The vagaries of international film distribution may produce the impression that the French have created a more significant body of work examining their nation’s moral failings under Nazi Occupation than any other European country. We have, for example, feature films like Louis Malle’s “Au revoir, les enfants,” Truffaut’s “Le Dernier Metro,” or Rose Bosch’s recent “La Rafle,” as well as magisterial documentaries like Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” and “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbi,” not to mention Claude Lanzmann’s singular “Shoah” and his recent, if problematic, “The Last of the Unjust.” It may be my lapse, but I can immediately think of no other European national cinema that has produced a documentary that takes its own Nazi period and examines it with the moral depth and complexity of “The Sorrow and the Pity” or “Hotel Terminus.” It could also be that significant works of that kind have simply not reached the international market.
With this in mind, it may be unfair to approach Oren Jacoby’s modest and nobly intended “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes” by the barometer of the best that has already been produced in another national context. “My Italian Secret” tells stories of bravery by ordinary Italians in saving their Jewish friends and neighbors; it does so by following several Jewish survivors who return to Italy in their late adulthood to revisit the scenes of their worst nightmares: hidden in terror, fleeing in desperation, separated from loved ones, saying final goodbyes without knowing they were final. But Jacoby also threads through his documentary the story of a uniquely self-effacing man, the ruggedly handsome Italian bicycling idol Gino Bartali, whose athletic success before the outbreak of war imposed on him the burden of being used as a paragon of Mussolini’s fascist ideology. This is a position from which Bartali shrank, preferring to keep his own counsel and avoid any apparent endorsement of Il Duce’s project.
Photo courtesy Cohen Media Group
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.
Like many other aspects of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, old-time Jewish delicacies are becoming harder and harder to find. In 1931 there were more than 2,500 delis and 150 kosher dairy restaurants in New York City alone; today there are only 21 delis left in the Big Apple. Erik Greenberg Anjou’s film “Deli Man,” which is now playing nationwide, explores the history of the American-Jewish deli and its precipitous decline through the men seeking to keep deli culture alive, chief among them “deli man” Ziggy Gruber.
Gruber, a 40-something New York Jew, has run Kenny and Ziggy’s Delicatessen in Houston, Texas for the past 15 years. Gruber grew up in the deli industry. “How did I start working in delis?” Gruber repeated the question during a telephone interview. “Well, when I was 8 my grandfather threw an apron at me and said ‘come with me. It’s time to make a living.’ And he taught me how to cook real heymishe (down-home) Yiddish food and work in the deli.”
Ziggy Gruber has an impeccable pedigree in the world of Jewish delis; his family is made up of three generations of “deli men.” His grandfather Max came to America from Budapest at age 16 and soon began working in Jewish restaurants. Together with his brother-in-laws Izzy and Morris Rappaport, Max opened the first deli on Broadway, the famous Rialto Deli in 1927. The restaurant was a huge success and they soon opened other popular delis, including Berger’s Delicatessen on 47th street, Wally’s Downtown and The Griddle on 16th street. Their delis attracted some of the biggest celebrities of the time, including Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.
Photo courtesy Cohen Media Group
For many Jews, much of their identity revolves around a bagel with shmear or a hot pastrami sandwich.
And in mid-20th-century America, there were plenty of places they could indulge their cultural-culinary passions. In 1931, New York City alone was home to over 1,500 kosher delicatessens.
Today, not so much. According to the new documentary “Deli Man,” there are only about 150 kosher delis in the entire U.S., and less than two dozen kosher and non-kosher delis within the five boroughs.
Filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou takes us on a mouthwatering journey from the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan to Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills with a stop at Manny’s in Chicago.
“Deli Man” is Greenberg Anjou’s third work on Jewish culture, including “The Cantor’s Tale” and “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.” They were both top-notch, moving films, but this one — you should pardon the expression — is even more delicious.
“Above and Beyond,” the documentary about the birth of the Israeli Air Force, started with an obituary. This according to the film’s executive producer, Nancy Spielberg.
Yes, for the record, she is one of those Spielbergs. Yet, despite her impressive credentials — she served as a consultant on the Oscar-winning documentary, “Chernobyl Heart,” and executive produced “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals” — she is probably not even the second or third most famous member of the clan.
There is, of course, older brother Steven. Sister Anne was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay of “Big.” And then there is Nancy’s daughter, Jessica Katz, a contestant on the Israeli version of “The Voice.”
“Above and Beyond” is about a small group of mostly American, mostly secular Jews who risked everything to sneak aircraft around worldwide embargoes into the newly founded State of Israel — and then fly those planes on missions against the massed armies of five Arab nations.
Czechoslovakia, in desperate need of U.S. dollars, sold Israel Messerschmitts from a German-built factory there — as well as German parachutes and uniforms. Other aircraft and parts were smuggled out of the U.S. and other countries.
Interestingly, one of the pilots was Milton Rubenfeld, the father of entertainer Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman, who talks about his dad in the film.
Spielberg spoke to the Forward about being from a “heymish” family, why the director she hired refused her calls, and what it was like growing up as a prop person for her older brother.
Curt Schleier: How did the film come about?
In October and November 1973, during and shortly after the Yom Kippur War, Susan Sontag travelled to Israel to make a documentary film entitled “Promised Lands.” The movie constituted a mere coda in the recent HBO documentary about her life and work, “Regarding Susan Sontag”, which as Gabe Friedman noted in his review “leaves out a detailed discussion of her work.” Since “Promised Lands” is the principle testament by which Sontag’s view of Israel can be judged, it warrants re-watching.
Upon its initial release in 1974, “Promised Lands” was panned by The New York Times. Israel’s “situation is just too factually complex to be treated as a tone poem,” Nora Sayre wrote, arguing that “the viewer almost has to function as an editor, since the selection of the footage is so haphazard.” The movie “won’t increase your understanding of Israel. Perhaps the latter should have been a book instead of a film,” the review concludes rather sniffily.
This judgment is fair in some senses. It is certainly true that “Promised Lands” won’t increase anyone’s factual understanding either of Israel itself or the wider conflict with its Arab neighbors. But it is not Sontag’s ambition to provide context and explanation for the Yom Kippur War. Rather, as Leon Wieseltier observed, “there are endless shots of desert (read: Nature) and corpses (read: History), and a host of cute juxtapositions of the old and the new which look like El Al’s TV commercials and which add nothing to our understanding of the situation.”
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