Was It Good For The Jews?

George Heymont
Jul 7 · 11 min read

From descendents of the ancient Israelites to contemporary Jews spread across the diaspora, three short sentences are often recited as a historical reminder, a tribal slogan, and a gag line (“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!”). But with anti-Semitism on the rise in the United States and Europe, the arts continue to offer fresh perspectives on the persecution of Jews throughout history.

Film classics include Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Norman Jewison’s 1971 screen adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, and Stephen Spielberg’s controversial Schindler’s List (1993). Add in such lesser-known films as City Without Jews (1924), A Love To Hide (2005), Sarah’s Key (2010), and Fanny’s Journey (2016), and a cinematic path through the history of oppressed Jews can lead to hours, days, months, and years of exploring a niche library of film filled with untold stories of human suffering, resistance, and persistence.

With the 2019 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival coming up later this month, a new collection of films will make its debut before Bay area audiences. Some will be farcical, others will be documentaries. Some will feature heart-rending stories of the Holocaust, others will offer poignant looks at contemporary Jews. One film, however, offers a unique perspective on Jewish culture. Because it is brilliantly animated, Seder-Masochism has a rare opportunity to drive its message home with the most amazing imagery.

In 2008, animator Nina Paley’s full-length feature, Sita Sings The Blues, took film festival audiences around the world by storm. Loosely based on tales from the Indian epic Ramayana (combined with songs from the 1920s that had been recorded by jazz singer Annette Hanshaw), it was the kind of experience that doesn’t require drugs to blow anyone’s mind. Eventually, Paley came under attack from people who felt that her film was a blatant work of cultural appropriation. As described on Wikipedia:

“In April 2009, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti started a petition calling for a complete ban on the movie and initiation of legal action against all those who have been involved in its production and marketing, believing its portrayal of the Ramayana to be offensive, with some members going so far as to call it ‘a derogatory act against the entire Hindu community.’ When the San Jose Museum of Art screened the film, a protester said: ‘I’m very angry about this film and feel very humiliated by the portrayal of Lord Ram in this very perverted way…negative portrayals of Hinduism cause discrimination and religious intolerance.’ Another protester at the same event suggested: ‘Trying to promote India’s rich culture in such a way is appalling.’”

“Nina Paley expressed surprise at the adverse reaction, saying ‘I thought it might be a bit controversial, but I wasn’t fully aware of how art and artists are major targets of some right-wing nationalist groups in India. I always imagine an audience of smart, compassionate people I’d enjoy spending time with.’ However, in an interview with IndiaWest, she did acknowledge that Lord Ram is not depicted well in the film. She added to the source: ‘No one has to like it.’ A recurring theme among the negative comments was ‘How would you like it if people made a film about your religion?’ Accepting this as a challenge, she turned to her own Jewish cultural heritage for her next project: a revisionist retelling of the story of Passover.”

Paley’s second full-length feature will be screened during the 2019 SFJFF and is also available for viewing on Vimeo and YouTube. Her work offers a variation on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s motto “True Art Transcends Time.” The following three video clips explain how images created in primitive cultures influence contemporary artists. For the first film (All Creative Work Is Derivative), Paley photographed various statues and sculptures on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The second clip (God-mother) is the brilliant opening sequence of Seder-Masochism. The third clip features a brief discussion between Paley and Jordan Peterson about the creative process and whether artists originate every idea they use or access their mind’s archive of thoughts and images to create something new.

Paley’s research prior to embarking on Seder-Masochism included The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization by Marija Gimbutas, and The Book of Exodus (which she feels represents the final defeat of goddess worship by the patriarchy that had been rising since the agricultural revolution).

The patriarchy usurps the power and joy of primitive
female goddesses in Nina Paley’s Seder-Masochism

In November 2017, having run up against a narrative challenge while trying to craft a coherent plot from the Passover seder (the ten plagues survived), Paley decided to instead “articulate the Exodus from the Goddesses’ point of view,” using images of Ancient Egyptian female deities such as Hathor, Isis, Nut, and Sekhmet.

Moses faces off with an Egyptian goddess in
a scene from Nina Paley’s Seder-Masochism

Coming from a family of Jewish atheists who had celebrated Passover every year (primarily so the children would know their cultural identity), Paley cast herself as the sacrificial goat who asks God lots of questions and used recordings of her late father’s voice for the Hebrew deity.

Nina Paley (goat) and her late father, Hiram Paley (Hebrew
deity), provided the voices used in Seder-Masochism

Several important technological advances had been made in animation software in the decade since Paley created Sita Sings The Blues. By teaming up with Theodore Gray (a science writer and programmer), she was able to develop an automated method of animating embroidery which they call “embroidermation.” As Wikipedia notes:

“Paley created animated figures in Macromedia Flash 8. Gray then imported the resulting vector files into Wolfram Mathematica, a powerful visualization program which he co-created. The figures were rendered as polygons in Mathematica. Then a custom application was written to properly align the embroidery stitch direction (different for each polygon). Using an embroidery machine, a total of 516 embroidered figures were stitched into 86 matzoh covers (decorative cloths for holding matzoh during Passover). Then each completed figure was photographed to create one frame of animation.”

Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea in a
scene from Nina Paley’s Seder-Masochism

Paley’s artistic vision includes a bright color palette, an especially dry sense of humor, and an ability to cloak her narrative in some amazingly appealing animation sequences. I’m including the full-length videos of Sita Sings The Blues and Seder-Masochism below so that readers can watch and (if they desire) compare how advances in animation technology have enhanced the blazing power of Paley’s art. Enjoy!

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Unlike the title of a famous song by Jerry Herman, time doesn’t heal everything. Based on the writings of Sholem Aleichem and directed by Jerome Robbins, Fiddler on the Roof opened at the Imperial Theatre on September 22, 1964. Directed by Harold Prince (with a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb), Cabaret opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on November 20, 1966. Both musicals opened on Broadway roughly 20 years after the end of World War II and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Berkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Warsaw.

Act I of Fiddler on the Roof ends with Russians terrorizing a community of Jews gathered for the wedding of Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel. At the end of Act II, the Jews of Anatevka are forced to leave their homes as part of a pogrom. Cabaret depicts the growing strength of the Nazi party in the Weimar Republic and its increasing hostility toward Jews (many of whom remain in denial about what is happening because, after all, they are Germans, too).

Both musicals had a profound impact on Jews who lost family members during the Holocaust as well as soldiers who helped to liberate Hitler’s concentration camps. Although both shows have been staged in theatres around the world, adapted into award-winning movie musicals, and received numerous revivals, some people have wondered if the darker parts of their stories could still resonate with younger generations. And yet:

A lot has happened since the San Francisco Playhouse first staged Cabaret in 2008. In 2012, the company moved its operations to the 450 Post Street Theatre where it has a larger, more flexible stage and plays to twice the seating capacity of its former home at 533 Sutter Street. Production values have soared, casting has been strengthened, its audience has grown substantially, and the company’s educational outreach program has broadened.

Atticus Shaindlin (Clifford Bradshaw) and Jennie Brick (Fraulein
Schneider) in a scene from Cabaret (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Thanks to the deft stage direction by company co-founder Susi Damilano and some splendid musical direction by Dave Dobrusky, SFP recently debuted a new production of Cabaret that was greeted with a thunderous (and well-earned) ovation on opening night. Based on the play I Am A Camera (1951) by John van Druten and a short story by Christopher Isherwood entitled Goodbye to Berlin (1939), SFP’s production takes its cues from the 1993 Donmar Warehouse production in London (directed by Sam Mendes) and the 1998 Broadway transfer that was co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall.

Cate Hayman (Sally Bowles) and Atticus Shaindlin (Clifford
Bradshaw) in a scene from Cabaret (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Over the course of the past 50+ years, numerous changes have been made to the score. The original Broadway production’s “Why Should I Wake Up?” “Telephone Song,” “Sitting Pretty,” and “Meeskite” have been dropped while four other songs (“Mein Herr,” “Money,” “ Maybe This Time,” and “I Don’t Care Much”) have been added. Not only do these deliver a great deal of energy to the proceedings, they help to strengthen the show’s dramatic momentum. In his program note, San Francisco Playhouse’s artistic director, Bill English writes:

“In the half-century since the world premiere of Cabaret, so much in our world has changed and yet so much remains the same. Like the giant mirror that formed the backdrop for the original set (reflecting the audience back to themselves), this great work of art has been, as Hamlet says, ‘the glass wherein we can see the inmost part of us.’ Our guide, the Emcee, seduces us into his world, luring us with song, dance, and laughter, putting us at ease until we drop our guard and then beckons us into the heart of our own darkness. The original Cabaret was very much ‘of its time,’ reflecting the Dionysian spirit of abandon in the face of evil. While the ugliness of the Vietnam War raged in prime time, Cabaret urged us to shake off that ‘prophet of doom.’ To face the notion that from ‘cradle to tomb isn’t that long a stay.’ To live, drink, be merry in the face of unavoidable catastrophe. The bold sexuality of the play, tinged with danger, reflected the sexual revolution of the Sixties. It was an Epicurean call to throw ourselves into the fire and dance.”

John Paul Gonzalez as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

“The brilliant Sam Mendes revival of 1998 brought out themes that had lain dormant in the original. The Emcee was openly gay (the sexuality of Alan Cumming being much more blatant than what was only hinted at in Joel Grey’s original performance). Cliff also was gay, a tribute to Christopher Isherwood, whose Berlin Stories was the source material for the play I Am a Camera that then became Cabaret. Isherwood was never able to be open about his sexuality. So why now? At nearly 75 years past the end of World War II, the survivors, the perpetrators and the witnesses to the Holocaust, the generation that endured the most horrible genocide in modern history, are nearly gone. The personal accounts that rendered these events visceral and inescapable could lose their immediacy and be relegated to some dusty volume about some old war that high school students are forced to read. So we bring back Cabaret, inviting us with its dazzling theatricality to make history chilling and real and remind us not only never to forget, but that we must be on watch lest it repeat itself.”

Jennie Brick (Fraulein Schneider), Abby Haug (Fraulein
Kost), and Jean-Paul Jones (Rudy) in a scene from Cabaret
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

SFP has put together an incredibly strong cast led by John Paul Gonzalez as the Master of Ceremonies, Will Springhorn, Jr. as Ernst Ludwig (a member of the Nazi party), and Abby Haug as Fraulein Kost, the prostitute who knows which way the wind is blowing. Atticus Shaindlin brings an almost- cherubic presence to the naive Clifford Bradshaw.

Atticus Shaindlin as Clifford Bradshaw in Cabaret
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Over at the Kit Kat Klub, Cate Hayman stars as Sally Bowles, backed by a group of rowdy chorus girls that include Melissa Wolfklain (Rosie), Loreigna Sinclair (Lulu), Mary Kalita (Frenchie), Jean-Paul Jones (Texas), and Zoe Swenson-Graham (Helga) with Zachary Isen (Bobby) and Carlos Guerrero (Victor) joining in the fun. Shaun Leslie Thomas doubles as Max (the manager of the Kit Kat Klub) and a train conductor.

Working on a handsome unit set designed by Jacquelyn Scott (with costumes by Abra Berman and lighting by Michael Oesch), choreographer Nicole Helfer keeps the Kit Kat Klub’s musical numbers filled with the bawdy spirit of burlesque. The production also benefits from excellent sound design by Teddy Hulsker.

Jennie Brick (Fraulein Schneider) and Louis Parnell (Herr
Schultz) in a scene from Cabaret (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

As the two aging Germans caught in the headlights of the increasingly powerful National Socialist Party, Jennie Brick (Fraulein Schneider) and Louis Parnell (Herr Schultz) seem like lost vestiges of a more genteel past.

Atticus Shaindlin (Clifford Bradshaw) and Cate Hayman (Sally
Bowles) in a scene from Cabaret (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

For further reading, I strongly recommend Amanda Marcotte’s sobering article entitled “ The Grim Determination of Trump’s July 4th Crowd Was More Terrifying Than Any Nuremberg-style Spectacle Could Have Ever Been” and a recent post on DailyKos entitled “ We Saw the Art of the Children of Terezín Ghetto. 75 Years Later History Repeats Itself.” With an egomaniacal, sadistic white supremacist occupying the Oval Office, innocent children being separated from their parents at the southern border, and asylum seekers living in squalor in American concentration camps, Bay area residents and tourists alike could benefit from an evening of timely edutainment. Performances of Cabaret continue through September 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse ( click here for tickets).

George Heymont

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blogs about film, theatre, and opera on “My Cultural Landscape.” His opera column, “Tales of Tessi Tura,” ran for 15 years in San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter.