Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Almonds and Wine and Jewish Heritage

Here's a lovely short animated film titled "Almonds and Wine." Produced, directed, and animated by Arnie Lipsey and with music by Kapelye,
"brings a Yiddish folk song to life, as the animated journey of a young bride and groom from Eastern Europe to North America is set to rollicking klezmer music. Fleeing the threat of war, the couple arrive in Canada, establish a new life together and hand down their traditions to the generations that follow"
The video was just uploaded to YouTube yesterday, but the film was released in 1999.

One of the things that caught me while watching the film was some of the subtext of the narrative. I'm in the middle of reading Beth S Wenger's "History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage" and that's got me thinking (go figure) about Jewish foundation myths. Wenger write about the Jewish American experience, but I would imagine the Jewish Canadian experience was similar. Wenger notes that ...
"Despite occasional uncertainties about what might lie ahead in their adopted homeland, American Jews participated in an array of public events and produced and consumed a vast corpus of popular literature that championed the possibilities for Jewish life in the United States....The invention of these narratives both eased Jewish adjustment to American life and created a distinct ethnic history compatible with American ideals."
"Almonds and Wine," along with many other contemporary Jewish films, art, literature and music, seems to be following along on this same trajectory. On one level it presents a simple narrative of what came to pass. This is who and where we were, this is how we got where we are now, and this is the trajectory we're on. This may be a literal depiction of the Lipsey's family, or not. Either way, it is the story of a great many Jewish families.

Below that, though, is a clear sense of advocacy, of the rightness of it all. This despite the fact that the changes in Jewish culture and tradition that happen to the family in "Almonds and Wine" as it establishes itself represent a huge rift between the new world and the old. The family, as presented, goes from being rural and Orthodox to being urban and Conservative. Men and women now dance together. Men don't wear kippot except at the bimah. Grandma and gramdpa had an arranged marriage (though, convenient from a modern perspective, they'd had a crush on each other already), none of the grand kids do.

Most importantly, there's no sense of choices made. The experience of immigration and assimilation was as destructive to traditional Jewish religion and culture as the Holocaust was. The immigrants reinvented themselves as fast as they possibly could, shedding language, customs, and religious practices to better fit in. This was a messy process. Not all immigrants made the same choices. There is still a strong Orthodox and Chassid community in the US and Canada (including Toronto, where Lipsey is based). Many immigrants went much further in their assimilation than what is pictured here, either by attempting to create a secular Yiddishkyte (e.g. Workman's Circle, the Jewish Forward) or a secular American "Seinfeld, bagels, and Sandy Kofax" Jewish culture.

"Almonds and Wine" reflects a lovely foundation myth for a principle segment of the immigrants that attempted to find a middle path that was integrated, assimilated, but religious and (up to a point) traditional. I applaud the myth because my family lived it. I'm very much a product of that middle ground. But at the same time the more I write this blog, the more I interact with Jews, on all sides, whose experience differs from mine, the more I find narratives like this to be unsatisfying, distorting, and, well, mythic.


Heidi Rabinowitz said...

A wonderful video, thanks so much for bringing my attention to it. I also really enjoyed your analysis. The story of this video is my family's myth too, but it was very interesting to take another look at it and realize that it IS a myth in the ways you described. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

Jack said...

Hi Heidi...glad you enjoyed it.