On my way to Chicago to screen my documentary, “Yiddish; a tale of survival” in Chicago, I caught the documentary “When Jews were Funny.”My impression after watching the first hour of the film (the plane arrived and I was interrupted) is that this documentary is more about Allan Zweig, the filmmaker struggling with his own Jewish identity than about the comedians he interviews. It is midway through the film before the interviewer/filmmaker shares anything about himself. What does he share? That he married outside the faith and when it came time to name his daughter, he objected to a name that his wife suggested by saying instinctively – No! too goyish! And his wife accuses him of playing the Jewish card retroactively.
In an article, titled “The Death of Jewish Culture,” reviewing the Jewish American cultural scene of the last 50 years, James Leoffler asks: “Are American Jews alienated from Jewish feelings? Do they lack Jewish identities?” He answers, “Not at all: they freely and openly profess such feelings, and appear quite comfortable with their Jewish identity. Rather, the content of that identity has itself shrunk to a solely internal realm of subjective experience and emotion, fortified by clichés and bits and pieces of an elementary cultural literacy.” This is exactly how I would characterize the filmmaker in this work.
The interviewer appears to be obsessed with an external expression of what it means to be Jewish as he gleans it from the public persona of comedians, born Jewish, and universally popular in the America of the fifties and sixties – comedians such as Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Shecky Green and David Steinberg. He sees this as a golden age of “Jewishness” which he both loved and hated, and which is no longer with us.
As a child of survivors, born in Hungary, after the war, and growing up in Canada, I too have struggled with my Jewish identity all my life. I am deeply aware of the desire to assimilate, to be part of one’s surroundings, the pervasive culture, and to distance oneself from identifying with Jewish culture that has been denigrated through history. Yet I am also deeply aware of the roots of Jewish identity as passed on through religious identification and participation that has also been part of my growing up experience.
I have to admit that doing this documentary about Yiddish, has also been a part of encountering and struggling with my own Jewish identity. During most of my life I was mostly disparaging of anything “Yiddish” and did not know very much about it. This attitude towards Yiddish, has been part of the Jewish culture ever since the possibility of acceptance by mainstream secular culture became an option open to Jews in the 1800’s with the emancipation born of secular nation states. But then we encountered the fiendish national religion of Hitler and his cohorts.
Recently Jews all over the world celebrated the annual biblical holiday called Shavuot, a Jewish holiday very few non-Jews can identify or even know anything about. And yet it is the holiday of the receiving of the sacred covenant at Sinai, receiving the ten commandments and the attendant lore and commandments as set down in what we know today as “The Torah”, the Teachings of the Jews that form the very basis of Jewish cohesion throughout the centuries.
Everything that Jews understand today, and are today as a people, emanates from this basic event. We separate Jewishness and Jewish culture from this basic source to our peril.
This was again brought home to me by the recent performance of “Soul Doctor,” the story of Shlomo Carlebach performed as a Yiddish play at the Segal Centre in Montreal. Shlomo Carlebach is known for his unorthodox ways of connecting with Jewish tradition and bringing the non-affiliated in contact with those sources via the example of his life and his work as a musician and composer. He birthed new life into prayer via ecstatic music and dance first popularized at the House of Love and Prayer in Berkley in the sixties.
Carlebach was born into a well known Hassidic family from Austria that relocated to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1939. He and his twin brother can both be called Hassidic Rabbis. But his brother was the congregational Rabbi at the synagogue on West 79th Street which still bears the family name, while Shlomo, “took his ministry to the streets” of Berkely and New York. Shlomo Carlebach composed and introduced revivalist melodies that stirred the hearts of those who heard them and have become mainstream in Jewish synagogues of all denominations. Shlomo Carlebach was not accepted in his lifetime by mainstream Judaism.
Two important ideas are shared over the Shavuot Holiday. One – “not by might or by force but by my Spirit, sayeth the Lord”. The other one that the Jewish people have struggled with over the centuries is the famous phrase “Naaseh venishma”- “we will do and we will listen” as regards acceptance of the laws of G-d. There are many competing interpretations of this idea “we shall do and we shall listen” that are chewed over every year.
Does “naaseh venishma” mean we will follow your commandments blindly even though they make no sense to us? Does it mean that we will follow the commandments first and then struggle to make sense of them? Do we even have a choice re accepting the law? There is one interpretation (midrash) that says that the Jews only accepted the law because G-d threatened to destroy them if they did not. The specific legend is that G-d picked up the mountain of Sinai and said “accept my law or I bear this mountain down on you right now.” As the Jewish mother confronted with conflicting versions of the truth by her children would say “Darlings, you are both right!”.
There is an element of fate in being Jewish. Most of us do not choose to be born into this tradition, but being born into it we are forced, willy nilly, to confront its meaning and to struggle with making our own choices vis a vis this heritage.
Filmmakers, such as Allan Zweig and myself, are only one part of this longstanding tradition of struggle and contemplation that starts with actions and dilemmas that we do not choose and needs to lead to actions that we do choose which entails struggling to accept anew the covenant of Sinai every year, and indeed every day with ever newer understandings.