548: Two films on Judaism & boundaries —confronting evil; defining families

his week, we’ve been exploring religious “brands.”

    On Monday and Wednesday, we explored Methodism—which once was America’s strongest religious “brand.” On Monday, we compared the explosive innovation of Methodism to Google or Apple. On Wednesday, we introduced the historian who is redefining American Methodism’s chief architect: Francis Asbury.
    TODAY, we bring you news about two terrific new films on Judaism and the boundaries surrounding Judaism—”The People Vs.Leo Frank,” debuting on PBS nationally on November 2. AND, “Rashevski’s Tango,” a delightfully deep comedy from Europe just released in the U.S. on DVD.


    Even the most evil confrontations hold seeds of transformation—if we are willing to do the tough work of reconciliation in the aftermath of such tragedy.
    That’s the biggest “news”—and the major spiritual truth—behind Ben Loeterman’s “The People Vs. Leo Frank,” an historic achievement by the filmmaker. Of course, this is a documentary about history—but I also mean that Loeterman achieved something of historic significance in the process of making this feature-length film.
    For years as a writer, I’ve collected bits and pieces of the Leo Frank story—a huge and haunting milestone in the history of American religious bigotry. I’ve amassed articles, books and a videotape of the 1937 Hollywood movie version, “They Won’t Forget,” which bizarrely enough turned the Leo Frank character into a Christian! I’ve even seen the recent theatrical version of the story, called “Parade.” So far, all of those materials are like jigsaw puzzle pieces—all parts of the story, but not the entire big picture Americans need to see.
    Finally, Ben Loeterman puts it all together—and even more than that—Loeterman puts actual lives together in this production!
    Don’t miss it! (Here’s the official PBS site for the film—and, of course, check your own local TV listings.)

    If this is the first time you’ve heard the name Leo Frank … He was a Jewish factory owner in the South who was convicted on false testimony of brutally murdering a young girl who worked at his factory. (That’s the victim, young Mary Phagan, in the photo at left.) Anti-Semitism fueled Frank’s conviction and—even after experts wound up proving the conviction was bogus—representatives from a number of leading Southern families formed a lynch mob and hung Frank from a tree.
    This mob was so well connected that Frank’s prison guards gave them free access to seize their victim. Local families were so proud of the lynching that they took souvenir photos of the body and sent them to friends as postcards.
    Of course, countless African-American lynchings had occurred with far less national attention, but the lynching of an innocent Jewish businessman by leading citizens of Georgia finally exploded the issue of lynching across America like a keg of TNT.
    The bigots used their share of this fuel to help re-establish the nationwide Ku Klux Klan that year. (The KKK had been dormant for years, but sprang back to life in 1915, partly aided by Frank’s murderers.) At the other end of the spectrum, defenders of human rights and justice used their share of the fuel to found the Anti-Defamation League. (Actually, the ADL was founded in 1913, the year of Frank’s conviction. He was lynched in 1915 when it looked like his conviction might be overturned.)

    Here’s the “news” and the spiritual lesson … Ben Loeterman (photo at right) managed to find descendants of the families that framed and lynched Frank and convinced these descendants to appear in the documentary, talking for the first time to a national audience about the case.
    Plus, Loeterman was surprised to find at least a few of these families who wanted to donated to the production of the film! Finally, it was time to correct the historical record, apparently. In the process of making the film and previewing it for various audiences, some of the descendants finally began to appreciate the significance of what had happened so long ago.
    There are real signs of healing going on around this film. That’s part of what Ben told me, when I reached him via telephone in his offices.
    The constructive responses from the families who once had helped to kill Frank? “I was completely shocked by it,” Ben said.
    To produce the elaborate film, Ben had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and he started with Jewish families in Georgia—an obvious source of donations. They were strongly supportive. But, “a fund-raising lunch was organized, largely populated by Jews from the area who came to hear my presentation, and I was surprised when two of them showed up”—two men who were descendants of Frank’s enemies, Ben told me. They wrote checks, too!
    There’s even more—and you can see it unfold in the film, which is a mixture of historical re-enactments of key scenes, plus archival photographs and other images from the era. Historians appear on camera—as well as descendants of both Frank’s supporters and his enemies.
    It’s an amazing production!

    Then, if you think that films about Judaism—and religious-cultural boundaries—have to be gut-wrenchingly somber, then you also should treat yourself to a lighter movie …


    In “Rashevski’s Tango” we meet a French-speaking, semi-Jewish Belgian family asking all the questions about Jewish identity that American Jewish families ask. The film feels like a mature Woody Allen in the bittersweet era of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” or “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
    But unlike Woody Allen, who tended to telegraph the personalities of his main characters from one film to another, “Tango” director Sam Garbarski quickly jumbles our assumptions. I found myself chuckling unexpectedly within minutes of the opening credits.
    Like many contemporary Jewish families—the Rashevskis have sprawled around the world and have become entangled in all sorts of complex relationships. There’s even one grandson hoping to marry a Muslim girlfriend.
    This comedy could quickly sink into offensive humor—except that everyone in this story is sincerely struggling to understand their collective Jewish roots. The event that launches the movie—and sets off all the soul searching—is the sudden death of the family’s grand matriarch, Rosa Rashevski.

   The moment she dies, her sons seem completely lost! They can’t even agree on whether Rosa would have wanted a Jewish funeral. Soon, they discover she did, indeed! And everyone in this sprawling family has to redefine roles, hopes, desires—and their future.
    There’s a rogue of an elderly uncle who now carries the bulk of the family’s history on his shoulders. He steals almost every scene in which he appears—with just the right blend of elegant style and gutsy chutzpah.
    Here’s what I mean about the Woody Allen twists and turns: In one storyline, an adult granddaughter feels a strong calling back to her family’s Jewish origins, but discovers she’s not really as Jewish as she thought. Meanwhile, her gentile boyfriend already has started his own conversion process to Judaism—and discovers that he may wind up more Jewish than the Rashevski girl he hopes to marry.
    Pretty quickly, it’s obvious why the comedic metaphor is a tango—and we do see a little bit of the dancing before the film ends.
    It would have been all too easy for writer-director Sam Garbarski to fall into stereotypes, yet at every turn he places his toe solidly on the floor and turns away from easy jokes. For instance, the matriarch’s two sons? They could have been two-dimensional Jewish worry warts with stereotypical interactions. Instead, these men will surprise you, including their chosen forum for their heartfelt interactions: As insomniacs, they both wake up at 3 a.m. and play chess over the telephone while pouring out their anxieties.
    The movie is refreshing! And, after the somber weight of Leo Frank, you’ll need to refresh your spiritual palate.
    Get “Rashevski’s Tango” via Amazon (via the link above)! Or grab it from Netflix, where the movie is available as well!

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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