April ’09 Spotlight

Last year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival brought us glimpses of modern Jewish life in Chile and Mexico. This year’s schedule includes three Jewish-themed films from Argentina: a documentary (Our Disappeared), a contemporary feature filmed partly in Israel (Letters for Jenny), and a costume drama set in the early 20th century (Camera Obscura). Of these three, my favorite is definitely Camera Obscura, directed and co-written by María Victoria Menis (based on Angélica Gorodischer’s novella).

A baby is born on ship in the Buenos Aires harbor, mere inches from the new land. Her mother loathes this doubly-cursed “Russian” girl child, but for her father she embodies all that he has loved and lost. The years pass. As she goes about her day, Gertrudis turns every tiny task into an aesthetic masterpiece: meals, table settings, everything just so. Her husband is both pious and prosperous; he knows his life is blessed, but he takes it all for granted. Then someone new enters their household, and Gertrudis looks at herself in the mirror as if for the first time. Never did the sight of a simple pair of earrings make a greater emotional impact!

Menis has received prizes from film festivals all around the Spanish speaking world. Relying on her superb visual style, she keeps dialogue to a minimum, enhancing her quiet tableaux with natural sounds as well as Yiddish songs and Klezmer tunes. Camera Obscura also has three animated sequences, two which reminded me of the dream sequences Salvador Dali designed for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound.

The CLFF will run from April 17 thru April 29. For complete program details, visit http://www.clff.org.


You’re a writer in your early 50s, well-respected on your home turf and living a good life. But you read Anne Frank’s diary at an impressionable age, spent time in closets for years afterwards “hiding from the Nazis,” and always wondered when the other shoe would drop. Then, one day, just when everything seems fine, you have a routine mammogram… And so begins S.L. Wisenberg’s new book The Adventures of Cancer Bitch.

You probably don’t need Sandi to tell you that breast cancer disproportionately targets Ashkenazi women. Very likely you’ve lost people you love to this disease, perhaps you’re even being treated for it now yourself. Regardless of what you think you already know firsthand, Sandi’s book is a must read for members of our community. Having lived a life committed to Jewish ritual as well as Jewish literature, Sandi uses acerbic self-reflection to search for higher truth (both spiritual and medical).

Sandi’s book tour will take her to places as near as Iowa City and as far as Sofia, Bulgaria (where she’ll be presenting at June’s Bet Debora Conference), but here in Chicago we’ll have many chances to hear her describe her Adventures, including April 6 at Loyola (north campus); May 6 at 57th Street Books (Hyde Park); and May 14 at Northwestern (Evanston). To order the book, learn more about specific stops on the book tour, and/or read her ongoing observations on daily life, visit Sandi’s Blog: http://cancerbitch.blogspot.com.


The theme of this year’s Metropolitan Chicago ORT fundraiser is “Jewish Roots in Faraway Lands,” featuring two young writers: Ariel Sabar and Sadia Shepard. Sabar is the author of My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, and Shepard is the author of The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home.

Both books describe traumatic family dislocation. Sabar’s father is forced to flee from the ancient town of Zakho, while Shepard’s mother is forever exiled from her home in Bombay. And yet, a few decades later, these two children are adults raising children of their own in America. Each book is fascinating, and their parallel storylines reverberate.

ORT’s luncheon, scheduled for Sunday April 26, is open to the public, so call (847) 291-0475 if you’d like to make reservations, or visit their website: http://www.ortchicago.org


The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs has a new Randolph Street venue for “jewel box” productions called DCA Theater. The current play, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, is a collection of vignettes based on actual interviews conducted by playwright Robin Soans in 2003. Eight talented actors each play a multitude of characters, and each voice is interesting, but I’m afraid the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Snippets of common humanity may be fine for appetizers and side dishes, but there’s no substantive main course, and I left feeling hungry, even after the post-play Q&A.

The Arab-Israeli Cookbook runs through April 5. For tickets, call (312) 742-8497, or visit: http://www.dcatheater.org.


Cadillac Records
is a musical history of Chicago Blues starring Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James, and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters. It’s tremendously entertaining, has great resonance, and was one of my favorite films of 2008.

Last December, just before Barack Obama named Rahm Emanuel White House chief of staff, a well-known political consultant said: “Rahm can be a ‘mamzer,’ but he’s our mamzer.” I’d like to make the same case for Leonard Chess. Born Lejzor Czyz, Chess came to Chicago from Belarus in 1928 at age 11. You won’t truly appreciate what you see onscreen if you don’t know this basic fact.

For an opinion on the overall veracity of the film, I turned to Blues harmonica genius Jerry Portnoy (a longtime member of Muddy’s band). “My father had a store on Maxwell Street (Max Portnoy & Son, King of Carpets),” Jerry told me. “The Maxwell Street Market was a magical place. Little Walter played right down the street. There’s a musical relationship that explains the extraordinary percentage of Jews drawn to play the Blues—Jews hear the wailing of the cantor. Leonard Chess was this guy who saw a synergy between his needs and what he loved about this music (and the artists who played this music). It was a natural fit. And to a large extent, most of the film was fairly accurate.”

To read about Jerry Portnoy, visit: http://www.harpmaster.com


Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com. Visit www.juf.org for online copies of prior columns.

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