Tag Archives: documentary

Yoo-hoo, Ms. Rivers!

by Amanda Walgrove

As she’d be the first to joke about, Joan Rivers has tough skin. While her 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, received mostly shining reviews, the film was snubbed during award season because it wasn’t “significantly relevant.” Rivers told the New York Times, “I thought it was about age, I thought it was about perseverance, I thought it was about courage, about getting up again, about women’s place in the world, and I think they’re wrong. I’m angry. Next time I’ll carry around a baby.” Since the ‘50’s when Rivers emerged in show business, she has found numerous ways to reapply herself and remain relevant. Even though the 77 year-old broad will not be added to this year’s list of Jewish Oscar nominees, retirement has never been a discussion.

The powerhouse comedienne has proven to be a resilient businesswoman in the entertainment industry. Bringing in the new year, she can be seen promoting her jewelry line on QVC, debunking wardrobe mishaps on Fashion Police, and touring her stand-up comedy routine, all while providing her own self-deprecating commentary on Twitter. Most recently, Rivers added a new project to her list: The WeTV reality show, Joan and Melissa Rivers: Joan Knows Best follows Joan as she uproots herself from her New York apartment and moves into Melissa’s Malibu home. Joan comes to stay with the intention of creating new memories with her daughter and grandson, but it doesn’t take long for her inner-overbearing Jewish mother and grandmother to emerge.

While the family dynamic and eclectic cast of characters is designed as a recipe for comedy, Joan Rivers will always be a one-woman show. Her strained relationship with Melissa provides ample material for churning out one-liners, packed with shock-value. Joan jests: “Melissa knows just how to push my buttons…which is great, until I’m on a respirator.” But Rivers has no problem meddling in her daughter’s affairs. As matriarch, she actually feels a certain entitlement to such interference. Bothered by the fact that Melissa hired the gorgeous, Swedish Dominica as a nanny for nine-year-old Cooper, Joan tries to take charge. After Melissa stands up for Dominica, Joan slyly dubs the well-endowed nanny, the “Hunchfront of Notre Dame” and personally takes her shopping for some more appropriate work attire.

A veteran in the business, Rivers has the impressive ability of keeping her comedy fresh and contemporary, but the familial conflict at the heart of Joan Knows Best is built on a strong history of Jewish humor. Whether her version of the Jewish mother is based on shtick or sincerity, Joan is indebted to her female forerunners, most notably Gertrude Berg.

Berg’s 1950’s sitcom, The Goldbergs, marked the small screen debut of the archetypal Jewish mother. Just as much of a force as Rivers, Berg was her own screenwriter and producer. She created a clothing line for housewives, published a cookbook, and wrote an advice column called Mama Talks. Like Rivers, Berg’s life produced a documentary, however, hers was posthumous. Aviva Kemper’s 2009 film Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, profiled the career and personal life of Gertrude Berg.

While the yiddishe mamme character of Molly Goldberg was an exaggerated caricature of Berg, many viewers related to the middle-class TV family. In The Paley Center’s film, Remembering Gertrude Berg, Gary David Goldberg recalled the verisimilitude of the show, stating that it was like watching a documentary. He then added, “Years later I remember watching Father Knows Best and thinking, ‘Who are these people? Nobody’s screaming!’” Here in 2011, with reality shows pervading television programming, viewers have their choice of nagging families to watch. New to the roster, Joan Knows Best serves up a combination of the formatted sitcom with plenty of impromptu screams.

Family members often accused the fictional Molly Goldberg of meddling in other people’s affairs, to which she replied, “Not mixing is not fixing.” After moving in, Joan decided to surprise Melissa by redecorating her entire living room against her will. Even though Joan was only trying to make her daughter happy, Melissa responded, “Next time you want to make me happy, let me know.” Joan chose not to acknowledge the few boundaries that existed between mother and daughter.

For a dramatic mother-daughter duo that is used to being in the spotlight, it must be easy to confuse shtick with reality. In the premiere episode, Joan gloats about her relationship with Melissa: “We’re very close. I always say we’re almost like mother and daughter.” Through the comedic portrayal of a Jewish mother, the fine line between the woman and the artist was also drawn thin while producing a sitcom. Berg once said that she played Molly for so many hours in the day that she didn’t know where Gertrude ended and Molly began.

Even though sitcoms are slowly being phased out by reality television, the universal humor of family conflict is alive and well. And so is the Jewish mother. As Joan said while redecorating Melissa’s living room: “Out with the old and in with the new. Except for me.”

What’s In a Name?

By Gabriel Weinstein

For hundreds of years, Ethiopian Jews dreamed of strolling through Jerusalem’s supposed golden streets and celebrating the Sigd festival in its hills. By the late 1970’s, Ethiopians decided that dreaming of Israel no longer sufficed, and embarked on foot to the Promised Land. Scores of Ethiopian Jews fulfilled their dream of reaching Israel through Operation Moses in 1984 after trekking through deserts, skirting Ethiopian border authorities and toiling in unsanitary Sudanese refugee camps. But Ethiopians never dreamed that in Israel, their utopia, they would abandon their Amharic names.

Journalist Ruth Mason explores how Ethiopian immigrants traded their Amharic names, and ultimately a sense of identity, for new Israeli-sounding Hebrew names in her documentary These Are My Names.  The film, which premiered last week at the Jewish Eye World Film Festival in Ashkelon, Israel, expresses the Ethiopian community’s frustration about changing names through interviews with Ethiopian immigrants who gave up their Amharic names. One such immigrant said, “We  were given Hebrew names without thinking about our past.  We were told, ‘You are new people and you will start from the beginning.’”  A woman interviewed in the film was given the name Tziona by her teacher, because she resembled her teacher’s friend. In a Jerusalem Post article, Mason explains Ethiopians’ names have special significance because “They are all named after important events or feelings and emotions, representing something that happened at the time of their birth; it is part of their identity.”

The importance of names to Ethiopian Jews exemplifies a universal aspect of Jewish culture. Beginning in the biblical era, individuals changed their names to correspond with elevated social status or the completion of a notable accomplishment.  The biblical figures Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Joshua all received new names during their lives.  The Book of Samuel makes a distinct connection between an individual’s given name and their personality, proclaiming “Like his name, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25).

Several biblical figures’ names, such as Jacob, reflected their character traits or events in their lives. Jacob was named Ya’akov, meaning to usurp, because he clung to his brother Esau’s heel (ekev) during birth, and would later steal his birthright.  After a night of wrestling with God’s angel, Jacob became Yisrael, meaning struggle with God.

Ethiopian immigrants are not the first, nor will they be the last, group of Jews to change their names as an assimilation tactic.  During the Hellenist era, Jews forged new aliases by combining Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek names. Napoleon made European Jews adopt formal last names, giving rise to common popular surnames like Rosenberg and Silverstein.  Jewish immigrants to America in the 19th and 20th centuries anglicized their first and last names to fit in.  In 1938, Nazi authorities declared that all Jews in Germany and Austria would be called Sarah or Israel. During the mass aliyahs (migrations) to Palestine, many olim, such as the writer Dan Ben-Amotz, discarded their European names for modern Hebrew names.

What distinguishes the Ethiopian name change phenomenon from its predecessors is its context: It occurred in the Jewish state, while the others occurred in countries where Jews were a marginalized minority.  Whereas Jews in previous eras eventually embraced their foreign aliases, These Are My Names depicts the Ethiopian community’s ambivalence over their name changes.

The assignment of new names to Ethiopians without their consultation or consent breaches the guarantee of citizens’ right to practice their respective linguistic, cultural and educational practices outlined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Whether inadvertently or intentionally, Jews perpetuated a cycle of forced identity change that for millennia was used to weaken Jewish identity.

If renaming Ethiopian Jews was intended to promote integration, it has hardly succeeded.  In 2003-04, the percentage of employed, working age Ethiopian men in Israel dropped to 45, down from 54 a decade before.  Most of the Ethiopian community work minimum wage jobs. In a survey of Ethiopians in eight Israeli cities, 45 percent of adults were illiterate.  These Are My Names highlights just one of the major challenges the Ethiopian community confronts in its integration into Israeli society.


De-constructing a City of Queer Borders

By Lily Hoffman Simon

If you were to ask someone to picture the queer community in Israel, it is a fair bet to say that they would picture the group as homogenous, fixed, marginalized.  The term queer itself, initially a derogatory label for homosexuals, was reclaimed as an all-encompassing umbrella term for anyone who defines themselves as having an “alternative” sexual expression, emphasizing the uniform oppression of queers. What happened to the complexities of that oppression, and of those identities? What about the places/spaces that encourage these complexities?

Enter City Of Borders, a new documentary following the lives of queer Israelis and Palestinians.  The directorial debut of Yun Suh, a Korean American filmmaker who gained interest in Israel/Palestine while working as a broadcaster and reporter in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel, the film demonstrates exactly what is lacking in most of the queer Israeli discourse: Complexity and heterogeneity.

Take Adam, for example. Adam is a secular Israeli settler in the West Bank, where he lives with his partner. Yet, he is a leading activist in the gay rights community. A gay rights activist and a settler? This union of traditionally leftist and rightist values superficially seems like a contradiction.  Yet the movie advocates for this complexity, and encourages the viewer to stop looking at Israel as either gay or straight, right or left, and start looking at the complex issues and tensions apparent in individuals’ identities. Isn’t that what the term queer is all about anyways?

City of Borders centres around Shushan, a gay bar in Jerusalem (that has since closed), where a significant chunk of the queer community congregates. This hotspot serves as a uniting force within the otherwise divided Israeli queer community. Where else can a Jewish settler converse, and maybe even make out with, a Palestinian drag queen from Ramallah? At this bar, people do not have to fear oppression; it provides a safe haven for all kinds of sexual expression in the midst of Israeli oppression, especially in a religious and conservative Jerusalem. It also provides a space for identity free from political connotations, where a Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish Israeli lesbian couple can hold hands without fear of judgement.  At this bar, coexistence trumps politics.

Outside the bar, however, the seemingly ideal relationships have to contend with a difficult political reality. The bi-racial lesbian couple, Samira (a Palestinian-Israeli woman) and Ravit (a Jewish-Israeli woman), seem so in love, while at the same time rebellious in their “stick it to the man” attitude towards everyone who questions the validity of their relationship. So it comes as a surprise in the context of their relationship, yet not in the context of the usual perceptions of Israel, that at the beginning of their relationship, Samir lost sight of her love for partner Ravit, and instinctively realized herself as “fucking the occupation.” By exemplifying even the hardest politics in the most intimate moments, the movie refuses to let the viewer accept identity, or queer/political discussions, as static.

So the queer community in Israel is rampant with complex identities and internal tensions, but so what? City of Borders is doing something radical, by demonstrating the heterogeneous nature of the Israeli homosexual community, which is an alternative to most presentations. Within the bar, these differences don’t matter, but in greater Israel, these tensions still play a significant role in people’s lives. By extension, the movie is advocating for a complex view of Israeli society and identity. This breaks down the simplified, so often dichotomized, discussion surrounding queer rights, and even surrounding Israel/Palestine.

Online Exclusive Film Watch: Religulous

Read the current issue’s Film Watch on Sixty Six, here.

“Religion must die for mankind to live.”

When Bill Maher resolutely declares this in his new documentary Religulous (a subtle blending of the words “religion” and “ridiculous”), you can’t help but cringe. Whether or not you consider yourself to be religious, it’s something you just don’t say out loud. It’s just wrong, right? But of course, it’s a concept that many have secretly questioned at some point. Wouldn’t things just be so much easier if religion didn’t exist?

The film is full of cringe-worthy moments, as Maher bombards each person he interviews with intense questioning, often to the point where the person becomes so flustered that Maher is asked to leave. He’s on a quest to call into question people’s blind faith. Maher just doesn’t understand how intelligent, otherwise rational-thinking people can take the stories in the Bible literally. He prods people with the questions they don’t want to talk about or find themselves struggling to answer: Why is faith important? Do you believe in evolution? And, specifically to Jesus (or at least the actor who portrays him at Holy Land, a biblical theme park in Orlando, FL): “Why doesn’t he [God] just obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world? What is he waiting for?” Continue reading