Picture This

For 34 years, professor and Jewish film archivist Sharon Pucker Rivo ’61 has been on a cultural treasure hunt.

The good ship Exodus, a rusty Baltimore Harbor cruise boat refitted to carry 4,500 displaced European Jewish men, women and children to Palestine in 1947, was made famous in Otto Preminger’s 1960 film rendition of a novel by Leon Uris.

To see the historic Exodus, though, you would have to bypass Preminger’s opus and squint at a grainy bit of film that bounces erratically between color and black and white, catching glimpses of ocean, flashes of sky, maritime gear and coils of rigging.

The unsteady hand holding the camera belonged to Bill Bernstein of San Francisco, one of the American crew members who volunteered to man the refugee vessel and who at times passed his 8 mm home movie camera to a shipmate so he could mug before his own lens.

The images are made more poignant by the fact that the amateur photographer was unknowingly preparing his own memorial. Shortly after the film was shot, British Navy members, under orders to enforce a strict limit on Jewish immigration into Palestine, boarded the Exodus to thwart a planned landing at Haifa. A scuffle broke out in which Bernstein and two refugees were killed and dozens of other passengers injured.

Unlike the Hollywood version, the real-life incident culminated in the forceful return of the refugees, most of them Holocaust survivors, to Germany; it took another two years and the birth of Israel for the intended pilgrims to reach the Holy Land.

The Bernstein film was used in “Ahead of Time,” a new documentary about U.S. photojournalist Ruth Gruber, whose firsthand coverage of the Exodus journey helped bring the story to international prominence. The original exposure exerted pressure on Britain to cede its mandate in the area to the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine, which resolved the issue of Israeli statehood in 1948. Bernstein’s footage survives because the sailor’s descendants entrusted it to the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis.

The Genesis

Wedged in a classroom-sized basement space below the Lown School of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, at the pinnacle of campus, the film center is the brainchild of founding director Sharon Pucker Rivo ’61. After earning a master’s in international relations and political science at the University of California at Berkeley, Rivo returned to Boston in 1963 and became one of the first women producers at WGBH-TV. In 1973 she was hired by the late Leon Jick, a Brandeis professor of American Jewish history, at the Institute for Jewish Life, a national research project. There she was put in charge of assessing the state of Jewish media, with a particular emphasis on TV and cinema.

She had not delved far into her research — she calls it a “daily treasure hunt” — when a discovery set the course for her life. Following a lead from a friend, she learned that the family of famed filmmaker Joseph Seiden still possessed fragments of 30 motion pictures Seiden and others had created in the Yiddish language.

“I literally stumbled upon this collection that I knew I had to save; that accident became the genesis of what is now the National Center for Jewish Film,” says Rivo.

Initially there was little interest in these rare materials. Yiddish cinema as a genre didn’t exist until aggregated by Rivo. She understood the importance of collecting and protecting the remnants of movies produced in a dying tongue — not just as a form of entertainment, but also as a rare glimpse into a culture that had not been widely documented. While Jewish presence in the Hollywood film industry is legendary, the relics the Seiden family proffered had been produced primarily in New York and Warsaw for Yiddish-speaking audiences. In the words of prominent movie critic J. Hoberman, these films “addressed the dislocations between the Old Country and the New World, parent and child, film community and industrial society, worker and allrightnik, that existed within each member of the audience.”

What’s more, they captured the heyday of the Yiddish stage, which had its own classic literature, its own matinee idols and even its own geography: In the early 1900s, New York’s Second Avenue, aglitter with marquees, was known as “the Yiddish Broadway.” By the time of Rivo’s treasure hunt, though, Yiddish theater was a culture as dead as Pompeii. In addition, the films that were created overseas during the early 20th century shed light on pre-Holocaust Europe, documenting the lifestyle, dress, social interactions and artifacts of what Rivo calls “communities destroyed before their time.”

Enthralled with her find and convinced the Yiddish films were cultural artifacts worth preserving, Rivo worked up an optimistic estimate of $250,000 to save 10  pictures. The process would involve transferring the vintage images from their fragile nitrate film to sturdier acetate safety stock in 16 mm or 35 mm, as well as creating new translations into English for accurate, easily read subtitles.

But when she started visiting national Jewish organizations to secure funding for the project, she says, people asked, “You want to spend a quarter of a million dollars to save 10 old Yiddish films? Are you crazy?”

Crazy Like a Fox

Fortunately, not everyone accused her of lunacy. The National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute recognized the significance of the Yiddish films and provided a preservation grant of $41,000, opening the tap on a modest but steady stream of funding that continues today.

In 1976, Brandeis president Marver Bernstein and president emeritus Abram Sacher offered to provide a home for the film project in the Lown Judaic Center. The new endeavor became affiliated with the Near Eastern and Judaic studies department, which later offered Rivo a faculty position teaching Jewish film courses.

Over the next three decades, Rivo and a colleague, Miriam “Mimi” Krant, who died in 2006, managed to preserve 38 complete Yiddish feature movies as well as dozens of other “orphan” films — a feat no one else has even come close to — at a total cost of more than $4 million.

Some films reflect Yiddish folklore — retelling, for example, Sholom Aleichem’s charming tales of Tevye the milkman, known to wider audiences since the 1960s as the central figure in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” Some depict daily life in Yiddish-speaking U.S. and European families of the early 20th century, while others feature singing and dancing stage stars. A few spotlight a quirky ethnic humor that foreshadowed the work of Borscht Belt comics and satirical producers like Mel Brooks; one outrageous fantasy scene, for instance, shows hundreds of comely Jewish maidens, in full white bridal regalia, being hoisted like cargo onboard a ship to be exported for sale.

From the start, audiences and critics heaped kudos on the center for everything from the production values to the ethnographic and historical merit of the projects to the quality of translations done or supervised by Sylvia Fuks Fried, executive director of Brandeis’ Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry. “The translating of these films is no easy task,” Rivo says. “You have to have the right feel for the language. Not only are you dealing with nuanced conversation, but you must condense each thought into one short line a viewer can read quickly on the screen. Sylvia is absolutely marvelous at that.”

Broadening the Reach

Inevitably, Rivo and Krant’s quest for more Yiddish footage uncovered a wider range of film material reflective of Jewish life — and an apparently insatiable public demand for more glimpses into what Rivo calls “the heart and soul of the Jewish experience worldwide.” The institution was still in its infancy when, in 1979, it broadened its mission and changed its name to the National Center for Jewish Film. Instrumental in helping to shape that new mission was former United Artists president Arnold Picker, who became the center’s founding chairman of the board.

Apart from some 12,000 cans of film material ranging from feature films to home movies and archival collections documenting the history of Jewish communities all over the planet, the center has amassed a huge array of still photos and books on Jewish cinema, along with newspaper and magazine articles Krant collected over the decades.

Putting it to Work

Encompassing everything from Nazi propaganda films to vaudeville skits, the center’s collection does not gather dust on the archive shelves, but is deployed by thousands of scholars and filmmakers for documentation purposes. The use of Bill Bernstein’s work in the Ruth Gruber biopic is one example of how primary-source footage can inform history; another is the PBS series “Jewish Americans,” which drew heavily on the center’s film materials.

Beyond serving as a historical archive, the center promotes and sells DVDs and arranges public screenings of independently made films on Jewish subjects. Rivo, who connects with artists by attending film festivals in Jerusalem, New York, Vienna and elsewhere, says the facility currently represents 150 working filmmakers who receive 50 percent of each sale or rental fee. There are more than 300 titles available through the center, spanning 29 languages. Taken all together, the center’s holdings comprise the largest archive of Jewish moving images outside the State of Israel, making it the world’s biggest distribution center for independent Jewish films.

Today, the center, which sustains itself through revenue and philanthropy, has a staff of five, including Rivo’s daughter, Lisa, who holds degrees in art history and American visual culture. Over the course of a year, the team fields about 5,000 requests from users representing schools, synagogues, churches, film festivals and museums.

Some seek a service as simple as the loan of a film to teach middle schoolers about the Holocaust. Others have more complex needs — for example, a suite of movies for a silent film festival with full orchestra. Some 30 major museums regularly use materials from the center; New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, for example, incorporates film from the center in its permanent exhibition on immigration. Other creative ventures have showcased pieces from the collection in operas and art installations. Barbra Streisand tapped the collection while researching her role in “Yentl.”

What’s Playing?

Keeping pace with community needs, the center arranged last year to collaborate with the Brandeis National Committee, a nationwide organization raising funds for Brandeis, on educational programming for BNC chapter meetings from coast to coast.

An annual spring film festival of Jewish film, launched in 1998 to mark the dedication of the university’s state-of-the-art Wasserman Cinematheque, is now co-sponsored by a dozen Brandeis centers, institutes and departments, as well as more than 20 supporting organizations from the Greater Boston community. Drawing students, teachers, scholars and cinema buffs from all over the Boston area and beyond, the 2010 festival offered a dozen films on campus, plus screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts and Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Some 3,000 viewers gathered to see motion pictures ranging from the whimsical “La cámara oscura,” which tells the engaging story of a woman’s awakening, to the disturbing “Einsatzgruppen: The Death Brigades,” which identifies prominent individuals who participated on killing quads during the Holocaust.

In recent years, the center added to its mission a new role as the nonprofit affiliate of companies making independent films with Jewish content; for example, one film currently in production is a documentary about Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a Sephardic Jewish artist, daguerreotyper and explorer whose 1857 book, “Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West,” is considered a reliable primary source on the culture of the old west.

Still, the center continues pursuing its primary mission of preserving and restoring long lost-films. Last year’s big project was the restoration of “Bar Mitzvah,” a 1935 movie starring Ukrainian-born Boris Tomashefsky, pioneer of the New York Yiddish stage. Screened all over the world, the reborn movie has been described by The New Yorker as “a schmaltzy musical melodrama” punctuated with “moments of modernistic cinematic inspiration.”

After 34 years in the same job, what keeps Rivo riveted?

“I love the images and I love the young people who make the images,” says Rivo. “Film is a wonderful way to introduce students to Jewish history and ideas, and it is exciting to see how the restored ‘saved’ images affect and challenge young people today. But the most important job I can accomplish is to teach them how to critically discern and evaluate what they are looking at.”

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