GETT Opens in Chicago

TopPhotoGettBlame it on the Law of Unintended Consequences. By all accounts, David Ben Gurion who was, after all, a secular Socialist, never realized he was giving religious authorities total control over the intimate personal lives of Israeli citizens. And yet, 68 years after the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, religion plays an ever greater role in family life. And not just Judaism in general, but Orthodox Judaism (the least flexible of all current denominations).

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is the story of a woman who is determined to obtain a divorce even though her husband is equally determined to prevent it. Because Viviane and Elisha are Israelis, they can only divorce in a ceremony presided over by the three Rabbis who comprise a Bet Din (religious court), and the Rabbis will only proceed if Elisha agrees to give his free and unfettered consent. And thus his wife–Viviane Amsalem–begins a five year ordeal which reveals the degree to which Israeli women are “chained” to their husbands not just by custom but also by law.

This is strong stuff, fully intended to galvanize public opinion by using the full power of artistic expression to create societal change. Does it succeed? Only time will tell, but the answer right now appears to be yes. When co-writer/co-director Shlomi Elkabetz did his Q&A after the January 15 screening of Gett at the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival, he announced that Gett would be screened at the annual conference of rabbinical judges, and just today HaAretz reported that it actually happened. (See “Rabbis cry gewalt after watching Israeli film ‘Gett’” by Yair Ettinger.)

So suffice it to say that you will want to see Gett yourself when it opens in Metro Chicago tomorrow (2/27/15) at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Plaza Cinema in Highland Park. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that Gett is the third and final chapter in a trilogy of films which include To Take a Wife (2004) and Shiva (2008). I have seen all three films, and I can assure you that each one is free-standing and self-contained.

You do not need to know anything in advance to appreciate the drama inherent in Gett. However, regular readers will anticipate that I have already posted reviews of all three films, and I have also posted an overview of the complete trilogy on my Blog Second City Tzivi. So if you would like to do some homework before you go, START HERE.

Full Disclosure: The first time I saw Gett was when I watched it on my computer way back in September, right after I watched Zero Motivation (which I also watched on my computer). At the time, although I liked both films very much, I thought that Zero Motivation was just a little bit better than Gett. So when I wrote my Ophir Update post, I expressed surprised that Gett (which had received twelve Ophir Nominations from the Israel Film Academy but only won two) won Best Picture even though Zero Motivation (which had also received twelve Ophir Nominations) had won six (including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, plus Best Casting, Best Editing, and Best Music).

Now that I have seen both films on big screens, however, I see that the members of the Israel Film Academy were correct: seen as intended—on a big screen—Gett is an overwhelming experience. You simply will not feel the claustrophobia of the courtroom as Viviane does unless you enter that cavernous space with her. And if you do, some thoughts and opinions you may never have questioned before, may well be forever changed.

For schedule information and links to online ticket purchase, visit the Landmark Theatre website.

For a brief overview of Ben Gurion’s political bargain with the Orthodox Rabbinate, click here to read Stuart Schoffman’s article “Raw Deal.”


Top Photo: Ronit Elkabetz as “Viviane Amsalem” in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Bottom Photo: Members of the Bet Din from left = Rami Danon, Eli Gorstein, and Roberto Pollack. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Posted 2/26/15 on JUF Online.

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Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

RonitGettGett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem–released in Israel in 2014 as Gett–is the third and final film in “The Amsalem Triology,” co-written and co-directed by actress Ronit Elkabetz in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. Once again, Ronit Elkabetz stars as “Viviane Amsalem” and Simon Abkarian co-stars as her husband “Elisha.”

Gett was nominated for 12 awards in 2014 by the Israel Film Academy including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Support Actor plus Best Casting, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Makeup, Best Music and Best Sound. In the event, it only won two Ophir Awards–for Best Film and Best Supporting Actor (Sasson Gabai)–but the win for Best Film automatically made it Israel’s candidate for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Gett also received a prestigious Golden Globe nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category, as well as awards from the Chicago International Film Festival (Best Screenplay), the Hamburg Film Festival (Art Cinema Award), the Hamptons International Film Festival (Best Narrative Feature and Best Actress), the Jerusalem Film Festival (Best Israeli Feature, Audience Award, and Best Actor), the Oslo Films from the South Festival (Best Feature), the Palm Springs International Film Festival (Directors to Watch), and the San Sebastian International Film Festival (TVE Otra Mirada Award). It was nominated for additional awards by the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, and named one of 2014’s Top Five Foreign Language Films by the National Board of Review (USA).

I first saw Gett on my computer via Vimeo in September 2014 right after I posted my Ophir Update for the JUF News. Because I am no longer in Chicago, I did not see it on the big screen in October when it played at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival. I had to wait until January, when I saw it at the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival with two female friends. (Because of the timing of Gett’s Israeli release, this was one of the rare times Chicago was actually ahead of New York!) I saw it a third time with my husband Richard at the Lincoln Plaza Theatre on February 22–as part of my “Stop Blue Oscar” Boycott–after we had watched To Take a Wife and Shiva at home on DVD.

What follows is my review of Gett considered in itself as a single film (with minimal spoilers). To read more about Gett in the context of the whole “Amsalem Trilogy”–with necessary spoilers reflecting the full arc–click HERE.


Gett is set almost entirely inside a court room, with only a few short scenes in the waiting room adjacent to the court room. Viviane has now been separate from Elisha for three years and she is seeking a “gett“–a Jewish divorce decree–which can only be granted by a Bet Din consisting of three male judges…


Top Photo: Ronit Elkabetz as “Viviane Ansalem” seeks a Jewish divorce decree (called a “gett” in Hebrew) from the Rabbinical court (called a Bet Din in Hebrew).

Middle Photo: The three members of the Rabbinical Court (called a Bet Din in Hebrew). Members of the Bet Din from left = Rami Danon, Eli Gorstein, and Roberto Pollack.

Bottom Photo: Viviane and her attorney “Carmel Ben Tovim” (Menashe Noy) are bookended by two of her brothers (who are in the court room to serve as witnesses and sign the gett).

Q: Does Gett pass the Bechdel Test?


It is critical to the film that women’s voices are marginalized. Even Viviane–who is the defendant–is allowed minimal opportunities to have her own voice heard.

In the Bet Din’s search for grounds to grant Viviane her divorce, four women are called as witnesses. The Chief Rabbi of the Bet Din rigidly controls their testimony and even those who try to acknowledge Viviane’s presence in the courtroom know they are on a tight leash.

Only one woman, Viviane’s former neighbor “Donna Aboukassis” (Dalia Berger) eventually breaks down and addresses Viviane directly, pleading with her to return to Elisha and become the compliant wife their society demands. Since the judges have already seen how rigidly Donna’s behavior is controlled by her own husband–and because they want Viviane to do exactly what Donna is telling her to do–they allow Donna directly to speak to Viviane at some length.

But this is not a “conversation” because Viviane never responds verbally, she simply cries. The emotional exchange between Donna and Viviane is one of the most intense and moving scenes in the entire trilogy.

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The Amsalem Triology

VivianeTTAW“The Amsalem Trilogy” is a series of three films co-written and co-directed by actress Ronit Elkabetz in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. Ronit Elkabetz stars as “Viviane Amsalem,” an Israeli woman from a Moroccan family. Simon Abkarian co-stars as her husband “Eliahou.”

To Take a Wife, the first film in “The Amsalem Trilogy,” was released in Israel in 2004 as Ve’Lakhta Lehe Isha. I saw it for the first time on DVD in 2009. I saw it again on DVD in 2015.

Seven Days, the second film in “The Amsalem Trilogy,” was released in Israel in 2008 as Shiva. I saw it for the first time on DVD in 2009. I saw it again on a big screen in 2009 at the 2009 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema. I saw it a third time on DVD in 2015.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the third and final film in “The Amsalem Trilogy,” was released in Israel in 2014 as Gett. I saw Gett for the first time on my computer in September 2014, using a streaming link provided to selected critics by the distributor (Music Box Films). The first time I saw Gett on a big screen was January 15, 2015, when I saw it at a sold out screening at the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival. A saw it Gett second time on a big screen at the Lincoln Plaza Theatre on February 22, 2015. Once again, the house was packed.

Click HERE for my review of To Take a Wife. Click HERE for my review Shiva. of Click HERE for my review of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.

*** SPOILER ALERT!!! ***

One of my principles as a film critic is to avoid spoilers. I am usually very vigilant and loath to give away plot points in my reviews, because I want my readers to see films for themselves–most especially when I am writing about films I consider “highly recommended.” However, it is impossible to discuss “The Amsalem Trilogy” as a whole without giving away plot points that explore the full arc of the trilogy.

I am posting this overview co-incident with the Chicago release of Gett, which is the third and final chapter of “The Amsalem Trilogy.” If you have already seen To Take a Wife and/or Shiva, you may be tempted to read this overview before you go to see Gett to remind yourself what happened in parts one and two. If so, I urge you to stop when you reach part three.

Trust me: Each of these three films can be seen independently. They each stand alone and do not require any on prior knowledge. So my hope is that most of you will go to see Gett first, and then come home to read this overview afterwards. Because “The Amsalem Trilogy” definitely becomes a more meaningful experience once you have seen all three parts.


To Take a Wife (2004) = Part One: When we first meet “Viviane Amsalem” (Ronit Elkabetz) she is in her late thirties. The year is 1979 and the place is Haifa. Viviane has four children: three sons and a daughter. Although their ages are never specified, “Eviatar” (Kobi Regev) appears to be about 15, “Gabrielle” (Omer Moskovitz) appears to be about 12, “Lior” (Yam Eitan) appears to be about 8, and Shai, the youngest son, is an infant.

Later we learn that Viviane and “Eliahou” (Simon Abkarian) married when she was 15, so Viviane has already spent more than half of her life as his wife. Eliahou comes from a prominent Moroccan family, often referred to as a family of scholars, so he has a sense of himself as privileged. This leads us to believe that Viviane’s family was honored when Eliahou’s family proposed the match, which they perceived as a social step up. Viviane was young and beautiful, and she probably married Eliahou to please her family without really knowing him or thinking the choice of husbands was hers to make.

But twenty years later, there have been dramatic changes in their circumstances. Both extended families have moved from Morocco to Israel, and in Israel Eliahou is no longer a scholar; in Israel Eliahou is a clerk in a small post office. At one point we see him at work… sorting residential mail. Meanwhile in addition to raising their four children, Viviane has become a hairdresser. Her “shop” is her kitchen. All through the 97 runtime of To Take a Wife, women are coming in and out of the apartment to have their hair done. All of these women are Viviane’s neighbors, and some of these women are also her friends.

An alien in his own home, his self-esteem battered, Eliahou finds his refuge in the synagogue. But the more devout he becomes, the less interaction he has with his children, who want to do “normal things” on the weekends like go on picnics with other families. Even though it is clear that Eliahou wants Eviatar and Lior to join him at the synagogue,  he says go, just take them and go. But he clearly blames Viviane for turning their sons away from God, which is not just a religious matter but also a public humiliation for him. (All the other men in the synagogue will see that he is alone, and therefore they will question his ability to control the members of his own family). Viviane, on the other hand, is tired of going alone with the children, she wants Eliahou to be more of a husband to her and a father to the family.

The tension in the apartment becomes intolerable. Viviane and Eliahou are constantly fighting–fights which take the form of Viviane screaming and throwing things while Eliahou stands as rigid and unmoved as a stone statue. The noise is so loud that a neighbor named “Donna” (Dalia Beger) comes into the apartment one night to try to calm things down, but there is no peace to be had. Eviatar is acting out, Gabrielle is always on the verge of tears, and Lior suffers from psychosomatic stomach aches. Eliahou’s mother, who also lives in the apartment, spends most of her time hiding in her room rocking Shai’s cradle. Viviane’s brothers all insist that she must continue to honor her marriage vows, but really, how long can this go on?

Shiva (2008) = Part Two: Ten years! It takes Viviane a decade to finally leave Eliahou. The year is 1991 and the place is Kiryat Yam (a suburb just north of Haifa). Although the timing is never made explicit, I think we are to assume is that Viviane leaves Eliahou right after Lior starts his military service at age 18. No mention is made of any of the three older children, but I also think we are also to assume that Eviatar and Gabrielle have long since moved on, and none of them have significant contact with either parent. Eliahou’s mother has died in the interim, and Shai, who is about to be a Bar Mitzvah, is the only person still living in the apartment with Eliahou. (Latter, in Gett, we learn that Viviane continues to prepare meals for Shai every day, meals which are brought to the apartment by Evelyne.)

Just as 90% or more of To Take a Wife takes place within the four walls of the Amsalem’s Haifa apartment, almost all of Shiva is set inside the house owned by Viviane’s brother Maurice. Maurice has died quite suddenly, and Viviane, her mother “Hanina” (Sulika Kadosh), her sister “Simona” (Hanna Azoulay Hasfari), and Viviane’s many, many brothers– and all their wives–pile into the house for the seven day mourning period known in Judaism as a “shiva” (which is Hebrew for the number seven).

Although the house belongs to Maurice and his now-widow “Ilana” (Keren Mor), everyone expects Ilana to mourn, and it is understood that the bulk of the work required to care for this huge mass of people–as well as all the people who come to pray and pay traditional “Shiva Calls“–all of this work will be done by the sisters-in-law, most especially “Therese” (Ruby Porat Shoval)–who is the wife of the eldest brother “Meir” (Albert Iluz)–and Therese’s sister “Evelyne” (Evelin Hagoel) who is not married (a “spinster” in English) and lives as something of a “hanger on” with Therese and Meir.

Shiva is a dense and rich cinematic stew, and this is not the place to describe all the complicated power dynamics–cultural, financial, and sexual–in play. With respect to the unfolding “Amsalem Trilogy,” however, several reveals are critical, starting with the fact that Viviane is now on her own and no longer lives with Eliahou. However, because this is a Shiva and Eliahou is still considered one of Maurice’s brothers-in-law (because that is his legal status as well as the will of Viviane’s brothers), Eliahou is expected to make an appearance in the home as a mourner.

Eliahou uses this power to make repeated visits, not just to pray but to pressure Viviane. He also tries to persuade Meir–because he is the eldest–to force Viviane to “do her duty” to the family by returning to the marital home. Over and over, Viviane tells Eliahou she wants a divorce. Again and again, Eliahou says he will die before he gives his consent.

Why does this large family–which has become very prosperous and powerful in Israel–continue to defer to a postal clerk with no resources other than his obdurate insistence on his own rectitude? Moroccan Jews do not eat meat during a Shiva, but Iraqi Jews do. At one point, “Lili” (Yael Abecassis)–who is married to middle brother “Jacques” (Rafi Amzaleg)–serves a meat dish for dinner. Eliahou begins to eat, realizes he is eating meat, and spits the food out. “But in my family we always eat meat,” says poor humiliated Lili. “That is not our tradition!” thunders Eliahou… and the food Lili has prepared is quickly removed from the table. This revealing scene echoes a moment in To Take a Wife in which Viviane also complains that Eliahou won’t eat some of the food that she cooks. Eliahou is a man who always wants things his own way, and so far, at least with respect to matters within the home, both law and custom are on his side.

Gett (2014) = Part Three: To Take a Wife took place almost entirely within the four walls of the Amsalem’s Haifa apartment; Shiva took place almost entirely within Maurice’s house in Kiryat Yam; Gett takes place almost entirely within a court room. Metaphorically we have moved from the nuclear family, to the extended family/community, to the state.

It takes five years! For five years, Viviane and her attorney “Carmel Ben Tovim” (Menashe Noy) shuttle back and forth to an austere court room where they try to reason with the three members of the Bet Din on her behalf. Does she want reconciliation? No. Does she want alimony? No. What does she want? All Viviane wants is an end to this farcical marriage.

Viviane restrains herself for years, responding to questions in a hushed and respectful voice, silently watching as “witnesses” plead with her and sometimes even attempt to defame her, doing everything her power to appear ladylike until finally she screams out in Hebrew and in French: GIVE ME MY FREEDOM!!!

Sometimes Eliahou–now for some unexplained reason referred to as “Elisha”–is present in the courtroom, but often he is not. And when he is not there, nothing can happened without him. Sometimes, when he does show, he is accompanied by his brother “Rabbi Shimon” (Sasson Gabai). Sometimes Shimon–who is 10 years older than Elisha and supposedly “representing him” even though his qualifications are never specified–comes alone, unable the explain where Elisha is.

Viviane is not the only one boiling over with frustration. “Rabbi Salmion” (Eli Gornstein)–The Head Rabbi–is also enraged by Elisha’s defiance, and his powerlessness in the matter becomes an insult to his sense of his own authority… and maybe even to his very manhood. Make no mistake: this drama becomes a battle between men and their status and their rights (both civil and religious). Women and their rights–as persons and as citizens of the state of Israel–are secondary in every respect.

In the end, Viviane only wins her freedom as a person by renouncing her needs as a woman. She agrees to give Elisha permanent possession of her body by promising that she will never enter into a relationship with any other man. Family, culture, tradition, and the laws of her country have reduced this proud and beautiful woman to a pair of feet in battered espadrilles… but the fact that she is still on her feet and literally standing up for herself becomes a triumph for women everywhere.



Top Photo: Ronit Elkabetz as “Viviane Amsalem” in To Take a Wife, the first film in “The Amsalem Trilogy.” (2004)

Middle Photo: Elkabetz with Simon Abkarian (who co-stars as her husband) in Shiva, the second film in “The Amsalem Trilogy.” (2008)

Bottom Photo: Elkabetz and Abkarian in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the third and final film in “The Amsalem Trilogy.” Menashe Noy, the man standing between them, plays Viviane’s attorney “Carmel Ben Tovim.” (20014)

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VivianeSeven Days–released in Israel in 2008 as Shiva–is the second film in “The Amsalem Triology,” co-written and co-directed by actress Ronit Elkabetz in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. Once again, Ronit Elkabetz stars as “Viviane Amsalem” and Simon Abkarian co-stars as her husband “Eliyahu.”

Shiva was nominated for 13 awards in 2008 by the Israel Film Academy including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress (twice!), Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, Best Support Actor plus Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Sound. In the event, it won two, for Best Supporting Actress (Evelin Hagoel) and Best Cinematography (Yaron Scharf).  It also won Best Israeli Feature as well as Best Actress (for Hanna Azoulay Hasari)  at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and was nominated for the New Voices/New Visions Prize at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

I first saw Shiva on DVD in August 2009 when I was preparing my JUF article on the 2009 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema. I named it “Highly Recommended” among the Narrative Features on my “Best of Fest” list. I later saw it again on a big screen in November with the CFIC ’09 audience. I recently watched it again on DVD in February 2015 prior to writing my review of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (the third and final film in “The Amsalem Triology”).

What follows is my review of Shiva considered in itself as a single film (with minimal spoilers). To read more about Shiva in the context of the whole “Amsalem Trilogy”–with necessary spoilers reflecting the full arc–click HERE.


Years have passed since the events depicted in To Take a Wife. After a decade or so of continued misery, Viviane has finally moved out of the apartment she shared with Elisha, his mother, and their four children. Shiva is entirely set in the house of her eldest brother Meir. Viviane, her mother Hanina, her sister Simona, and her many brothers (Charlie, David, Haim, Itamar, Jacques and Meir) have all gathered together to mourn a recent death for the prescribed seven days (a ritual known in Judaism as a “shiva” which is the Hebrew word for seven).



Top Photo: Ronit Elkabetz stars as “Viviane Amsalem.”

Middle Photo: Elkabetz with Simon Abkarian as her husband “Eliahou.

Bottom Photo: Viviane with “Ben Loulou” (Gil Frank).

Q: Does Shiva pass the Bechdel Test? RedA


Viviane has several private conversations with her sisters-in-law, many of which are perfunctory, but a few of which are quite deep, and she also has a huge public blow-out with her sister “Simona” (Hanna Azoulay Hasfari).

Curiously, neither Viviane nor Simona have any interaction at all with their mother “Hanina” (Sulika Kadosh), nor does Hanina have any personal moments with her daughters-in-law–not even with “Ilana” (Keren Mor), the widow of her newly dead son.

When she is not by herself, Hanina is mourning with her friends, most of whom appear to be elderly widows like herself. These women also provide a running commentary–in the form of an Arabic-speaking “Greek Chorus”–on some of the goings on, making it clear that while they all now live in Israel, these women still have one foot back in Morocco.

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To Take a Wife

VivianeTTAWTo Take a Wife–released in Israel in 2004 as Ve’Lakhta Lehe Isha–was the first film in what was to become “The Amsalem Triology,” co-written and co-directed by actress Ronit Elkabetz in collaboration with her brother Shlomi Elkabetz. Ronit Elkabetz stars as “Viviane Amsalem” and Simon Abkarian co-stars as her husband “Eliahou.”

Ronit Elkabetz was nominated for Best Actress of 2004 by the Israel Film Academy, and To Take a Wife also received nominations from festivals in Ankara (Turkey), Fribourg and Hamburg (Germany), Mons (Belgium), Nantes (France) Thessaloniki (Greece), and Venice (Italy).

I first saw it on DVD in 2009 after seeing Shivah (the second film in “The Amsalem Triology”) at the 2009 Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema. I watched it again on DVD in February 2015 prior to writing my review of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (the third and final film in “The Amsalem Triology”).

What follows is my review of To Take a Wife considered in itself as a single film (with minimal spoilers). To read more about To Take a Wife in the context of the whole “Amsalem Trilogy”–with necessary spoilers reflecting the full arc–click HERE.


To Take a Wife opens on a woman seated on a chair surrounded by men. She is silent, and because she is the only one sitting and they are all standing, she appears tiny, fragile, and defenseless. Some of the men are talking to her in a reasonable tone, but most of them are yelling at her. Finally she submits to their collective harangue: Viviane tells her brothers that she will stay home and try yet again to make a go of her marriage to Eliahou…


Top Photo: Ronit Elkabetz stars as “Viviane Amsalem.”

Middle Photo: Elkabetz with Simon Abkarian  as her husband “Eliahou.”

Q: Does To Take a Wife pass the Bechdel Test? RedA


Viviane is a hairdresser, and most of her clients are neighbors, so there is a good deal of woman-to-woman banter. Viviane also has a daughter named “Gabrielle” Omer Moshkovitz) who appears to be about 13 or so, and they have some mother/daughter interactions in passing. Vivane’s most personal relationship is with a neighbor named “Dona” (Dalia Berger) who appears to be slightly older than Viviane and acts as something of a mother figure/confidant.

Eliahou’s mother “Hanina” (Sulika Kadosh) also lives in their apartment, but they have no one-to-one interactions.


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The Zionist Idea

New documentary co-directed by Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky. Seen on 2/24/15 at a sold-out screening co-sponsored by The Jewish Museum at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center.

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Theodore Bikel ITSOSA

Full Title = Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem

HuttnerTop“I carry Sholem Aleichem with me. I have my entire life… So these two stories, these two journeys are intertwined, his and mine, even though we never met… This is my legacy. People should know who I am and what informs me… I am a shtetl Jew. I am. Even though I’ve never lived in a shtetl, I come from there. These are my rules. This is how I think. This is how I dream.” Theodore Bikel (1/11/15)

Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem, a new documentary from the National Center for Jewish Film, is an intentionally personal story told by one of the most accomplished and politically-influential Jewish entertainers of the 20th Century. Director John Lollos combines scenes from Bikel’s acclaimed solo performance Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears with footage filmed at the annual Sholem Aleichem Yahrzeit in Manhattan in 2013. In addition to the songs, monologues, and moments of reflection from Bikel, Lollos also includes narration by Alan Alda to provide context (written by Lollos and his co-Producer Marsha Lebby), plus interviews with a wide variety of talking heads. It makes for an enchanting and fast-paced 75 minutes.

Bikel begins—appropriately enough—with a scene from Sholem Aleichem’s “Modern Children” which is the third of the eight Tevye stories (the one about Tzeitel and Motel). This is followed by appreciative remarks from Sheldon Harnick (the genius who wrote the lyrics to all the songs in Fiddler on the Roof), as well as Yiddish Theatre star Fyvush Finkel, and Michael Wex (author of the popular book Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All Its Moods).

From there, Bikel introduces the audience to Kasrilevke (the mythical setting of many of Sholem Aleichem‘s best stories), followed by comments from Allen Lewis Rickman (the actor who played the shtetl husband at the beginning of the Coen Brothers’ hilarious film A Serious Man).

Having ensured that we now know a bit about Sholem Aleichem, Bikel switches to the first person to tell us more about himself. How many people watching Theodore Bikel play a patriarchal Tevye on stage remember that he was once a handsome young folk singer? I do. As I told Bikel when we spoke on the phone on January 11: “Your music was part of my cultural background when I was growing up in the ’60s. You were singing about liberal causes and enriching the world.” To which Bikel replied: “I plead guilty for all of it.” FolksingersLP

Indeed, in addition to albums with titles like “Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folks Songs” (sung in Yiddish) and “Theodore Bikel Sings Songs of Israel” (sung in Hebrew), Bikel can also be found on the album “Greatest Folksingers of the ‘Sixties” side-by-side with the likes of Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band!

As the two intertwined stories unfold, Bikel continues to tell more Sholem Aleichem stories, perform more Yiddish songs, and do more personal and professional reminiscing. Meanwhile Finkel, Harnick, Rickman and Wex are joined by many others who combine to form an Ashkenazi-accented “Greek Chorus.” And as they all speak, Lollos artfully inserts just the right imagery, from Marc Chagall’s paintings to Roman Vishniac’s photographs to signs posted in the American South in the Jim Crow Era: “No Negroes, No Jews & No Dogs Allowed.”

Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem is a film to see in a theatre and also to buy on DVD. See it once with an appreciative audience and you will want to watch it at home—again and again—with your family.

Click HERE for my interview with Theodore Bikel in anticipation of the 2/8/15 screening at Spertus Institute in Chicago.


Photos courtesy of the National Center for Jewish Film.

Posted on JUF Online on 1/30/15.

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