Posts Tagged ‘American Jews’

Interwar Hungary Revealed in Boxes of 16 mm films

February 23, 2014

This piece was first published in The Times of Israel.

Relatives give little Bobby Schneider a bath in the Hungarian countryside c. 1940. (courtesy of Lynn Schneider)

Relatives give little Bobby Schneider a bath in the Hungarian countryside c. 1940. (courtesy of Lynn Schneider)

BERKELEY – When Lynn Schneider was growing up in Los Angeles, her New York-born grandmother Kitty would make for her Hungarian cookies and stuffed peppers. Her American grandfather Julius would collect winter coats and ship them to Hungary. But they never once spoke of the decade they lived in Budapest in the years between World War I and World War II.

Schneider’s father Bob was born in Budapest and grew up there until he was seven, and he, too, never spoke about his family’s time in Hungary. But after he died in 1982, Schneider discovered a box whose contents unlocked an unknown part of her family’s history. Inside the box was a collection of old 16 mm black-and-white home movies shot in Hungary that had not been seen by anyone since their filming.

Determined to learn and tell her grandparent’s story through these moving images, Schneider spent much of the last twenty years figuring out how to turn them in to a documentary. After following historical and genealogical leads, making research trips to Hungary, and taking filmmaking classes, Schneider was finally ready to cinematically tell her ancestor’s unique tale of reverse Jewish immigration and recently released “Budapest: An American Quest — A Family’s Journey to 1920s Hungary,” a 27-minute documentary short.

Click here to read more and watch the trailer.

© 2014 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


No Yiddishkeit At ‘Downton Abbey’

January 3, 2013

This article as first published in The Times of Israel.


Bad news, fans who‘ve gotten religious about “Downton Abbey“: Lady Cora Crawley is not — I repeat, not — Jewish.

Although this may be of absolutely no consequence to most people, for at least some admirers of the hit TV series, it’s a real disappointment. (Before anyone accuses me of revealing spoilers, rest assured that Judaism does not play a part in the British show’s third season, which premieres in the US Sunday on PBS.)

With the approach of new episodes, some fans may be wondering about the religious background of the series’ female lead, an early 20th-century heiress living on the English estate of the title.

Viewers’ curiosity about the American-born Lady Cora — also known as the Countess of Grantham — stems from an official online biography posted online last year, in which the character is described as “the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multimillionaire from Cincinnati.”

With the revelation of that telltale maiden name, some of the series’ Jewish fans immediately began speculating about how her heretofore unrevealed identity might play out in Season 3.

Their interest was only heightened by news that Shirley MacLaine had agreed to join the show as Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson. Who could contain her excitement at the prospect of a Jewish mother arriving from America to shake up stodgy Downton Abbey? Best of all, would she spar with Lady Cora’s mother-in-law (Maggie Smith), the fantastically barb-tongued Dowager Countess?

Alas, all hopes have been dashed. As impatient as viewers may be for the new season, they will not see the cook, Mrs. Patmore, bake challah; the butler, Mr. Carson, serve Shabbat dinner; Lady Cora bless the candles; or her eldest daughter, Lady Mary, wear an exquisite Star of David necklace.

The reason neither Martha Levinson nor Lady Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern) are Jewish, it turns out, is very simple: They’re Episcopalian.

Click here to read more.

© Renee Ghert-Zand 2013. All rights reserved.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Hanukkah (And A Happy Christmas)

December 7, 2012

This music review was first published in The Times of Israel.

'Twas_the_Night_Before_Hanukkah_RSR_020-Hi cropped copy

Don McLean sings about dreidels and Dinah Shore croons about a partridge in a pear tree on “ ’Twas the Night Before Hanukkah,” a holiday-swapping new album that looks at how the Jewish festival and Christmas have influenced each other across decades of American music.

Comprised of two CDs, one devoted to each holiday, the collection features a mix of the famous and obscure — descriptions that apply to both the songs and their performers. While listeners will likely get caught up in in the sounds of Mel Torme, Woody Guthrie and the Ramones, they also get a musical lesson about religious culture in the US, which is ultimately what the album’s about.

 “As soon as Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870, the competitive campaign to beef up Hanukkah . . . went into high gear,” report the album’s liner notes.

As the notes suggest, relations between the winter holidays have often been simultaneously conflicted and symbiotic, with Jews responding to their marginal status by elevating a relatively minor holiday as an alternative to Christmas, and at the same time providing much of the music enjoyed by Christians.

Talented Jewish songwriters “had their musical cake and ate it too,” the liner notes continue.Bonnie Weiss, an expert on the Great American Songbook, says that half the Christmas standards from the 1940s and ’50s — including timeless hits such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Silver Bells” — were penned by Jews.

Jews have consistently used music to negotiate their place in American society, saysDavid Katznelson, one of four founding members of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, the New York-based group that assembled the album.

Click here to read more.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.