Life is Strange
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Life is Strange

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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Sisters Ruth Orenstein and Yocheved Friedenson talk about their family. Courtesy Lookback LLC

Many of us want to pass on our memories to our children and our children’s children, and many of us lament not having taken oral and video histories of our parents and grandparents.

After watching Isaac Hertz’s “Life is Strange: There Was a Time When They Were Children Too,” you immediately want to set up that videotaping session with an elder. You either will do that or you will call a friend over and ask him or her to record your life story on your smart phone or video camera, so it is preserved for the next generation.

But not everybody’s life story is all that compelling. The question remains – will anyone really care?

Hertz’s film is unmistakably a work of deep commitment. He works to capture a European Jewish life that disappeared and that remains dear to a generation that is slowing dying out. The stories they tell clearly are of great significance to the filmmaker – and they should be for any Jew today. The question is how do you tell the story? How you keep an audience involved and related to the story being told?

Hertz does an amazing job in capturing a broad swath of stories from a varied group of people. They speak about their childhood; going to school; family life; living as a Jew where you were reminded every day that you were Jewish or that you barely knew you were Jewish; rites of passage; the effect of war. He interviewed descendents of great chasidic rabbis and famed secular philosophers. Nobel laureates in chemistry and economics Walter Kohn and Robert Aumann, Holocaust survivor and writer Uri Orlev, and Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, are among the storytellers.

Some stories hold more interest than others, but what Hertz has done is assemble these stories so that each person has an opportunity to give his or her testimony.

Throughout the film, a child narrator interjects his thoughts, in an effort to compare life for an American Jewish child today with a child’s life then and there. That effort does not always work. But what is very effective is a sense of deep joy that each interviewee takes in being Jewish. That’s true even for Peter Marcuse, son of New Left intellectual Herbert Marcuse, who talks about the importance of community.

One of the men relates to his beautiful childhood in Jewish Poland, the poverty that somehow did not impede his joie de vivre, and how Shabbes became the focal point of each week, because of the spirituality, sense of community, and substantial meal.

Isaac Hertz takes us from his storytellers’ childhood years into the years of tyranny and finally to the Shoah; and for many of them, their survival after the war. Each story is powerful and poignant, from lying among the dead outside the concentration camp, to the grandeur of the German synagogues destroyed on Kristallnacht, to that implausible time of liberation by the Americans.

For me, hearing from President Peres about his grandfather, who was marched from his home into the synagogue by the Nazis, where he along with the Jews of the community were burned alive, somehow stayed with me. And then writer Uri Orlev speaks about how he never shared his war stories with his children and grandchildren, yet writes extensively about being a child at the time. As he sees it, an adult remembers only the horrors, while a child remembers joyful and playful moments.

Isaac Hertz has made a fine, if imperfect, effort of putting onto film recollections of a time gone by, in a grand effort to insure that it will not be forgotten.

For that, he deserves our praise.

The film is now playing at New York City’s Quad Cinema.

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