Filmmaker Paul Mazursky is one of those Jewish guys from Brooklyn who helped change American culture forever after World War II. I was a teenager when Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was released in 1969, and I remember it well as a “water cooler event.” BCTA raked in four Oscar nominations (plus awards from the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Writers Guild of America), and in the years that followed, Mazursky gave us classics like An Unmarried Woman, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Enemies: A Love Story, and many, many more.
But the world has changed a great deal since 1969, and Mazursky’s most recent film is a self-financed documentary called Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy. In Yippee, Mazursky surprises himself by traveling to Uman, Ukraine to join 25,000 Jewish men from all around the world as they celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the gravesite of Reb Nachman of Breslov.
To be honest, my first screening of Yippee made me extremely uncomfortable. Thousands of men in white kitels (robes) and black streimels (fur hats) parading around, forcing themselves on a local population of skeptical blond Ukrainians—what to make of all of this? So I called Josh Shanes, the professor Spertus has chosen to lead their Sept. 9 Q&A.
Shanes told me to think of Yippee as a “video Blog.” “It is not about the history of Hasidism,” he warned. So I watched Yippee again, and it all started to make sense. On this personal guided tour, to counterpoint core scenes of masses of men in yarmulkes and kippot, Mazursky adds footage from Munich (where friendly German street vendors have lots of hats for sale too). He throws down a challenge: What is the difference?
For all the talk of religious ecstasy, there’s also deliberate defiance underlying all of this. Reb Nachman was born in Medzhybizh, Ukraine in 1772, just four years after an event known as The Massacre of Uman. “There is no question in my mind that Reb Nachman chose to be buried in Uman as a way of elevating the souls of the dead,” Shanes said. And in one of Yippee’s final moments, someone does tell Mazursky: “We are dancing on the graves of martyrs.” Those Ukrainian policemen hired by Jewish organizations to protect the pilgrims, who were their grandfathers?
I predict that the Q&A after the Spertus screening of Yippee on Sunday afternoon Sept. 9 will have everyone on their toes! For tickets, visit www.spertus.edu.
Via the College of Charleston: Joshua Shanes received his B.A. from the University of Illinois in 1993, his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin in 2002, and spent time in between studying in Israel. Professor Shanes’s research interests focus on Central and East European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically turn-of-the-century Galicia and the rise of Zionism as a counter-movement to the traditional Jewish establishment.
Click here to “Look Inside” Shanes’s book, Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia, on Amazon