The Women We Know


By Allison T. Hoffman

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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They are the women we all know: A Florida bubbe battling with her headstrong granddaughter. A good Jewish girl looking for a nice Jewish husband. Three artists — a painter, a singer and a filmmaker — all questioning the assumptions of their faith. An old woman, a Russian immigrant, rediscovering her youth; another, alone in a nursing home, yearning to admit the struggles of age; a third, returning to Berlin 60 years after the Holocaust, wondering what might have been.

All of them — Gloria, Veronika, Aviva, Ruth, Debbie, Heather, Eva, Belle and Margot — dance across the screen in the seven films showing at The Jewish Women’s Film Festival in New York this month, as familiar as our own mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. They teach. They create. They tell stories. They ask difficult questions. They fight, cry and pretend that nothing happened. They serve dinner on paper plates and then clean the placemats with a DustBuster.

“I made a film out of what I knew, out of what I see in my own family, which is full of strong women and men who fade into the background,” said Jessica Burstein, whose film, “Veronika’s Birthday,” about a New York party girl going to visit her grandmother in Florida, is one of only two nondocumentary features in the festival competition. The characters, she said, were based largely on her own family — “only they can be even worse” — and they argue about what to wear for a visit to Nana, about whether to defrost supper or pick up food from the deli, and about which granddaughter would inherit the best jewelry.

“We wanted films that would exemplify the spirit of Jewish women,” said Priscilla Balch, a retired librarian who sits on the organizing committee for the biennial festival, which is arranged by the New York section of the National Council on Jewish Women. “But we did not want to define that — we wanted to let the filmmakers define it.”

They did, and broadly. The six directors whose films are in the festival — most of them Jewish women themselves — each found subjects who were facing the problems of aging, of defining their own faith, of dealing with their families. The context might be remembering the Holocaust, reconciling the customs of the old country with the realities of modern American life, or winning acceptance for art that is Jewish and feminist — but the themes are Catholic.

“My grandmother is typically Jewish,” said Laurel Greenberg, who made a documentary, “94 Years and 1 Nursing Home Later,” out of conversations her psychiatrist father filmed with his mother as she was dying. “She’s been a caretaker her whole life, first of her siblings and then of her own family, and the crux of the film is how she comes to terms with being in a needy position. People see her as their own mothers or grandmothers.”

“The kind of material that you look for is unique to your experience,” said Lee Grant, an Academy Award-winning actress and documentary filmmaker who is being honored at the festival’s evening awards ceremony with a screening of her 1980 film adaptation of Tillie Olsen’s short story, “Tell Me a Riddle,” about a husband taking his reclusive, aging wife on a road trip, on which they rediscover the fervor of their revolutionary Russian youth.

“I think one’s sense of fairness and unfairness to the way people are treated in life comes from your own roots,” Grant said. “I grew up at a time when Jewishness was not as accepted as it is now, and I can’t imagine having that without having a sense of once having been a Jewish kid.”

Even where the films depict the most culturally circumscribed stories, the themes are hardly unique to Jewish viewers. Heather Tenzer, who directed the short film “Mensch,” about a 23-year-old Hasidic woman waiting for a matchmaker to find her a suitable husband, noted that while the film is about a specifically Jewish experience, “she feels like she’s over the hill, and that she’s lost a lot of her friends to marriage, which is something secular women go through all the time.”

Thomas Halaczinsky, a German filmmaker who made a travelogue with an elderly Holocaust survivor, Margot Friedlander, on her first trip back to Berlin, agreed, and said he had tried to avoid making “just another” Holocaust movie. “It’s really about her trying to find herself, as a woman, after her husband dies,” Halaczinsky said, explaining that Friedlander’s husband, Adolf, had repeatedly refused invitations to return for officially hosted reconciliation visits. (“I let him decide for me,” Friedlander tells her cousin in the film.)

The main concern of the festival organizers, mostly retired women in their 60s and 70s, was avoiding stereotypical, negative depictions of Jewish women. In their discussions, the list of offending caricatures ran from the henpecking wives and mothers of Woody Allen movies and Philip Roth books to Jewish American princesses (and, some of the women noted archly, princes).

“We’re trying to use the festival to fight these things,” Balch said, echoing the sentiments of other committee members. “These ideas, they’re just shorthand.”

But even shorthand, where it recalls a broad foundation of shared experience, can be useful for crystallizing a kaleidoscope of impressions — stop them from spinning by — and the patterns are sharp, specific, captivating; turn the frame, and pieces of ourselves come tumbling out.

Allison T. Hoffman is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

The Jewish Women’s Film Festival, Sunday, November 14; Florence Gould Hall, 55 E. 59th St., 212-687-5030; tickets $10 per session.

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