“If, in the future, [Yiddish] will have the same status and [culturally] stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Latin and Greek, we won’t be doing so badly,” Bard College president Leon Botstein said at the January 9 launch of the YIVO-Bard Institute for East European Jewish History and Culture Winter Intercession Program. “We are not involved in this for nostalgic reasons,” he continued. “We tend to define ourselves through the eyes of anti-Semites [overlooking] the richness and artistic legacies of a civilization of a culture that is diverse beyond our own Yiddish language, which is not only a language of jokes.” As an afterthought, Botstein quoted the late social critic and historian Irving Howe: “In the good old days, all the really great students knew Yiddish.”
In his welcoming address, Jonathan Brent, executive director and CEO of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, addressed institute students from Mexico, Israel, France and Ukraine, and mused, “This is a civilization [which may be] invisible to us, yet its essence persists.” He also noted the influence of German and Russian literature on “the richness of the [Yiddish] culture,” and that “Sigmund Freud, who was born in 1856 [to] Yiddish-speaking Galician Jews, moved to Germany and then to Vienna. Yet when writing about him, it is within the context of German civilization.”
The three-year YIVO-Bard program is designed to equip a new generation of scholars, teachers and communal leaders with a deep knowledge of Eastern European Jewish history and culture. Following Bard professor Cecile Kuznitz’s lecture on “The History of YIVO,” the evening’s second speaker, Benjamin Harshav, Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University, remarked that though “YIVO was founded by intellectuals, it was open to all.” The author of several books about Marc Chagall, Harshav recalled, “When I was 12 and a half, I was asked to act as a guide at the [Vilna] YIVO and I did it!” When I later spoke with Harshav, he explained that one of the highlights at that time was the YIVO exhibit about the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz. I told him that in 1940, when he was attending YIVO, I used to go after school to visit my father, Matvey Bernsztein, who worked at YIVO.
The evening was enhanced by two exquisitely performed musical interludes: “Reb Nakhmen’s Nign” (“Rabbi Nakhmen’s Melody”) by Leo Zeitlin (1884–1930) and “Klezmer’s Wedding Music” by Joachim Stutschewsky (1891–1982). The music was performed by young musicians Caeli Smith and Gabrielle Fischler (violins), Charlotte Steiner (viola), Jennie Brent and Laura Kegeles (cellos) and Robert Buxton, piano. They are all members of YIVO’s Sidney Krum Young Artists Concert Series.
“Mabul” (“The Flood”) was nominated for six Ophir Awards — the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards — and was chosen as the New York Jewish Festival’s January 11 opening night selection. And it’s no wonder: That a film about a dysfunctional family dealing with an autistic son would prove mesmerizing and uplifting is a tribute to the film’s screenwriters, Noa Berman-Herzberg and Guy Nattiv (who also directed the film). Berman-Herzberg and Michael Moshonov (who portrays Tomer, the autistic 17-year-old) were present at the film’s January 10 preview screening and reception, held at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. The audience was greeted by Rose Kuo, executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center; Claudia Gould, Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of The Jewish Museum, and Aviva Weintraub, associate curator and director of the New York Jewish Film Festival, who moderated the post-screening question-and-answer session.
The fragile 13-year-old [Yoni] (Yoav Rotman) is preparing for his bar mitzvah. His Torah portion is Noah and the Flood. Yoni is inundated with woes of his own: He is a smart, young entrepreneur who is being bullied by a gang of kids that stiffed him on the pay they owed him for doing their homework assignments. His bar mitzvah tutor is an insensitive, rigid man. His father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), formerly a pilot, is in a depressive fog, and his mother, Miri (magnificently portrayed by the stunning Ronit Elkabetz), runs a day care center while trying to keep the family from imploding. She places Yoni in charge of his 17-year-old autistic brother, Tomer, who was “dumped” with his family when the facility where he’d been living shut down for financial reasons.
The bar mitzvah is in peril. The gang threatens Yoni. Tomer is completely uncommunicative and cannot be left alone for a second. Neither parent considers Yoni’s predicament or his angst. Yet, it is a real-life flood that jolts the family into a new dynamic. The bar mitzvah becomes a transcendent catalyst for the healing of both the family and the community.
During the Q&A, Weintraub asked Berman-Herzberg, “How did you come to write this?” The screenwriter explained: “It was based on a 28-minute short in film school in 2001. It took 10 years to develop into a feature film.” Moshonov described his own journey to inhabit the character: “I met with autistic children in Israel. I learned how they moved.” Berman-Herzberg added, “When Michael auditioned for the part, he had everyone crying.” I was not the only one furtively dabbing at my eyes at the film’s end.
The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center present the New York Jewish Film Festival, which takes place from January 11 to January 26.