Tonight at NYCIFF: Yiddish: A Tale of Survival

If you’re in New York City this evening the film Yiddish: a tale of Survival will be playing at the New York City International Film Festival at 8:00pm (NYIT auditorium on Broadway and 62nd St).

Here is a review of the film from Montreal blog

There was once a time when the languages you heard in the streets of Montreal were English, French, and yes… Yiddish. In the early 1920s, Yiddish-speaking Jews from Europe immigrated to Montreal and were a large part of our diverse cultural landscape.

Early Jewish and Yiddish settlers opened the first Bagel shops, Smoked Meat dinners, and founded Yiddish theatres. In a new documentary, Abigail Hirsch looks at Yiddish theatre in Montreal, New York, and even Israel.

In Yiddish: a tale of survival, the history of Yiddish is revealed by exploring the lives and careers of three Yiddish performers. The first, Shmuel Atzmon, an Israeli actor who founded the Yiddishpiel Theater and has been acting for 50 years. Bryna Wasserman, from Montreal, is the heir to the Dora Wasserman Yiddish theatre legacy. And lastly, we meet singer and actress Milena Kartowski, who at the young age of 23 has discovered Yiddish and is helping to bring it to a new generation.

The film explores the paths that brought each artist to Yiddish and how it has shaped their lives. The film is deeply moving and surprisingly entertaining. Watching it, one hears the sounds of the almost forgotten language of Yiddish from the echoes of Sholem Aleichem to the young people’s YaYa group performance, Raisins and Almonds. We are reminded of the legacy Montreal’s Jewish community and Yiddish culture worldwide.

Confessions of a Self-Hating Jew

At the Montreal World Film Festival, I had the opportunity to watch Phillip B. Roth’s new film: Confessions of a Self-Hating Jew. The description of the film says:

“CONFESSIONS OF A SELF-HATING JEW examines how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects the lives of American Jews from the perspective of a gay Naked Yoga teacher.”

confessions of a self hating jew

The director was at the screening and fielded questions from the audience after the film.  The film opens with the filmmaker holding a banner with the Star of David and the number 6,000,000 in the middle of a banner with flames around it. He ends the film abruptly, with the same slide but this time he is seen ripping apart the same banner of the 6,000,000 in the middle, the flames and the Star of David around it, and the screen abruptly fades to black and lights are up. Needless to say, it is controversial and shocks the viewers. I was especially taken aback since this appears to give fodder to Holocaust deniers.

The filmmaker tells the audience that he stopped considering his Jewish heritage after his bar mitzva, at the age of 13. He continued to be a supporter of Israel until he gradually realized that some people do not agree with the traditional Jewish narrative about Israel. He first realized this by seeing Vanessa Redgrave at the Academy awards expressing support for the Palestinian cause.

He became curious about his parents support for Israel. In his film, he interviews his father, mother and grandmother, in their home, as they explain that, yes, they do support Israel and do not understand why he does not, even though they may not follow all of the Jewish rules: His grandmother is seen cooking bacon for breakfast.

Also featured in the film are: Charles Small, a scholar of anti-semitism; Phyllis Chessler, the feminist, who has written, “The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It“; an orthodox Jewish couple identified as “liberals” who oppose “Zionism”; Hannah Arendt, a German/American Jewish philosopher, with a problematic connection to Jews and Israel; as well as a representative of the Neturai Karta, a tiny minority of Jews, a virulently anti-Israel Hassidic group that lives in Jerusalem and opposes the creation of the Sate of Israel on religious grounds because “It i only the Jewish Messiah who can create a Jewish State. The Neturai Karta are so extreme that they are often seen joining Palestinian anti-Israeli demonstrations – (I have noticed that there is always a small group of them protesting at the Israeli Indepence Day celebrations here in Montreal, and they are often seen supporting the Ayatolla Khomeini of Iran who has repeatedly threatened to “wipe Israel off the map”.

To the filmmakers’ credit he also has slides showing the history of wars attacking Israel in the Middle East and their outcomes. In between, we are treated endlessly to the same video clips of him in the nude, instructing his naked Yoga class participants, seeing him exchanging identities with a non-Jewish Gay man, and being chased by a Hassid with side-curls. In other words, he covers the waterfront of criticism of Israel and some idiosyncratic ideas of anti-semitism. Is this tongue-in-cheek? What does he want to say?

confessions of a self hating jew

I, myself, was very confused as to the filmmakers’ point of view. The reason, I think, is that this film can be seen as a Rorschach test of peoples’ attitudes towards Jews and towards Israel. This was exposed during the question and answer period. In the sparsely populated theater, approximately four people voiced questions or comments about the film. The comments seemed to me to represent many varying responses to Jews and Israel that are floating around in the universe, only one of which I thought represented a solid understanding of either Israel or Jews.

1. The first person commented that he actually liked Roth’s Mother, Father and Grandmother. I did too because they were plain speaking older Americans expressing their feelings about Israel based on their experience of being Jews in America – Americans who had lived through the periods before and during the second World War and the fragile Jewish American world that existed before the establishment of the State of Israel, and who appreciate the value of the power of the State of Israel as a defense against the very real dangers of anti-semitism worldwide.

2. The second person said, “I am glad that you pointed out that Jews don’t all share the same ideas re: Israel.” This person identifies with the Jewish filmmaker who he perceives as identifying with those Jews and non-Jews who criticize and distance themselves from Israel in the diaspora, those who choose not to see the veiled antisemitism embodied in the virulent anti-Israel, leftist kabal, so aptly chronicled by Phyllis Chessler. They wear the the hat of “Jewish intellectuals critical of Israel” and thereby siding with non-Jewish leftist criticism of Israel which actually turns out to mostly quite unhinged. It was Robert Wistrich, the scholar of antisemitism who pointed out that Nazi intellectuals were among the greatest supporters of Nazi ideology in Germany.

3. Then there was another person, who saw himself as one of the critics of Israel and commended the filmmaker..

4. And one student who asked about the Neturai Karta. I guess, he was genuinely struggling to understand the various points of view.

How to understand this mishmash of a film and the title: “Confessions of a Self Hating Jew?” The phrase “self-hating Jew” has been fashionably used to characterize Jews who side with the critics of Israel. Most people don’t realize that “self hatred” is one of the defense mechanisms of the Ego, coined by Sigmund Freud in his book, “The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense”. The core of “self hatred”, he claims is the Ego’s identification with the aggressor” in order to avoid  feelings of humiliation and distress that are attendant in the aggression. Roth, the filmmaker, explained to me when I approached him after the film, that by tearing up the banner of the six million, he is expressing his idea that in America today, he has matured to understand that he no longer has to fear prejudice for  being gay, for being Jewish, and he now feels “free to be a Gay Jew teaching Yoga in the nude and free to criticize Israel since he no longer fears the “bogeyman of anti-semitism.” Unlike his parents, he feels free in his identity as an American Jewish gay naked Yoga teacher. Of course, the reality of a defense mechanism is that by definition it remains unconscious: In order for it to function as a defense, the ego must remain blissfully unaware of its functioning.

Author: Abigail Hirsch, MSW, filmmaker, blogger, journalist, citizen of the world

Thoughts about Sholem Aleichem and the Current Pogrom in Syria

Last night I made a special effort to watch the Documentary: Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness a recent documentary biography of the life of Sholem Aleichem, playing at Cinema du Parc. Sholem Aleichem, was the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, who lived from 1859 to 1916. He was a popular chronicler of the lives of the Jews of that period. The Jewish population had been living for hundreds of years in the Polish/Russian countryside, and was facing the onslaught of modernity. French ideas of emancipation, American ideas of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, socialism, and the struggle against the rule of the czar, all intermingled with the cultural traditions of the Jews.

Most European Jews were speaking Yiddish at that time; a language that developed over the thousand year settlement of Jews in Europe and is a confluence of Hebrew, German and Slavic languages. Sholem Aleichem, wrote in Yiddish, although it was already a time when Jews were beginning to favor the languages of the countries in which they lived rather then their “mame loshen” – “mother’s tongue” of the home and hearth. Sholem Aleichem wrote about the Shtetle, characters who inhabited his world. He reflected on his time and place, and gave voice to the average Jew living in the Polish and Russian countryside. He wrote about Tevye, the Milkman, the character on which Fiddler on the Roof was based, and about Motl, the Cantor’s son. Die Kleine Menshelech, a play based on these same characters was the one that began the rebirth of Yiddish in Israel during the 1970’s. We all know that during the Holocaust, six million mostly Yiddish speakers, of every walk of life were murdered by the Nazi killing machine.

All of this concerns me deeply since I am working on a documentary about Yiddish culture since the Holocaust. What has happened to the Yiddish language three generations after the Holocaust? Does anyone still speak, or remember Yiddish?

Among all the excitement of hearing Sholem Aleichem’s accents and ideas in English on screen another thing that stuck out was the documentary reporting of the systematic attacks against Jews in Poland and Russia starting in 1881. This was a new phenomenon at the time. Prior to that Jews and their neighbours had been living side by side in relative harmony. Jew baiting was a medieval phenomenon, the nineteenth century was supposedly a period of “emancipation and liberty” for the common man. And then came the unexpected violence, killing of Jewish men, women and children in their homes by political gangs demonizing Jews as enemies of the state. These were the “pogroms” initiated following the assassination of the Czar in 1881 and repeated in 1905-06.

Sholem Aleichem, himself, lived through the pogrom in Kiev in 1905. The film reports that, he and his family “hid for three days in a hotel” while the massacres were going on. I suppose this is what gives rise to the title of the documentary, “Laughing in the Dark”.

The startling photographs of murdered bodies with grieving family members pictured in the documentary do not leave me. They remind me of the news stories we have been hearing about the deaths of Syrian citizens, men, women and children, in Homs and in other areas of Syria. The death toll reported so far is over 9000 people, with no end in sight.

Homes vandalized during the pogroms in Kishinev in 1903.

Victims, mostly children, of one of the pogroms in Ekaterinoslav in 1905. This photo was distributed by the self-defense organization of Poalei Zion as a postcard and drew worldwide attention to the pogroms of 1905.

In hindsight it is easy to see that the absence of response to the violence perpetrated against Jewish citizens in Poland and Russian led directly to the politics and daring destruction of Jews, practiced by the Nazis as an instrument of State. Sadly, I am reminded of the current practice of a similar statecraft in Syria today – violence practiced towards men, women and children as a tool of repression by the authorities in power, the Dictator Assad. But this has been going on for years in the Soviet Union, in North Korea, and Iran.

Defamation: The Movie

A year ago I watched the 2009 documentary film by award-winning filmmaker Yoav Shamir, an Israeli Jew. The film examines antisemitism, and in particular the way perceptions of antisemitism affect Israeli and U.S. politics. The film won Best Documentary Feature Film at the 2009 Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Sadly, it is by an Israeli and makes light of anti-semitism as a phenomenon. This morning I noticed the following comment on one of my Youtube posts, in response to the recent CIJR Conference on Delegitimating Israel:
Jews have been kicked out of EVERYWHERE THEY GO – BECAUSE of WHAT Jews DO. Jews create the hostility and fury in others. Jews have EVIL, vicious beliefs. Judaism is SICK and HATEFUL, and grotesquely racist. It’s not Gentiles that are the problem – it’s JEWS.
How do you respond to someone who call you a wifebeater? The filmmaker, Yoav Shamir, reports that he has never experienced anti-semitism himself and that the reports of it are vastly exaggerated. How lucky he is, having grown up in the protected cocoon of Israel, created in response to vicious genocidal anti-semitism which succeeded in murdering at least six million innocent Jews just because they were Jewish by birth during World War II.
Sadly, anti-semitism after years of somnolence is beginning to be emboldened to publicly express itself more and more.This morning I read this on the internet about Students at Oxford involved in an anti-semitic incident. Serious anti-semitic incidents have been reported at York University in Ontario, Columbia University, Berkley, USC Santa Cruz, and I have personally experienced such an incident here in Montreal at Concordia’s CUTV.
Fortunately, Canada has been one of the few countries who has spoken out forcefully on this issue and for this we must all, Jews and non-Jews be grateful.
“The government of Canada took a historic step yesterday by signing the Ottawa Protocol to Combat Anti-Semitism. (…)The protocol is a declaration that hatred of this nature will not be tolerated in this country. It sets out an action plan for supporting initiatives that combat anti-Semitism and provides a framework for other nations to follow….It also sets out a vibrant definition of anti-Semitism which, for the first time in history, links anti-Semitism to the denial of the right Jewish people have to their ancestral home land — the State of Israel. (…)The Inquiry Panel’s conclusion, unfortunately, is that the scourge of anti-Semitism is a growing threat in Canada, especially on the campuses of our universities… Every person of conscience should take note of the Ottawa Protocols and never forget the lessons of the Holocaust when the world was silent.
I invite your comments below.

American Radical or Anti-Semite?



I recently saw the film American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein (by filmmakers Nicolas Rossier and David Ridgen), at the documentary film festival in Montreal. I too am a filmmaker but I was appalled by the message of this film.

Film making can take a very narrow window on any issue and do it very convincingly.
Can we forget the films of Reifenshtahl, the Nazi propagandist filmmaker? Can we forget that it was the intelligentsia that believed in and promoted the Nazi ideology for many years prior to the Third Reich carrying out their extermination plan.

American Radical, the film about the life of Norman Finkelstein, claims that Finkelstein was not granted tenure at two different universities because of the “Jewish Lobby“. One of the reasons cited in the documentary is a letter from Allan Dershowitz. Dershowitz, a Harvard educated lawyer who is heavily maligned by the Left wing  lobby for being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish. He himself was discriminated against for being Jewish and has written about it in is book Chutzpah.

The Jewish Lobby is a loaded term. It is the name of a book written by Walt and Mearsheimer, that has been adopted by Middle Eastern Departments hostile to Israel all over North American Campuses. It  references  the fraudulent book: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was also promoted and studied, as if factual, in German classrooms after the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, and in America as well, (despite having been exposed as fraudulent years before). In the opinion of historian Norman Cohn, the Protocols were Hitler’s primary justification for initiating the Holocaust — his “warrant for genocide”. The fraudulent book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has since the early 19th century been the chief source for the fraudulent claim that Jews form an International Lobby whose aim is to dominate the world.

Finkelstein is a Jewish son of Holocaust survivors, who is a brilliant but disturbed academic, as is exposed by this documentary. He has been the darling of the virulent anti-Israel campaign mounted by the Left, the same left that supports the Israel/apartheid week on campuses, promotes the Israel boycott movement all over the world and touts Israel as one of the worst human rights violators. Here, he is promoted as a “radical hero” speaking up for the Palestinian cause.

Anti-semitism is a dirty word: But not facing it is worse. Since Jews live all over the world, including in Israel, and have every political persuasion, it is not difficult to find Jews such as Finkelstein who espouse anti-semitic and anti-zionist positions. The film maker may be excused for misunderstanding the issues, that Finkelstein espouses. Finkelstien and the Pro-Palestinian left identify the Palestinians with Holocaust victims and this is just as inaccurate as identifying the Palestinian situation with apartheid in Africa. This demonization of Israel and the distortion of the facts needs to be exposed. This film embraces a view of the Palestinian situation through the distorted lens of Norman Finkelstein. It paints the Israel/Palestine situation through the perceptions of one man, and supports him using other left wing anti-semitic academics including Noam Chomsky, Walt, and Mearsheimer. It succeeds in promoting the anti-sematism that is currently thriving in the Muslim world, an anti-semitism that is shrouded in anti-Israel rhetoric.

I wrote this post a little while ago but I have updated it with more news from the front regarding current reports of anti-semitism and Holocaust denial as noted in this article: Why Anti-Semitism Is Moving Toward the Mainstream. Note the references to the usual suspects, Mearsheimer, Atzmon, and Noam Chomsky.


I wrote the above a few months ago and now I am adding a link to an article about the most recent statements by Norman Finkelstein, which will surprise, you as it surprised the world. But at least it shows that Finkelsltein has not checked his integrity at the door of support for the Palestinian cause. He points out the Lie in the BDS movement.

Israel Seen