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Film explores the role of Jews in Civil War

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Image from the film “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray.” The National Center for Jewish Film

As America marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a new film highlights the role Jews played in the conflict that pitted North against South. The 86-minute film, “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray,” was produced by the National Center for Jewish Film of Brandeis University. It was screened locally on July 13, at Cong. Beth Tikvah/New Milford Jewish Center.

“Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” was written by Jonathan Gruber, with an assist from Robert Marcus. It was directed by Gruber. It relies on interviews with Civil War historians such as Shalom Lamm and Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and descendants of Jewish soldiers, as well as original letters and records stored in museums, archives, and private homes. Approximately 7,000 Jews fought for the Union; approximately 3,000 fought for the Confederacy.

The screening attracted a wide audience, including many from outside the congregation. Ken Morrow of Dumont said he had always been curious about Jewish soldiers serving in the Civil War. “This is a subject most people are not informed about.”

Bob Mark, rabbi of the New Milford congregation, noted in his opening remarks that most history textbooks ignore the contributions of Jews to the early history of the United States.

Although more than twice as many Jews fought for the North than the South, the film explores the myth that the North was friendlier to the Jews. Said one expert interviewed in the film, “The lines of division in the South were more racial than religious.”

The film discusses the career of Judah P. Benjamin, one of the first Jews to serve as a U.S. senator. The Louisiana native, known for his “incredible oratorical skills,” was a leader of the secessionist movement that created the Confederate States of America. He served as “Jefferson Davis’ right-hand man,” said one historian featured in the documentary, was appointed secretary of state among his other positions, and his face appeared on the Confederate two-dollar bill.

Also highlighted was Eugenia Levy Phillips, who was imprisoned for spying for the Confederacy.

Other notable Jews highlighted by the film include Alfred Mordecai, a major in the U.S. Army who refused to fight for either side during the war and resigned his position in protest of it; Rabbi Max Lillienthal, a vehement abolitionist; and Lt. Jacob Ballantine, who fired some of the first shots on Union soldiers at Fort Sumter.

The movie also discussed the Concordia Guard, reportedly an all-Jewish company of 96 men that was part of the 82nd Illinois Infantry.

Evidence of Jewish involvement in the war rests not only in the archives and the descendants of soldiers, but also on the field. A cemetery in Richmond holds the remains of dozens of Jewish soldiers who served in the Civil War. Additionally, a 19th-century Jewish activist, Simon Wolf, published a directory in 1895 containing the names of 7,000 Jews who fought on either side during the conflict. After being given a copy of the directory — “The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen” — Mark Twain publicly recanted a statement he made criticizing American Jews for refusing to fight in the Civil War.

The film also explores anti-Semitism in America at the time. One bright spot in the film was a discussion of President Lincoln’s strong support for the Jewish community. Lincoln’s voice in the film was more familiar to most people in the audience as belonging to Manhattan District Attorney Jack McCoy, the “Law & Order” character portrayed by the actor Sam Waterston.

Immediately after the screening, there was a brief discussion led by Rabbi Mark. He said he hoped that viewers had discovered “something you never knew before.”

“Pass this information on to your children,” he told the audience.

“Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” was produced by Indigo Films, with funding from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation .

For more information about the film or to schedule a screening, call the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, (781) 736-8600, or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Teaneck Film Festival in its ninth year

There has been a proliferation of regional and town film festivals across the country these last two decades.

Nine years ago, Teaneck joined them. Because of the town’s unique demographic makeup, its directors have tried to provide films that reflect its diversity. From the beginning, that has meant including films on Jewish subjects. The gala fund-raising event is now on a Saturday night, so that everyone in the community can participate.

Given Teaneck’s large and growing African-American and Jewish population, I found this year’s choices most appropriate. Three of the four films that tackle Jewish subjects look at the interaction of Jews and people of color and provide fascinating historical and contemporary studies. The fourth film takes a hard look at how the gap year in Israel affects young people from traditional homes.


‘Fury’ a blistering account of World War II — sans the Holocaust

Going into a World War II film, audiences expect to see 70-year-old battle scenes play out on the big screen, in sometimes gory detail.

The war in David Ayer’s latest film, “Fury,” is no different—except that it is more a character study and a piece of historical fiction, much like “Saving Private Ryan,” to which it’s already being compared.

“Fury” follows the crew of an M4A3E8 Sherman tank in Germany in April 1945, towards the end of the war in the European Theater. The tank, named “Fury” after the painted name on its gun barrel, becomes the new home of Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a clerical typist sent to the wrong part of the front. He joins up with Staff Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt), Corporal Trini Garcia (Michael Peña), PFC Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Technician 5th Grade Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), a rough crew that’s been together since they fought in the North African campaign. They lost Red, one of their front gunners, so Ellison is roped in to take his place after confronting the first of many horrors of war—the viscera of former comrades inside the tank.


Kutsher’s documentary captures the eclectic legacy of a Borscht Belt relic

When young independent music enthusiasts descended on Kutsher’s, an antiquated Jewish hotel, for an international indie rock concert series in 2008, it was “kind of like ‘Cocoon’ meets ‘The Shining,’” Barry Hogan recalls in the forthcoming documentary film “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.”

The comment by Hogan, founder of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival organization, exemplifies the widening generational gap that ultimately forced Kutsher’s to close in December 2013. Yet despite the hotel’s obvious state of physical decline, Hogan observes, the venue still had the right charm and “intimate” stage for bands. It allowed indie nerd fans to raise the roof during electric performances.

Similar nostalgia, pride, and humor characterize the other interviews in “Welcome to Kutsher’s,” which is premiering on December 6 in Palm Beach, Fla. Viewers will be treated to a quirky smorgasbord of Borscht Belt culture. Directors Ian Rosenberg and Caroline Laskow explore the origins of Jewish American investment in the Catskill Mountains, beginning in the late 19th century. Next, the filmmaking pair visits Kutsher’s Country Club. This prominent hotel was a magnet for vacationing Jewish families, as well as a springboard to success for prominent entertainers and gifted athletes throughout the latter half of the 20th century.



‘Gone with the Wind’ turns 75

The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” which was marked December 15, presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time.

That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick.

Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick was born to a Jewish family in Pittsburgh in 1902. He worked as an apprentice to his father, Lewis, a silent-film distributor, until 1923, when Lewis declared bankruptcy. That event may have had something to do with Selznick’s fear of failure — a fear that propelled him toward success.

David Thomson, author of the 1993 book “Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick,” believes that Selznick had the most interesting career path of the legendary movie producers because he began in the studio system, went independent, and experienced both success and failure.


‘Sheriff of Mars’ tells story of Daniel Antopolsky

It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers. High on heroin. Rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt.

But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the grandson of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the “Sheriff of Mars” fled the aggressive U.S. music scene for a tranquil life on a farm in Bordeaux, France.

Over the last 40 years, Antopolsky has written nearly 500 songs. Now, for the first time ever, his music is being shared with the world through a new documentary and music album, the latter produced in conjunction with some of country music’s finest players and by award-winning producer Gary Gold.


‘Zero Motivation’

A woman’s look at women in the Israeli military

Let’s face it! There is a very strong sense that Israel today is a society that men largely dominate. We certainly see this in the majority of Israeli films, and in various other aspects of Israeli life.

We looked at photographs and films from earlier times, showing men and women working side by side in the field or defending the country together, weapons in hand. Today, we are treated to stories of Israeli women pilots and tank commanders. But what percentage of pilots and commanders are women? Do men and women soldiers walk side by side through the streets of Gaza?

And how many Israeli film directors are women? Are they challenging the system and asking tough questions? First-time feature film director Talya Lavie has stepped up and taken on that task in her new film, “Zero Motivation.” Her mission seems to be to tell a different story about women in the Israel Defense Forces.

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