A new documentary from Berkeley explores a heated political debate.
The husband-and-wife team of Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman—unabashedly political filmmakers over the course of three documentaries—grappled with taking the next step. Instead of serving as mediators for other people’s stories, they finally decided, they would tell their own. It was a risky decision, primarily because the subject they were so intimately involved with and passionate about, American Jewish identity, was a veritable minefield that would potentially divide audiences. Then Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, was elected to the highest office in the land.
“In my family, intermarriage is an issue, as is conversion,” Kaufman says. “For so many of us who have hybrid identities, here was a president who was a hybrid himself. [The original idea for the film] was kind of exploring issues of change, and then as we got into it, it became more and more about opposition to change, and what can you say out loud.”
Following a June 30 screening at the prestigious “Stranger than Fiction” series in New York, Between Two Worlds—a title that invokes the contested territory between right and left, America and Israel, and the past and the future—makes its Bay Area premiere this month as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 21-Aug. 8). Although American Jews will inevitably comprise the primary audience for Between Two Worlds, Snitow sees plenty of relevance for other minority groups.
“When we did [our first documentary] Blacks and Jews, we found that a lot of people were interested in the internal politics of the black and Jewish communities,” he says. “There is a kind of reticence in the mainstream media to talk about political differences, questions of identity and so forth, within communities. So you’re not going to see too many articles in The New York Times or the Chronicle about the questions that we raise in our film. At the same time, if you look in the Jewish press or the African-American press, there may be dirty laundry that’s sometimes aired but there’s also reticence, because people don’t want to alienate their funders or the big shots in the community or the people who get the newspapers.
“So we’re touching on issues here that are rarely seen,” Snitow continues. “And we think that there is a sincere interest in what goes on inside communities. And that also lets them see what’s going on in their own communities. ‘Oh, that’s like what’s happening in the black community, where there are people saying [that other blacks are not] black enough.’”
Between Two Worlds exposes and confronts the contentiousness roiling a particular post-assimilation, postmodern population. From one perspective, the debate is similar to that taking place in numerous other minority populations over identity (touching on everything from religious observance to intermarriage) and representation (who gets to speak for the group). There are those who see this imbroglio as a fight for the soul and future of the American Jewish community, while for others it’s merely a turf battle deriving in large measure from the social, financial, and political success that Jews have enjoyed in this country.
“What we were seeing were more and more restrictive ideas about what being Jewish was, and could be,” Snitow explains. “People who were on the left, their Jewishness was being questioned. People who were reform Jews [were told] they weren’t pure enough in terms of their views on Israel or intermarriage or which synagogue they went to. There was more and more a sense that, in order for kids to be Jewish, they had to marry another Jew. It was like a closing in, a circling of the wagons, rather than an acceptance of the idea that there are real challenges of an open society, and that new innovations were what was necessary, and new interpretations.”
But another factor has ratcheted up internecine tensions, and raised the stakes. Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank has cleaved a fault line through the American Jewish community. Those who oppose Israeli government policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians maintain they are acting in accordance with longstanding Jewish principles of justice and civil rights. Supporters, meanwhile, staunchly rebuff any perceived threat to Israel’s existence, equating most criticism with disloyalty or even anti-Semitism.
Largely limited to dueling op-eds in the Jewish press, the issue made national headlines this past May when the board of trustees of the City University of New York voted to withhold an honorary degree that Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Tony Kushner was about to receive. The decision stemmed from a lone trustee’s objection to Kushner’s views on Israel. The resulting public outcry persuaded the board to reverse its decision within days.
The Kushner brouhaha occurred too late to be included in Between Two Worlds, but the film considers at length a local incident that was even more controversial. In 2009, the S.F. Jewish Film Festival programmed Rachel, a documentary by a French-Israeli filmmaker about the death of the young American activist Rachel Corrie. Struck by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to block the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza, Corrie became an international symbol of martyrdom at the hands of a brutal occupying military.
A segment of the Bay Area Jewish community opposed the festival’s selection of the film, sight unseen, deluging festival director Peter Stein with angry, insulting emails. Stein responded by inviting a representative from San Francisco Voice For Israel to introduce Rachel, but that only added oil to the fire. The net result was a public scene at the film festival that exposed strongly held (and, often, virulently expressed) political differences in the Jewish community.
This divisive episode comprises the opening chapter of Between Two Worlds, but it’s merely the first in which Israel plays a central role. Another on-the-ground sequence spotlights the plan of the Museum of Tolerance, the Los Angeles–based, Holocaust-inspired educational center, to construct a similar institution on a Jerusalem tract that is part of a centuries-old Muslim cemetery. The most wrenching segment of the film, however, captures the impassioned public comments preceding a U.C. Berkeley Student Senate vote on the divestment of U.S. companies whose weapons are used by Israel in the Occupied Territories.
“The issues are controversial and to say them out loud is touchy,” Kaufman acknowledges. “We had an adviser, a consulting producer, who said, ‘You should call your movie Airing Dirty Laundry.’ We’ve had a lot of non-Jews look at the film, and a [prospective] distributor said, ‘If you don’t get death threats, I’ll be surprised.’ We are breaking some taboos here, in terms of talking about issues that you’re not supposed to talk about. But that’s of course the whole point of doing independent film. We get to talk about things that other people don’t get to talk about.”
Over the course of their previous documentaries, Kaufman and Snitow assumed the role of investigative journalists. Their first feature-length film, Blacks and Jews (1997), candidly examined the situations and forces that frayed the once-tight bonds forged between the two minorities during the Civil Rights Movement. Secrets of Silicon Valley (2001) exposed how large, successful technology companies quietly used large numbers of temporary workers—who were technically employed by an outside firm, and received no benefits—to minimize labor costs. Thirst (2004) journeyed to Stockton, as well as further afield to India, Bolivia, and Japan, to reveal the privatization of public water supplies and facilities by a handful of multinational corporations. (Full disclosure: I co-authored the 2007 book, Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water, with Kaufman and Snitow.)
Although the filmmakers felt strongly about those issues, they were able to maintain their distance. But they quickly realized that a detached, omniscient voice wouldn’t work for Between Two Worlds. Kaufman’s father,
Bernard, an American Jew raised
in Vienna who’d been a Zionist since childhood, participated in the liberation of Buchenwald in 1945 as an American soldier and doctor. He helped smuggle survivors to Palestine, and was an unwavering, Holocaust-touched supporter of Israel until the end of his life. It’s no great stretch to imagine how he felt when his daughter, Deborah’s sister, announced she was converting to Islam and was going to raise her children as Muslims. This is all included in Between Two Worlds, although Kaufman chose not to interview her sister.
“The relevant issue has to do with how do you [the filmmaker] figure out how much to tell and where do you stop,” Kaufman says. “You don’t want it to be an exercise in therapy. It’s not really about self-discovery; it’s about how do you weave it into the rest of the story, which is much larger than our families. We’re only meant to be representational in certain ways, and apparently we are because people are telling us they identify with these stories.”
Choosing to be a Zionist, as the young Bernard Kaufman did, was one of the two most important Jewish identities in the 20th century. The other was embraced by Virginia Snitow, a Harlem teacher whose writings included a 1942 essay in The New Republic entitled “I Teach Negro Girls.” She was a Communist, a fact that her son was unaware of until late in her life. Idealists in their own ways, one on the right and the other on the left, Bernie Kaufman and Virginia Snitow created legacies that their children feel obliged to reconcile with.
“Our movie is, in some sense, saying people have to claim that, with all of the problems associated with that,” Snitow says. “In other words, you can’t escape Stalin. But you also can’t escape that [the Communists] were really key in basic civil rights and workers’ rights movements in the United States that have transformed this country into a more democratic place.”
It may seem trivial by comparison, but the most difficult hurdle Kaufman and Snitow faced with Between Two Worlds was accepting that their voices—and faces—had to be in the film. Although the documentary strives for even-handedness, its makers inevitably serve as something more than guides through a fraught landscape. It’s pretty clear, for example, what side they’re on regarding the Rachel firestorm. But the actual process of putting themselves on camera provided a bit of levity, as well as embarrassment.
“We had never done that before,” Snitow says. “We were very nervous about it. We didn’t really know how to do it. We constantly realized after the fact, ‘Oh, we should have shot this way.’ ‘Why was I wearing that?’ We weren’t dressing, making up, brushing our hair, moving in the right way, giving our best side, all of those things that a camera needs. But at the same time we were extremely self-conscious. So it was the worst of all possible worlds. But we had to be able to say to people, ‘This is who we are.’”
Who they are is already well known in certain Bay Area circles, aside from their careers as documentary filmmakers with three national PBS broadcasts to their credit. Kaufman founded the world’s first Jewish Film Festival, in San Francisco, and helmed it for 13 years. Snitow was a news producer for KTVU-TV for nearly as long, following an eight-year stint as news director at KPFA-FM. In the mid-1990s, they traded their day jobs for the uncertain, self-generating work of nonfiction filmmaking.
That uncertainty, of course, includes the audience response to a given work. Between Two Worlds will likely prove to be Snitow and Kaufman’s most controversial film. Their avowed intention, however, is to inspire a constructive conversation among American Jews—and beyond.
“There’s still a conversation going on in the black community about is Obama black enough, and why isn’t he dealing with poverty,” Kaufman says. “I’m interested in that conversation because there are certain patterns that are the same, which have to do with testing loyalty if you cross the line. In racial communities it often has to do with intermarriage. In my own family, there’s an intermarriage between a Shia and a Sunni Muslim, and that’s considered as radical—maybe even more radical—than a Jewish-Muslim interfaith marriage. Crossing the line is really difficult and painful but people are doing it in all kinds of communities, not just the Jewish community.”
Neither naive innocents nor radical ideologues, the Berkeley filmmakers embarked on this project with an emotional investment but also an abundance of empathy.
“Change is hard,” Kaufman concedes. “It’s not like we’re saying, ‘Oh, isn’t this good, young people are doing it. Don’t worry, it’s the future.’ There are things to consider when you do this kind of work and how to be sensitive to both traditionalists and elders and people who are reticent about this, and uneasy. And there are things to be uneasy about. So we don’t want to go blithely into this.” l
Michael Fox is a longtime Bay Area film critic and journalist, and has written The Monthly’s Critic’s Choice on movies since 1989.