Arts & Letters; Documenting Identity As One Film Explores the Insularity of the Orthodox, Another Embraces Polish Expansiveness
In 1990, Oren Rudavsky and Yale Strom co-directed “At the Crossroads: Jews in Eastern Europe Today,” a wonderfully poignant and hopeful documentary about a rather complicated subject. It followed Strom, a klezmer musician, speaking Yiddish to elderly Jews in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and English to young Jews trying to shape a new identity there. Rudavsky’s curious and sympathetic camera captured a range of emotions, from the loneliness of an aging Jew to the exhilaration engendered by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s concert in 1989 Warsaw.
Fourteen years later, Rudavsky and Strom continue to make films that raise piercing questions about Jewish identity — separately. If either Rudavsky’s “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust” or Strom’s “Klezmer on Fish Street” were receiving theatrical distribution this season, New York’s filmgoers would be enriched. The fact that both of these fine documentaries are opening at the Quad Cinema is cause for celebration.
“Hiding and Seeking” is the latest documentary by Rudavsky and Menachem Daum, whose previous collaborative gem was “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.” The February 6 release of “Hiding and Seeking” follows its world premiere in mid-January as the opening-night selection of the New York Jewish Film Festival. “Klezmer on Fish Street,” opening on April 16 at the Quad Cinema in New York and May 7 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Los Angeles, is Strom’s latest contribution to a rich career blending musical and cinematic achievements. A fine example is “The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music,” Strom’s moving 1994 portrait of the Polish musician and composer, for which Rudavsky was the director of photography.
On the surface, “Hiding and Seeking “ and “Klezmer on Fish Street” have much in common, from their subject and locale — Americans visiting Poland — to their concern with Jewish identity. But they ultimately diverge in style, message and vision. “Klezmer on Fish Street” is a kaleidoscopic exploration of a new and paradoxical development — the resurgence of Yiddish culture in a country where the Jewish community was decimated. Strom chronicles what he has termed “cultural philo-Semitism” by and for non-Jews. “Hiding and Seeking” is more central to a growing sub-genre of Holocaust cinema in which a Jewish individual travels back to the European scene of the crime, where a parent was either murdered or rescued during World War II.
In “Hiding and Seeking,” Daum takes his two sons to Poland, the locale of their grandfather’s rescue by Christian farmers. Daum proves to be a rich subject for cinematic treatment. Born in a displaced persons camp in Germany to Holocaust survivors, he came to the United States in 1951, where he became a Brooklyn resident and a skeptical Orthodox humanist. In the beginning of the film, viewers see him traveling to Israel to visit his sons, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva. He is concerned that they are shunning non-Jews. Both sons are full-time Torah students in Jerusalem with children of their own. They say they want nothing to do with the “goyim” who have been destroying Jews for centuries, and express little appreciation for how their grandfather was saved.
On a journey to overcome his sons’ insularity, Daum and his wife Rifke travel to Poland with Tzvi Dovid and Akiva, who are dismissive of the whole enterprise. It is thus even more moving when they meet the Mucha family, who risked their lives to shelter Rifke’s father for more than two years. Tzvi Dovid and Akiva cry and pray at the place where their grandfather (and his two brothers) were saved.
With three generations of both Jews and Poles reunited, the film creates a dramatic opportunity for closure. The saviors express bewilderment — rightfully — that the rescued Jews never even wrote to them after the war, to which Daum replies, “We’re here to correct that.” By the end of the film, one year later, Daum obviously has succeeded in his aims: Not only are the rescuers honored by Yad Vashem — through a moving ceremony in Poland that brings both families together again — but his sons have learned about decent gentiles. In a speech at a town hall, Tzvi Dovid acknowledges that his own grandfather’s silence was due to “an overwhelming sense of insurmountable debt.”
If “Hiding and Seeking” takes on the insularity of the Orthodox world — inviting tolerance as well as gratitude vis-à-vis “the Other” — “Klezmer on Fish Street” embraces the new expansiveness of Poland vis-à-vis Judaism. Strom shot much of the film during the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, where klezmer musicians have large and enthusiastic audiences (with hardly any Jews on either side of the stage). The film raises the question of whether Jewish culture can exist without Jews — or, more precisely, without Jewish faith.
One of the narrative frames is a confrontation in Krakow’s square on a Saturday night between the young Jewish American visitors singing and dancing, and a few Poles who complain because it’s past the time that loud public gatherings are permitted. The nice policemen are stuck — confused and restrained — as the youngsters refuse to disperse.
An intermediary is found in Alta, a Holocaust survivor who is the Klezmaniacs lead singer’s grandmother. Strom follows her own return to Bedzin, whose Fish Street informs the film’s title. Thanks to visitors like Alta and the Klezmaniacs, Klezmer music is heard there once again. Musically speaking, the flame of Judaism has not died in Poland, a country where so much of Jewish culture — including chasidic melodies and Yiddish poetry — was born. We see, for example, a concert of the enthralling Polish klezmer group “Kroke” in the rain: A high-angle shot shows their audience as a vast sea of umbrellas, visually invoking giant yarmulkes. (Coincidentally, “Hiding and Seeking” also contains related footage of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s l989 concert: In Warsaw, he entertains a rapt and predominantly Christian audience with his religious music.)
Strom keeps returning to two images: the silhouette of a man playing a violin in a field, suggesting that Yiddish music is merely a shadow of its pre-Holocaust vitality, and the nighttime Krakow confrontation, where cries of “Stop shooting” take on double resonance. “Why don’t you go back to Israel?” one Polish gentile asks a Polish-Jewish woman who left her native land in 1968 because of government-instigated antisemitism. In addition, interviews, concert footage and Alta’s rueful ruminations make the film jump, in a sense, from Holocaust shadows to the light of present-day celebration.
“Klezmer on Fish Street” is an effective film that — while chronicling and contributing to the return of Jewish life in Poland — questions whether antisemitism has really disappeared there. “Hiding and Seeking,” on the other hand, is a film of transformation in which a mensch seeks out and celebrates the decency of others.
Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, is the author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” an updated third edition of which was published by Cambridge University Press.