He was a child of divorce. His mother once sent him a note saying she was sorry she gave birth to him. But he lived near the Pennsylvania home of Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored and encouraged him and became almost an adoptive parent.

That turns out to have been entirely appropriate, since Sondheim went on to become heir to Hammerstein (and Rodgers) and certainly the greatest Broadway composer of his generation. His shows, starting with “West Side Story” and including “Gypsy,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

He’s sort of like Mozart,” Lapine told the Forward in a telephone interview. “His work is going to live.”

Of course, Lapine is not exactly an unbiased observor. He’s been Sondheim’s partner on several musicals. They shared the Pulitzer for “Sunday in the Park” and Lapine won a half dozen Tonys for directing and writing the book of plays for which Sondheim wrote music. Lapine talked to the Forward about how he and Sondheim met, about their collaborations, and how the film came about.

Curt Schleier: How did you meet Stephen?

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A Cradle-to-Grave Health Care System That Works

By Renee Ghert-Zand

There are no easy answers when it comes to creating and sustaining healthcare systems that are both effective and affordable. In his new television documentary, “Dockside to Bedside: 100 Years of Herzl,” filmmaker Ezra Soiferman provides a window on to one system that seems, for the most part, to be doing a good job on both fronts. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly worth taking a look at.

Herzl’s chief, Dr. Michael Malus. Photo by Ezra Soiferman.

It’s in Montreal, Canada and it’s called the Goldman Herzl Family Practice Center. People just call it Herzl, or the Herzl, for short.

Before beginning work on the film, Soiferman, a lifelong Montrealer, had heard of Herzl, but was unaware of its history or of its comprehensive nature. “I knew Herzl as a well-regarded breastfeeding program, but I had no idea that it was actually an entire cradle-to-grave family and preventive medicine system,” Soiferman told The Arty Semite.

Brought on board to make the film by producer Christos Sourligas, Soiferman discovered how Herzl grew from a two-bed dockside dispensary opened in 1912 by the city’s Jewish community. It provided free medical care to poor immigrants, both Jews and others. One of North America’s first free medical clinics, it still mainly serves Montreal’s immigrant population, only now costs are paid by the province of Quebec’s universal medicare system.

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Up Close and Personal With Israeli Prime Ministers

By Curt Schleier

Moriah Films is a division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and is responsible for a dozen documentaries of Jewish interest. Filmmaker Richard Trank has been with Moriah from the beginning, a journey that included an Academy Award in 1997 for “The Long Way Home,” about Holocaust Survivors rebuilding their lives and the State of Israel.

Of all his productions, his latest, “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” was probably the easiest. It seems all he had to do was point a couple of cameras and say “Action.”

Courtesy Moriah Films

Those cameras were pointed at Yehuda Avner, author of the book on which the film is based and a long-time Israeli government official. He is also a heck of a raconteur.

Avner was born in Manchester, England, immigrated to Israel in 1947, and eventually took on a number of public relations and English speech writing roles for five Prime Ministers. He also served as an ambassador to England, Ireland and Australia.

“The Prime Ministers” is the first of two films based on his 715-page book of the same name. “Pioneers” covers Avner’s work with Levi Eshkol and Gold Meir, and with Yitzhak Rabin when Rabin was Israel’s U.S. Ambassador.

The second, “Soldiers and Peacemakers,” is scheduled for release in the spring; it covers Avner’s work with Rabin as prime minister as well as with Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres.

The documentary is less biographical than anecdotal. The average viewer will learn a lot; students of Israeli history, already familiar with much of what “The Pioneers” contains, will still pick up a nugget or two and find the documentary a worthwhile and pleasant experience.

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IMAX 'Jerusalem' Closer to Heaven Than Earth

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Courtesy National Geographic

National Geographic Entertainment’s cinematographically beautiful new 3D IMAX movie “Jerusalem” is closer to the heavenly Jerusalem than to the earthly one. But even devoid of contemporary political context, the film provides an informative and visually stunning introduction to the Old City of Jerusalem and its fundamental importance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

For those unfamiliar with the Holy City, “Jerusalem” is a concise, clear and captivating primer. And for those of us who regularly follow the conflict-fueled news from the Israeli capital, it temporarily zooms us out and away from the daily grind, reminding us of why Jerusalem is and always has been considered by so many to be the center of the earth.

The different quarters of the Old City are introduced and represented by three young women: Revital Zacharie, a Jew; Farah Amouri, a Muslim; and Nadia Tadros, a Christian. Each woman shares a bit about her life, her family’s history in Jerusalem, and her religion’s enduring connection to the place. The filmmakers bolster the women’s personal narratives with scenes of the rituals and festivities of Passover, Easter and Ramadan as they are practiced in the Old City.

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View From the Ground of the Arab Spring

By Allen Ellenzweig

We are living through a golden age of documentary film. Surely “The Square,” a riveting account of the Arab Spring as it played out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square between 2011 and 2013, argues in favor of such optimism. In something under two hours, director Jehane Noujaim’s film — which recently screened at the New York Film Festival — offers an intellectually and emotionally rich view of the philosophies and passions that moved ordinary Egyptian citizens to throw themselves into their country’s historical moment with an extraordinary level of commitment.

Noujaim, an Egyptian-American and Harvard graduate with a solid professional portfolio in documentary filmmaking, wends her way around and through the massive street demonstrations that made Cairo’s central traffic circle and public square the locus of protest, first against the 30-year tyrannical rule of Hosni Mubarak, and then against his democratically-elected replacement, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, whose one-year tenure was judged a betrayal of the democratic spirit which fed the popular street revolution in the first place.

“The Square” follows the lives of six relatively young Egyptians who each take up the revolutionary banner in those first protests calling for Mubarak’s ouster. Noujaim is more than lucky in her choice of subjects. Pride of place goes to Ahmed Hassan, a mid-20s charmer of working-class background who throws his body into the fray, and uses his native intelligence and big heart to argue at top volume until he’s hoarse. He represents revolutionary fervor at its best: committed to social justice for his compatriots, even the Islamists of the Brotherhood of whose religious zeal he is wary. Ahmed is also committed to the crucial notion of individual conscience, which must sustain a civil society if it is to endure.

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Polio Couldn't Stop Hit Songwriter Doc Pomus

By Curt Schleier

“I was never one of those happy cripples,” is the way Jerome Felder described himself.

Felder Family Archive
Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus (right).

Why would he be? He was just 6 years old when he contracted polio. And in a sad irony fit for a blues song, the young Brooklynite caught the virus at a country summer camp he’d been sent to specifically to avoid the disease.

It’s no wonder that Felder was attracted to the Joe Turner songs of pain and suffering he heard on the radio. It’s no surprise, too, that the teenager started hanging out at blues clubs.

What is a little shocking is that when they asked this white Jewish kid on crutches what he was doing there, he had the chutzpah to say he was a blues singer. And he was. Except for the name, of course. So he changed it, to Doc Pomus.

As filmmaker Peter Miller points out in his documentary, “A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” Felder ultimately went on to write the songs that became the soundtrack for many of our lives: “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”

Pop song writing in the ‘50s was centered on the famous Brill Building in Manhattan, the ground zero of the music publishing business. In the world of Brill Building writers — Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Howie Greenfield and Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cyntha Weil, among others — Pomus and his partners were the sun around which other planets revolved.

Miller spoke to The Arty Semite about how he came to make this film, his background in Jewish-themed documentaries, and how marriage changed his level of observance.

Curt Schleier: You’re only 51. Were you familiar with Pomus-era music?

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Biggest Little Music Studio in Alabama

By Dorri Olds

At first, Jerry Wexler (1917–2008) was bupkes. But eventually he became the king of the music biz and even coined the phrase, “rhythm and blues.” In the 1960s, he wanted in on the “Muscle Shoals Sound,” which was named for a small town in Alabama where hit records were coming out of Rick Hall’s FAME Studios.

Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

The documentary “Muscle Shoals,” in theaters September 27, tells the story of this tiny recording studio that launched so many hit records. The film features Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Jimmy Cliff, Clarence Carter, Etta James, Alicia Keys and Bono, but the most fascinating segments are of Jerry Wexler. These scenes are intercut with Rick Hall’s riveting tale about one night spent with Wexler himself. Hall sat down with The Arty Semite to tell the tale.

Dorri Olds: How did you first meet Jerry Wexler?

Rick Hall: Jerry Wexler was the biggest record company guru in the world. I started FAME here, in a little bitty town of a thousand people and the studio was a cinder block building sitting in the middle of a cotton patch. Jerry told me to call him if I ever had a hit to record. I called him and played him our recording of Percy Sledge singing “When a Man Loves a Woman.” And Jerry said okay. My stock went sky high with Wexler after this single went number one worldwide. Jerry called one day and said, “Can I bring Wilson Pickett down and make some records?” which we did.

How were things with Wilson Pickett?

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Journey to the Heart of Alzheimer's

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy of HBO

To paraphrase a famous fundraising slogan, a mind is a terrible thing to watch wasting away.

But that’s what filmmaker Alan Berliner does in his moving and lovingly motivated documentary, “First Cousin Once Removed,” premiering on HBO September 23.

Berliner’s subject is his cousin, Edwin Honig (1919-2011), the noted poet, translator and teacher, who spent the last years of his life suffering from memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

Berliner filmed Honig five or six times a year over the last five years of his life and his decline is heartbreaking. Towards the end, he doesn’t recognize images of his younger self, his mother or his children.

But in the midst of his decay he occasionally becomes lucid, spouting poetic phrases both playful and profound. When Berliner asks if it is okay to film him Honig replies: “Mirror, mirror on the wall; you can be camera and I will be all.” At another point in the movie, he comments on the trees outside his apartment, “Leaves very still. But in the stillness there is movement. A moving painting.”

Berliner spoke to The Arty Semite about his relationship with his cousin, the difficulty of watching his deterioration and his propensity to make very personal documentaries.

Curt Schleier: How close to Edwin were you?

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Johnny Cash's Jewish Manager

By Curt Schleier

Courtesy Jonathan Holiff

Jonathan Holiff had a tough time growing up. His father was occasionally physically and always emotionally abusive. “If there was a definition of emotionally abusive in the dictionary there’d be a picture of my father next to it,” Holiff says. He quickly adds, though, “You have to put it into the context of the times.”

His father, Saul, is the subject of Jonathan’s documentary, “My Father and the Man in Black,” opening in New York and Los Angeles September 6. The Man in Black is of course country music singer Johnny Cash. Saul was associated with the superstar for 17 years, and for 13 of those as his manager.

The film starts with Saul’s suicide. Eight months later, Jonathan’s mom gives him the key to his father’s storage locker. There the younger Holiff discovers a treasure trove of material, including 60 hours of an audio diary his father recorded as well as phone calls with Cash that Saul secretly recorded, which became the main resource for the movie.

Holiff spoke to The Arty Semite about the “cathartic experience” of making the film, how the combination of Johnny and Saul was “greater than the sum of its parts” and the anti-Semitic comments by June Carter Cash that caused the rupture in their agreement.

Curt Schleier: Did you like your father?

Jonathan Holiff: I certainly didn’t like him until after he died. I had an unprecedented opportunity not many children get to know one’s father before and after he died. The audio diary and phone calls allowed me to identify with him, with his business, with his family. And suddenly what for me as a child was a two-dimensional authority figure became a richer, more complex person, albeit a tragic one.

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Retired Older Men Eating Out Wednesdays

By Curt Schleier

“The Romeows” is not a misspelled attempt to re-write Shakespeare. Nor does it have anything to do with cats. It is, in fact, a gentle, heart-warming film about the enduring friendship of a group of guys, members of the same Brooklyn College house plan (class of ’59). The title stands for “retired older men eating out Wednesdays.”

The group meets weekly for dinners that are part reminiscence, part philosophy and part therapy. Director Robert Sarnoff started to film them on a regular basis in 2008, as their 50th class reunion approached, and then shot them again in 2012.

There is something poignant about how they maintain their relationships (and still laugh at each other’s jokes) so many years after they first met. Clearly, the nourishment they get from these sessions fills their souls as well as their bellies.

In individual interviews and during their meals, they talk about everything from their mortality to the legacies they’ve left their children.

“The Romeows” will resonate with anyone who lived through that era, particularly New Yorkers who attended any of the tuition-free city colleges, all top ranked academically and important steps into the middle class and beyond for immigrants and their children.

Quoted in the production notes, Sarnoff said the audience attending an early screening reacted positively to the film, “but many questions led me to believe there was some confusion. Clarification was necessary.”

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Was Rush Limbaugh Right About 'Commie' Camp Kinderland?

By Simi Horwitz

Just because Rush Limbaugh says it’s raining doesn’t mean it’s a sunny day.

Admittedly, his assertion that Camp Kinderland — a summer camp in the Berkshires — is a hotbed of Communist indoctrination doesn’t have much traction in 2013. But consider the camp’s backdrop for sports, music, drama, and arts and crafts. The theater is dubbed The Paul Robeson Playhouse and the athletic center is known as the Roberto Clemente Sports Shack. Bunks bear such iconic names as Harriet Tubman, Joe Hill, Hannah Senesh, and Anne Frank.

In “Commie Camp,” filmmaker Katie Halper, who attended Camp Kinderland, revisits the old stomping grounds to document what it’s like today and to illustrate just what a nitwit Rush Limbaugh is. The problem is that she sometimes proves his point.

Founded in Tolland, Mass., in 1923 by secular Jewish socialists and communists, Camp Kinderland offered a summer respite to the children of poor and working class Jewish immigrants. It was unabashedly leftist and continues to be, though the tone has softened and the issues evolved. Environmentalism, marriage equality, and reproductive rights are among the hot topics today.

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Brick by Brick

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Brickmakers, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Ironbridge Gorge Museums, England. Flickr/Leo Reynolds

Late one evening, unable to sleep, I was channel surfing when I happened on a documentary about Hudson River bricks. Lest you think, as I did at first, that the subject would put me to sleep in no time at all, I found myself utterly engrossed — and wide awake.

The documentary, “Hudson River Brick Makers,” looks at an industry that once animated the Hudson River Valley, gainfully employing thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, and transforming any number of sleepy river towns into lively commercial centers. Who knew?

But that wasn’t the only revelation in store. What made the history of the Hudson River brick industry especially fascinating was that its products were destined for New York City. As it turned out, the rise and fall of the Hudson River Valley was tied up with the literal rise of the Empire City, whose face was lined with bricks. When, as a result of changing tastes and the advent of new technologies, the demand for this building material faded, so, too, did the fortunes of its manufacturers, distributors and everyone else involved in its creation and circulation.

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  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
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