In Search of ‘Lies My Father Told Me’

Revealing Old Jewish Montreal to a New Generation

At Home: “Lies My Father Told Me” portrays a domesticity made exotic by time and French-Canadian location
Courtesy Ergo Media
At Home: “Lies My Father Told Me” portrays a domesticity made exotic by time and French-Canadian location

By Eric A. Goldman

Published January 14, 2011, issue of January 28, 2011.
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Sometimes, a movie strikes us just right and we carry it with us through life. For me, it was a movie’s opening scene, with a horse-driven carriage making its way through the back alleyways of Montreal. Running after the wagon is a young boy looking for his grandfather, crying out “Zayde!” In the background, we hear Kenny Karen singing Sol Kaplan’s moving “Rags, Clothes, Bottles” as the snow is blowing, the wind is howling and the boy’s grandfather is somehow beyond reach. That film is “Lies My Father Told Me” (1975).

Though the driveways of Philadelphia, where I grew up, bore little resemblance to those alleyways on the screen, I connected with the forlorn boy: a fellow mourner for a recently lost zayde. The images that open the film — along with Ján Kadár’s magical ending, with zayde and grandson on their wagon, traversing Montreal’s Mount Royal — have never left me.

At the time that I saw the movie, I had limited exposure to Montreal and, for that matter, Canada. For a generation of Americans, our neighbor to the north was little more than a refuge from the Vietnam War draft. But a year before I saw the film, a close friend had invited me to her home in Montreal. Over the course of a short weekend, the encounter that I expected to be exotic showed a Montreal apparently like any other North American city. Kadár’s film peered into the depths of an immigrant Jewish family in the 1920s and provided quite a different picture of “La Belle Ville.”

Adapted from a short story by Ted Allan, “Lies My Father Told Me” paints a portrait of a city in which Anglophone Jews and French Canadian Catholics lived and worked side by side and where the richness of those two worlds had an opportunity to intersect and grow. Kadár depicted a Jewish community that braved severe winters while straddling English, French and Yiddish — each with its own culture — all within a city that has its own architectural distinctions (Montreal staircases are something to behold). The connection between a young boy and his grandfather also showed how relationships can transcend generations.

The following year, while studying in New York, I met a special woman from Montreal who would become my wife. Trips to Montreal became more frequent. A quarter of a century later, while up north, I decided that I wanted my American-born children to experience “Lies My Father Told Me.” I went to store after store to rent the film, but it was nowhere to be found. I was advised that the video had come out on only limited release and, years earlier, had gone “on moratorium.” Working in the business, I understood that the film would probably never become available. The search became an obsession, but no copy could be found. After years of fruitless searching, a friend surprised me with the gift of a poor-quality VHS he had discovered on eBay.

“Lies My Father Told Me” connected me, unexpectedly intensely, with a city and country. Now, with family in Montreal and a desire to share the film with a new generation, I began to search for the movie’s producers, to see if the film could be re-released. My quest finally brought me to one of them, Harry Gulkin, whose many careers and witty personality make him a Montreal treasure. Gulkin was intrigued by the proposition, and went to work looking for film prints in archives around the world. Unfortunately, he discovered that existing copies of the movie had serious flaws or had degraded over time. Finally, a mediocre print was found, and Gulkin sought ways to rehabilitate and restore the film.

Fortunately, his friends Hila and Gerry Feil came forward, and after attaining a foundation grant, they undertook the restoration. Yet, because of a variety of nearly insurmountable technical problems, a six-month project wound up lasting more than five years. Now the restoration is complete, and it is this copy of “Lies My Father Told Me” that provides the footage for the DVD which I now, proudly, distribute and which will have its premiere south of the border January 16, at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Jewish Film Festival. My children will finally be able to see the film properly, on a large movie screen, and Allan’s grandchildren will also be there.

A year before “Lies My Father Told Me” was released in movie theaters, filmgoers saw a dark side of Montreal Jewry in a screen adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.” On January 14, “Barney’s Version,” also drawn from a Richler novel, was released in theaters across America, once again opening 20th-century Montreal Jewry to public view. Montreal Jewry has changed dramatically over the past century, amid political and linguistic transformation, but it remains one of the most vibrant and exciting Jewish communities in the world. I’m pleased to have not only married into it, but also to have helped allow, in some small way, a new generation of cineastes to enjoy it.

Eric Goldman is the president of Ergo Media and author of “Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film — Past & Present,” (Revised version, Holmes & Meier, 2010).

Read the Forward’s Q & A with Harry Gulkin, Producer of “Lies My Father Told Me.”

“Lies My Father Told Me” is available on DVD from ergomedia.com for $29.95.

Watch a clip from “Lies My Father Told Me” below:


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