Tag Archives: Jewish Women

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is an engaging portrait of a gifted young woman who sacrificed everything for her people.  It’s hard to believe that this is the first documentary about her life. It’s almost harder to believe that Hollywood hasn’t made any kind of film about the life of Hannah Senesh, given its mixture of drama and pathos.

Senesh was a poet and diarist, a young Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930’s, only to return home to Hungary in 1944 as a Haganah volunteer to the British Royal Air Force. She and her small group parachuted into Europe, hoping to assist stranded British airmen and the Jews of Hungary. Their timing was terrible: days after they arrived at the Hungarian border, Germany occupied the country. Senesh was captured by Hungarian police and turned over to the Gestapo, who tortured and executed her in November of 1944.

In a twist that was certainly stranger than fiction, Hannah’s mother was imprisoned with her in Budapest for a time.  The Gestapo was determined to force Hannah to give them radio codes that would allow them to send misinformation to the partisans and to the British.  They arrested Mrs. Senesh and threatened to torture her to get her daughter to talk.  Amazingly, Mrs. Senesh managed to survive the war (nearly all of Hungarian Jewry was murdered) and she appears in the film.

Synagogue-goers in the U.S. may be familiar with Senesh’s poem, Eli, Eli [My God, My God] set to a melody by David Zahavi.

Filmmaker Roberta Grossman waves together photographs, interviews, archival footage and dramatic reenactments to tell Hannah’s story.  Scholars give just enough historical background for the viewer to understand exactly what this young woman was up against.

Commentary

The experience of Hungarian Jews was different from that of most of the Jews of Europe, in that as an ally to Germany, Hungary was not under the control of the Nazis until late in the war.  Suddenly, in 1944, all of Hungary’s Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps:  in the space of a few months, most of the community was destroyed.  Part of the power of this film is that it gives a very good picture of middle class Jewish Hungarian life before the war, as well as the darkest days of 1944.

It also conveys a particular kind of Zionist story, the story of a young Hungarian woman who immigrates to Palestine out of passion for the Jewish people and the Zionist project.  Had she not become a parachutist, Senesh would likely be a retired farmer in Israel, telling stories about her life on Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

This film is gentle enough for middle-schoolers to watch, but retains an emotional punch.  The mother-daughter relationship is presented with remarkably little sentimentality.  I got the sense of two strong Jewish women who, under extreme pressure, found they were stronger than they knew.

This is an excellent film for learning about Zionism and about the Holocaust. Large events in history are much more comprehensible when we view them through the lens of a particular life.  Hannah Senesh’s life is such a lens, and more.

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Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

If you are too young for Medicare, chances are you have never heard of Gertrude Berg.  In Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009), director Aviva Kempner sets out to right that wrong.  In her day, before Lucy, before Oprah, she was Lucy and Oprah rolled together with a Tony award as a cherry on top.  She originated a hit radio show, wrote and acted in it all through the Great Depression, and after WWII, carried the show to TV for many more seasons of success.  She invented the TV sitcom as we know it today in the form of The Goldbergs, which ran on television from 1949 – 1955 after almost 20 years on radio.  She won the first Emmy for Actress in a TV Comedy, and later in her life, she won a Tony as an actress on Broadway.

And we have never heard of this woman?

Commentary

I had a good time watching this documentary, and I am happy that it is available on DVD and from Neflix.  However, it is a shame that Aviva Kempner did not dig deeper into her subject matter, because there’s another film underneath, a much more powerful and important film.

Some of the best parts of the film delve into the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Blacklist that ended the career of Mrs. Berg’s co-star, Philip Loeb.  I wish that Ms. Kempner had devoted  the same degree of attention and passion to the question that underlies the entire story:  why has Gertrude Berg been so nearly completely forgotten?  We remember many film stars, all the way back to the silent era, and the stars of many a forgettable TV comedy that lasts a season or two:  why not this Jewish woman who made such a mark in mid-century America?

I would also be interested in knowing more about the reactions to her program outside New York and Los Angeles.  In those days, anti-Semitism was rife in the United States, and yet this hit program was unabashedly Jewish.  The only hint of this was a comment by actor Ed Asner, who comments that the Goldbergs were “too Jewish” to feel comfortable for him, as a young Jewish boy growing up in the Midwest.  How did Christian viewers perceive the program, and how did it affect their view of Jews?

The film also gives short shrift to Mrs. Berg’s home life, and how life might have been for a married woman who was working such long hours in those days.  Her children were born in 1922 and 1926, and her radio show first aired in 1929.  How did she do it?  What was the real Berg family like?  Kempner assures us that her marriage to Berg was a love match, and little is said about the children, but I could not help but think that there was a much more interesting story somewhere under the glossy exterior.

So yes, it is a fascinating film, but it left me wanting more.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you remember The Goldbergs?  If so, what memories does it bring up for you?
  2. When you watch the clips of The Goldbergs in the film, how do you feel about the way those characters were portrayed?  Would you like to see re-runs?
  3. What do you know about the Hollywood Blacklist?  How many Jews were on it?
  4. I Love Lucy appeared on TV the year before the The Goldbergs was cancelled.  Do you have any theories about why Lucille Ball is remembered and Gertrude Berg is not?
  5. Can you imagine a re-make of The Goldbergs on TV today?  Who would you cast?  Where would it be set?

Related Material from around the Net

Enemies, A Love Story

Enemies, A Love Story (1989) is based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel of the same name.  It tells the tale of four Holocaust survivors whose stories are intertwined by ties of passion, guilt, and love.  Herman Broder (Ron Silver) was hidden in a barn in Poland by his Gentile house servant, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein) whom he married out of guilt and gratitude when the two immigrated to the United States.  Since that time, he has acquired a mistress, a Russian Jewish survivor named Masha (Lena Olin), who wants him to marry her, too.   Then his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston) the woman he believed died in a concentration camp in Europe, turns up in New York too, alive if not well, still mourning their two children who did not survive.

The story is structured as a farce, but it is a dark and melancholic comedy.  Herman writhes among the complications of his multiple lives.  He is a man devoid of hope:  he ricochets from woman to woman, trying to placate one while he is cheating on another.   He is faithless, and at the same time, horrified by the faithlessness of others. He is a man who is never fully alive, living bits of his life with different women.  Even his occupation – ghost writer for a fashionable rabbi – leaves him without any identity of his own.  Herman is a ghost.

We often say, glibly, that after a trauma a person is “never the same.”  Singer suggests to us that even after a horrible trauma, people do not really change all that much:  they may be fractured versions of their old selves, but all of their old flaws and quirks remain like ghosts.  Within a few minutes of meeting Herman again, Tamara (his first wife) recognizes that he married Yadwiga out of guilt and that he must also have a mistress somewhere.  Later in the film, she sits him down and says, “In America, they have a thing called a manager. That is what you need. I will be your manager, because you are incapable of making your decisions for yourself.”  He agrees – and in hindsight, the way that arrangement works out is predictable, too.

Paul Mazursky directed the film, and co-wrote the screenplay. (He also appearing in a cameo as Masha’s estranged husband. )  Enemies, A Love Story was nominated for three Academy Awards:  Huston and Olin were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Roger L. Simon and Mazursky were nominated for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Commentary

As with all of Singer’s stories, this is not a story about Judaism, but the characters are Jewish and it is set deep within Jewish history and tradition.   At one point, when Herman is attempting to return to Jewish observance, he sits and studies Talmud on Shemini Atzeret and fumes, “What good is the Talmud if there is nothing in there to tell you how to deal with three wives?”

He apparently had not looked at Tractate Ketubot, which has quite a bit of material on how to conduct polygamous marriages.  However, the Talmud  assumes that one is doing so in good faith, which is Herman’s problem.  Polygamy is described in Biblical narrative, although the only happy marriages mentioned in the Bible are monogamous.  In the Middle Ages, about the year 1000, Rabbi Gershom of Germany issued a takkanah [decree] forbidding polygamous marriage among European Jews, and that decree has had the force of law ever since.

But the multiple marriages are not Herman’s core problem; they are only a symptom of the problem.  Herman’s problem was correctly diagnosed by Tamara:  he cannot make a decision for himself, and as a result he is incapable of keeping a commitment.  His problem is faithlessness.  Just as he dabbles and struggles through the film with his commitment to Jewish observance, confusing his Polish wife who eventually converts to Judaism, he dabbles and struggles with his commitments to the women in his life.

Yadwiga is involved in a process of commitment in the film:  she becomes a Jew.  The progression of her engagement with Judaism is delicately portrayed.  Living with Norman for years, she has become fairly knowledgeable about household mitzvot [commandments]: she is appalled when he turns on an electric lamp on Shabbat.  In her upset, she swears at him using the names of Christian saints!  She struggles to learn the words of blessings.  Yet we have the sense, by the end of the film, that this has been a successful process of commitment:  she seems happy and relaxed as a Jewish mother.

By the end of the film, Herman has disappeared altogether; he remains only as handwriting on an envelope.  All that are left are the two women, Tamara and Yadwiga, who have formed an alliance reminiscent of Naomi and Ruth.  They are linked by a bond of love and commitment, and Yadwiga’s child soothes Tamara’s bitter soul.

Double Feature

Paul Mazursky also directed Next Stop Greenwich Village, about Jews in New York in a different era.  The other Hollywood film adaptation of an I.B. Singer story is Barbra Streisand’s Yentl.

Questions

1.  If Norman Broder came to you for advice before Tamara’s reappearance, how would you advise him?  Stay in his loveless marriage to Yadwiga?  Cut off the relationship with Masha?  Or end the marriage to Yadwiga and marry Masha?  What does he owe Yadwiga?  What does he owe Masha?

2.  If Norman Broder came to you for advice after Tamara’s reappearance, how would you advise him?  What does he owe Tamara?

3.  Norman and Yadwiga start out as an interfaith relationship.  Yadwiga converts to Judaism.  Tamara and other Jewish characters speak of Yadwiga as a shiksa [filth] early on in the film.  At the end of the film, how would you describe Tamara and Yadwiga’s relationship?  Can you imagine and describe the changes that must have taken place in Tamara’s perception of Yadwiga, and how those changes might have taken place?

Next Stop, Greenwich Village

There is a time in American life when we are just past adolescence, but not yet fully adult.  This is the time explored in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Paul Mazursky.   Set in Greenwich Village in 1953, it is not just a special time in a young man’s life, it is also a special time in the history of New York, when it was the epicenter of artistic ferment.  Greenwich Village attracted young men and women who wanted to break the rules and explore the world, and the protagonist, Larry Lapinsky (played by Lenny Baker) is just such a young man.  He wants to be an actor, and he works and studies to make his dream come true, while working a day job at a health food store.

Larry and his friends form a family of sorts, an assortment of characters, including early performances by Christopher Walken, Lois Smith, and Jeff Goldblum.  But Larry finds it difficult to leave his Brooklyn family behind, mostly because his mother, Faye, (played by Shelly Winters) keeps following him, dragging his father along to his apartment at inappropriate hours.

We see Larry through this transition in his life, right up until he comes to a truce with Mama and a new stage of life.   In the last frames of the film, he is walking down his old street in Brooklyn, munching on Mama’s strudel, saying goodbye to childhood, for real this time.

Commentary

Larry Lapinsky is not a “religious” Jew.  In the opening scene of the film, we see him take a yarmulke out of the bureau drawer as he is packing to leave home. He puts it on his head, looks in the mirror, shrugs, and drops it back into the drawer.  For him, religion is something that went with childhood:  he’s over all that now.

And yet for all that, this is a film about a young Jew in the transition from adolescent to man.  His mother is out of control, drives him crazy, and is the personification of the over-protective Jewish mother stereotype.  Shelley Winters is a force of nature, whining, screeching, cajoling, seducing, bribing, sulking, and flipping out:  she is a nightmare mom with whom her son is hopelessly entangled.  (Whatever you think of the stereotype, her performance is breathtaking.)

This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this film:  as Rabbi Brian Zimmerman pointed out in a comment elsewhere on this blog, many film directors and writers have been less than kind to Jewish mothers.  Faye is perhaps the worst of the mothers appearing in the films on this list, and yet in Winter’s capable hands, she holds an attraction for the audience, just as she does for Larry’s friends.

As those of youwho have read other commentaries in this blog know, I am interested and bothered by the depiction of Jewish women on screen.  For all the charms of this film (and most critics say it is Mazursky’s finest) the Jewish women in this film fall into unpleasant stereotypes a bit too easily.  Mama is a harridan, clingy and shameless in her manipulation.  Sarah, the girlfriend, can’t commit to anything.  Connie, played by Dori Brenner, the least developed of the Jewish women, is sweet and motherly: a bit too sweet and motherly, waiting patiently for someone to need her, and it is all too easy to see her as a younger version of Mama.

Double Features

Rabbi Zimmerman suggested a trilogy of films depicting Jewish mothers:  (1) Next Stop Greenwich Village, for the poisonous image of Mama, (2) Crossing Delancey, for the warm relationship of grandmother and granddaughter and (3) Kissing Jessica Stein, for an entirely new portrait of a Jewish mother in film.

Keeping the Faith

ktfposterm“Have you heard the one about the priest and the rabbi…?” We’ve all heard those jokes. Keeping the Faith (2000) tells the story of a priest and a rabbi and the girl that both of them wanted. It was directed by Edward Norton, who also plays the priest.  Ben Stiller plays the rabbi, and Jenna Elfman, the girl.  The priest and the rabbi are both hip young clergy who play basketball together regularly, and when they fall for the same girl, romantic comedy ensues.

Commentary

I am going to level with you up front:  I included this film because it was popular and a lot of people saw it and continue to mention it.   I think it is a bad film, a destructive film, because it deals in nasty stereotypes and bad information all wrapped up in a feel-good ribbon.

I could forgive Keeping the Faith for being a less-than-perfect romantic comedy:  it’s predictable, over-long, and cutesy, but it tackles an interesting subject, interfaith relationships, both friendships and dating.  What I find unforgivable in this film makes a long, depressing list, especially since the film often appeals to people who haven’t spent much time lately around either priests or rabbis.  To wit:

1.  The stereotypes of Jewish women in this film are poisonous.  They are portrayed either as greedy, nagging mothers or as greedy, materialistic harpies.  One such woman I might find amusing in the right context, but a film that suggests that ALL born Jewish women are like that is a nasty bit of misogynist anti-Semitism.

2.  I don’t know any congregational clergy with the free time enjoyed and abused by the priest and the rabbi in this film.

3.  Jake (the rabbi) doesn’t see this woman as marriage material, but he has an affair with her, lying about it to everyone including his best friend.  Then, in an act of utter narcissism, he decides that his Yom Kippur sermon is the time to come clean about the fact that he’s been doing this. Ethics, anyone?

4.  I’ll refrain from criticizing the priest (he’s not my department) but he doesn’t come off much better.  Neither clergyman seems to believe in anything with much conviction.  They are cardboard cutouts, moving slowly through a really bad priest-and-rabbi joke.

5.  As Andrew O’Hehir puts it perfectly in his review in salon.com:  “The two religions are treated with a benign stupidity that is supposed to signal respect, as if they were adjacent departments in the spirituality mall that sold slightly different brands of the same product and made no serious demands on their adherents.”  It’s a witless, gutless approach to talking about interfaith issues: “There are no important differences.”

If you want to see a movie that goes much deeper into the territory of interfaith relationships, and is funnier to boot, try Annie Hall.  Woody Allen’s secular Jew and Diane Keaton’s nice lukewarm Methodist provide a much more interesting meditation on the attraction and the challenges of difference.