A Slave of Ethnic Genetics

Out and about at the Boston Jewish Film Festival

One of the plagues an Israeli visitor to Boston is likely to encounter - and especially if he is a film, literature or art critic - is a chance encounter, in the evening, on the sidewalk, or in line for the movies, with someone he has written about in the past who has not forgiven him for the way he has insulted his work, and who wants to settle accounts, as in the final words of Yosef Haim Brenner's "From Here and There."

Did I say Brenner? The man who walked toward me as I was on my way to the festive screening of the Israeli film "Trumpet in the Wadi" at a movie theater on Brookline Street in the city of Boston (where, every November, there is a Jewish film festival in conjunction with the Haifa International Film Festival, which awarded this film the Golden Anchor Prize last year) at first looked to me like Brenner come back from the dead: The same beard, the same forelock, the same Jewish-Russian disquiet that bursts out of a relatively small body.

We were introduced: David Benchetrit, the maker of the documentary film "East Wind" about the travails of the Jews who immigrated to Israel from Morocco, which stirred up a storm after it was broadcast on television in Israel because of a sentence in it that calls for shooting Ashkenazim in the head. And I dared to write something in the newspaper against that film, may I be consigned to eternal perdition! By doing this, I proved that I was a traitor - and I was emphatically reminded of this by that same cinematic Brenner - because I myself am half-Sephardi, on my mother's side, and everything negative I said about his film is an act of self-hatred against the Sephardi half of myself.

"Why do you hate yourself so much?" challenged Benchetrit, his eyes spewing fire. And people had already gathered around him to calm him down, and they gave me a cup of tea. And the husband of Sarah Rubin, the devoted director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, apologized for the way that person had insulted me, a person "who apparently doesn't share the manners we have here."

And like Herzl - though, of course, with all manner of differences - who in Basel founded the Jewish state, I, in Boston, on the sidewalk, again understood the problem of the state that was established on the basis of his vision, which makes every one of its citizens the eternal slave of his ethnic genetics. Anyone whose mother was Jewish will become a Jew whether he likes it or not and even death will not release him from the ranks, and anyone whose mother was born in the East will be half-Sephardi and even if he journeys to distant Boston, he will find someone to remind him of this in the middle of the street. And the Ashkenazi half? Well, the Ashkenazim have the Holocaust and it preserves their identity from all evil.

Insignificant word

In the film that opened the festival, "God is Great, I'm Not," it was possible to see the extent to which the Holocaust has become a kind of label that young Jews wear on their clothes to differentiate them from their surroundings. The film tells the story of the love between a young Parisian Jew and a young woman who is not "one of us" (the actress who plays her is Audrey Tautou, the heroine of the French film "Amelie"). She tries to appeal to him through books about "le Holocaust," but he shoves them away, and scolds her that "Holocaust" is a hateful word that was invented by the gentiles and it means sacrificial victim and the right word is "Shoah" and only "Shoah," even in French.

And as he said this, in the middle of the film, I thought to myself that the fellow is a complete fool who shoves away gorgeous French confiture because of the word "Shoah," which is nothing but an ordinary and insignificant word that was chosen to represent the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis, and is no closer to the truth than the word "Holocaust."

The word "Shoah" in its current sense was born almost incidentally, in an article by Yehoshua Radler-Feldman in the journal Moznaim in the fall of 1939, in response to the first chapters that S.Y. Agnon had published from his novel "A Guest for the Night" in the literary supplement of Ha'aretz. The word "Shoah" appeared twice in this article to denote the shock the Jews in Palestine felt in the wake of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement and the partition. The article places the blame for that "Shoah" on Hitler and Stalin alike. And, as the Israeli historian Mendel Piekarz wrote - he has been calling for years to replace this noun with something more precise - there was apparently a clear intention to select such a general and neutral word for this, and he came out vehemently against it in another famous article in Ha'aretz 12 years ago.

Pascale Bailly, the director of the film "God is Great, I'm Not," is not Jewish, and when she answered questions from the audience after the screening, she remarked that she had experienced this scene in her youth, when she had a Jewish boyfriend and tried to please him through "le Holocaust" or the "Shoah." Now she is apparently on her own and is raising her young, dark-skinned daughter. She came with her to the festival and aroused that same quiet shock as they walked together through the foyer during the reception - a white mother with a black daughter - the kind of shock that cannot be expressed in public because of the fact that in our day, every individual is free to chose the color of his or her children's skin. And therefore our glances must be restrained and we must not stare at the child, but smile at them as if they were just any mother and daughter.

And as far as I'm concerned, this alone is enough to justify the existence of a Jewish film festival in Boston, which expands the borders of Jewishness and takes in a French director who is not Jewish at all genetically, yet nevertheless is more Jewish than many Jews in the courage she has to take a black child as her daughter and to make films about the identity problems of a Jewish fellow in Paris (and indeed in the film, in a moment of despair, the gentile says to her Jewish lover bitterly: "I'm more Jewish than you are!").

Hunks in glasses

At festivals of this sort, one often encounters another expansion of the Jewish experience in the form of the local Israeli diplomatic community, which comes to the receptions: a consul whose name will be Yossi Cohen or Avi Levi, and his wife will be called Ruhama or Pnina, and both of them will have a guardian angel in the shape of a security man in sunglasses. The cultural attache will be Moshe or Itzik, which is what his wife will shout to him from the end of the corridor at the end of the film. Sarah Rubin, the festival director, gave them all due respect at every opportunity, and this is evidence of greatness of soul. And every time she announced, at one reception or another, the presence of "His Excellency Yossi Levi [or Avi Cohen]," I chuckled inwardly at the Itziks and the Yossis and the Avis who are doing their duty in the family of nations, and not without fear, for they are guarded by the hunk in the dark glasses, whose name is also maybe Yossi or Moshe, although he is not entitled to the title "His Excellency."

At the end of my trip, I stopped over for a few hours - to change planes - at the German city of Nuremburg, where I have a close relative, who happens to be from the Sephardi side. During one of my previous visits to the city, I heard family members talking about going to "Schocken." What they meant was the Horten department store, not far from the railroad station, which the locals persist in calling "Schocken" after the original owners.

One of the relatives, a particular favorite of mine, wanted to satisfy my curiosity and took me quickly to the museum of industry and transportation in Nuremberg, where there is a special exhibit that documents the history of the Schocken department store in the city. To show what it was like, one of its display windows was reconstructed, with household goods from the 1930s: a basin and ewer, towels in various colors, table settings, and all with price tags from those days. On the wall, words and pictures tell about the history of the Schocken family, which established the department store and was eventually forced to transfer it to "Aryan" hands, and about the name-change to Horten, and about the Allied bombardments of the city that also damaged the department store, and about the era of the reconstruction of Germany after the war, when the facade of the store was redesigned, but inside it remained what it had always been, and was called by people - "Schocken."

And I told my relative that this is the ultimate proof that even a shop for towels and china plates can be something spiritual when it is linked to the name of the Shoah - that same word that was invented in reaction to a chapter from a novel that was published in the literary supplement of Ha'aretz, which in turn is the spiritual adjunct of the newspaper that Schocken established on the ruins of that "Schocken," and on the pages of which these words will also be printed.

Last in a series