Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Sunday, November 13

Three more movies at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Fest last Sunday. Let's just start right in.

First up was an amusing and surprisingly thought provoking JEWS AND BASEBALL: AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY. Opening with the standard joke about how Jews are no good at sports, it proceeds to explode that myth, and explore the relationship of Jews, Baseball, and American integration. Of course the giants--Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax--are highly featured. And plenty of due is given to the more recent greats--Shawn Green, Kevin Youklis, etc. But it's the unexpected stories that make this a treat. Did you know the very first professional (i.e., paid) ballplayer was Jewish? (Okay, go ahead and make your Jews and money crack and be on your way). Or the first designated hitter? (Okay, but you can't blame all Jews for ruining the game). Did you know that the music to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was written by a Jew? How about Moe Berg, known as "the smartest man in baseball," of whom it was said he could speak 7 languages and couldn't hit in any. He was a spy in WWII (there's another movie that could be made just about him.) Hell, even the current commissioner is Jewish. But the major thread through it all is the story of American assimilation. At a time when most Jews were recent immigrants, playing the national pastime was an important way to be American--and show the rest of the world that your people are as American as anyone else. The movie even contends that Hank Greenberg was possibly the most important man in American Jewish history, and I might just agree. And the story of assimilation is not uniquely Jewish. One of the most poignant stories in the film happens in Greenberg's final season. After a career with the Detroit Tigers, he was traded in 1947 for one final year with the Pittsburgh Pirates, moving to the National League. That was the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers (oh yeah, as an aside the Dodgers had an earlier history of specifically recruiting Jewish players to appeal to the largely Jewish Brooklyn neighborhoods). So for one season Greenberg and Robinson actually played against each other. And in one game, there was an incident where Robinson collided with Greenberg at first base. There were concerns that either one would be injured, or worse that there would be a scuffle. But Greenberg got up, dusted himself off, then helped Robinson up and asked him if he was okay. Robinson said later to the press that Greenberg was a "class act." And Greenberg spoke about how he thought the Anti-Semitic slurs he heard in his day were bad, but nothing compared to what Robinson went through. Powerful story, and a really good, entertaining documentary all around.

Next up, a rather difficult drama RESTORATION. The title refers to furniture restoration, but maybe also to restoration of family and life. When Max dies, that's bad news for his friend and business partner Yaakov. Even worse, he finds that their furniture restoration shop is in bad financial shape. Worse yet, Max has bequeathed his half of the business not to Yaakov, but to Yaakov's estranged son, an ambitious attorney with no interest in the shop. But when an antique Steinway is discovered, it might just be the key to saving everything. Or not. It's a tricky, subtle thing, and honestly I was so tired I struggled to stay awake. The acting, cinematography, score, etc. were all well done (especially acting), but I'm just not sure I "got" the film. Perhaps if I saw it again when I wasn't exhausted (like that will ever happen) I can get more out of it.

And finally, I ended the night (I had already seen the late movie, INTIMATE GRAMMAR) with another fascinating documentary about Jews in unexpected roles, JEWISH SOLDIERS IN BLUE AND GRAY. It sometimes feels like a typical PBS or History Channel Civil War documentary, but with a focus on Jews. Jews like the Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin. Or, oddly enough, Lincoln's foot doctor, confidant, and spy Dr. Isachar Zacharie. Or any numbers of foot soldiers and officers. On both sides, there are fascinating stories of Jewish opinion on slavery, loyalty to a nation that doesn't really accept them, and Abraham Lincoln's personal reverence for the Jewish race. There's even a fascinating coda where Mark Twain is convinced to retract a statement he made regarding the Jewish aversion to actually fighting in war. Really interesting.

Total Running Time: 282 minutes
My Total Minutes: 256,458
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