Hizzonor, Mayor Ed Koch likes to go to the movies, and has been known to frequent Montclair’s Clairidge Cinema for the independent and art films. He is, after all, a Jersey boy, born and partly raised in Newark. He comes back to his old stomping grounds — or nearby, anyway — on a regular basis.
While the mayor’s opinions about a lot of topics are privately sought after by a globe full of political leaders, his thoughts on movies are regularly featured for all to read on his popular blog The Mayor at the Movies. If you’re a Koch fan, a film buff or just want to catch the charismatic, quintessential New Yorker’s latest review, the site is well worth adding to your RSS feed. It’s often more than just film chat, as in the review of Sarah’s Key below. He is, after all, a politician.
These two films are currently playing at the Clairidge. Next time you go to the Bloomfield Avenue indie film house, take a look at who is sitting next to you. If asks “How am I doing,” it’ll surely be a clue.
Sholem Aleichem (+)
August 15, 2011
No Jew interested in the traditions of his/her faith should miss this delightful, absorbing and informative documentary about the life of Sholem Aleichem, born Solomon Rabinovich. The story of his time spent in Russia and New York City is told by Jewish scholars and a granddaughter, accompanied by photographs.
Sholem was born in the Pale of Russia, the section under the Czars in which Jews were permitted to live which ran from the Baltic Coast to the Black Sea. Jews were not permitted to own land, were limited in their business opportunities, and upwards of five million them lived in shtetls (small towns overwhelmingly occupied by Jews). There was always the fear of pogroms, some instigated by the Czar when a government failure arose. It was helpful to blame and punish the Jews by having their Russian neighbors and Cossacks rape and murder.
Sholem Aleichem became a writer, writing only in Yiddish, and his works sparkled with wisdom and joy. The most famous of his characters was the dairyman Tevye, who was the subject of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” The musical was written by Joseph Stein and directed by Norman Jewison. The score was by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock.
One of the famous dairyman stories changed in the musical. In Aleichem’s original story, a daughter becomes romantically involved with a gentile. At the last minute, she decides not to marry outside her faith and returns to her father’s house. In the musical, Tevye ultimately gives his daughter his blessing and off she goes to America.
Sholem Aleichem also went to America, where he was first lionized and then denounced. Two of his plays in Yiddish, which opened simultaneously in the very active Yiddish theater in New York City, were deemed flops. American Jews were trying to fit in and no longer wanted to read Yiddish or identify with the lives of the Eastern European Jews back in the shtetls. They left those constricted lives for America and its freedom, and they wanted to assimilate.
When Aleichem saw that he could not succeed in America, he returned to Europe but later returned to the U.S. While he was not a literary success in this country during his lifetime, when he died 200,000 people poured onto the streets, realizing that they had a Prince of Israel in their midst. Like Lincoln, FDR and Jack Kennedy, who were transported by train either from Washington D.C. to their home states or to DC for burial, Aleichem’s casket was taken by carriage to the major Jewish communities in the city for the crowds to view and mourn.
While not a great picture, it is certainly worth seeing.
The film depicts the 1942 round up by the French police – unsolicited by the Nazis but, of course, with their approval – of 76,000 Jewish men, women and children. They were taken from their Parisian homes in the Jewish area known as Le Marais to the Velodrome d’Hiver which has since been torn down. The conditions in that stadium, as observed by one commentator, were far worse than those at the Superdome in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina: no bathrooms and little water and food. Of the 76,000 Jews taken into custody, all but 5,000 were murdered in Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland to which they were shipped.
The story opens with a knock on the door of an apartment in which ten-year-old Sarah (Melusine Mayance) lives with her family. The French police have arrived to take them to the Velodrome. Sarah locks her younger brother in the closet before the police see him and takes the key with her, hoping to soon escape and free him.
A second story now unfolds. The year is 2002 when an American journalist, Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas), and her husband move into the apartment once occupied by Sarah and her family. Her husband’s parents had moved into that apartment in 1942 when the Jewish family had been taken into custody. The film cuts in and out between the two stories with Julia researching what happened to Sarah.
I won’t reveal much of the story other than to say that early on Sarah is saved by a French farmer and his wife after escaping the internment camp. No torture scenes are depicted in the movie, but what takes place will wrench your heart.
The film recalls what occurred over 60 years ago when the Nazis ruled Europe and their non-German collaborators in every occupied country, except perhaps Denmark, helped them in the war against the Jews. During the movie Prime Minister Jacques Chirac is shown stating for the first time on television France’s responsibility for the roundup of Jews.
In my opinion, those who would learn a lesson from watching this film would be people like Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times who recently wrote an op-ed lambasting Israel. He stated:
“Whenever I write about Israel, I get accused of double standards because I don’t spill as much ink denouncing worse abuses by, say, Syria. I plead guilty. I demand more of Israel partly because my tax dollars supply arms and aid to Israel. I hold democratic allies like Israel to a higher standard – just as I do the U.S.”
Perhaps the movie would make him understand why the security of Israel is so important to the American Jews whom he castigates for supporting that security. Perhaps it will cause him to think that just as Jews were rounded up in France and the other occupied countries, they would have been similarly rounded up in the U.S. if we had lost the war. He might consider that Israel’s needs for defensible borders and to be well armed makes even greater sense now in view of Syria’s action against its own citizens: shooting them down in the streets of Hama and elsewhere which was denounced by the King of Saudi Arabia and the Turkish government. Imagine what they would do if they were ever to successfully invade Israel and take control over its Jewish citizens.
Yes, I am outraged by the condemnatory statements of Israel by Kristof and others like him who never seem to recognize the dangers facing that country from the surrounding Muslim states who resent its very presence.