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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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When is a Jewish movie a Jewish movie?

I don’t quite get it.

The New York Jewish Film Festival opened on Wednesday, and it seems to me that about one third of the 47 films screened there are not Jewish movies. That doesn’t make much sense to me. When I go to see films at a Jewish film festival, I expect to see films that are in some way Jewish.

For me, a Jewish film is a movie about anything related to the Jewish experience. The 24th New York Jewish Film Festival is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum. When I questioned Aviva Weintraub, who is the museum’s associate curator and the director of the festival, about the selection committee’s choices, she said, “Our goal is for the program as a whole to add up to more than the sum of the individual films. Each season, we strive to deepen the definition from the most obvious, evidently Jewish characters, Israel, and/or historical Jewish events to a broader perspective.”

 

Big-screen reinvention of Exodus is empty as the parted Red Sea

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — fails to meet expectations.

Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses (Christian Bale) saves the life of his adoptive brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) during a battle with a Hittite army, recalling an earlier prophecy that the skeptic Moses laughed off. He learns of his lineage from Nun (Sir Ben Kingsley), which leads to his exile by the now-Pharaoh Ramses II. During this nine-year exile, Moses has a child with Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and climbs a forbidden mountain — only to hit his head, see a burning bush, and get a request from a child messenger of God.

 

‘Above and Beyond’

Every once in a while, a filmmaker captures the essence of what the State of Israel means to the Jewish people in general and to America’s Jews in particular.

“Above and Beyond” provides a remarkable look at the birth of Israel’s air force. Perhaps more importantly, it considers the ways in which Israel can affect the lives of Jews in America.

On one level, this is a film about a group of veteran World War II pilots and navigators who volunteered to fly airplanes for Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, when Israel’s enemies had air power and Israel did not. This story has been told on film before, but after she saw the obituary of Al Schwimmer in 2011, producer Nancy Spielberg decided to provide a broader look at the “band of brothers” who changed the course of Jewish history, and who indeed may have saved Israel at a time when its very existence was at risk.

 

RECENTLYADDED

‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

Bureaucracy often has been a great subject for cinema.

Many of its foibles are universal; over the years, we have been treated to films from all parts of the world that tackled issues of citizen rights vs. the travails of dealing with government. Not surprisingly, Israeli filmmakers have used cinema to try to bring some of these issues out in the open, hoping that public discussion might pave the way for change. Two of the great ‘60s classics of Israeli cinema, “Sallah” and “The Blaumilch Canal,” written by satirist Ephraim Kishon, showed how ordinary Israeli citizens met with obstacle after obstacle as they tried to find their way in their society. Now, with “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” co-directors and co-screenwriters Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz have delved into the all-too-problematic issue of divorce in Israel; they very much hope the film will spark greater public debate and change.

 

‘Above and Beyond’

Every once in a while, a filmmaker captures the essence of what the State of Israel means to the Jewish people in general and to America’s Jews in particular.

“Above and Beyond” provides a remarkable look at the birth of Israel’s air force. Perhaps more importantly, it considers the ways in which Israel can affect the lives of Jews in America.

On one level, this is a film about a group of veteran World War II pilots and navigators who volunteered to fly airplanes for Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, when Israel’s enemies had air power and Israel did not. This story has been told on film before, but after she saw the obituary of Al Schwimmer in 2011, producer Nancy Spielberg decided to provide a broader look at the “band of brothers” who changed the course of Jewish history, and who indeed may have saved Israel at a time when its very existence was at risk.

 

Meet Stefan Zweig

Jewish novelist who inspired ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is having a comeback

Wes Anderson’s whimsical film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was nominated for nine Academy Awards last week, just days after winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical.

Named one of the best films of the year by several top critics, it could earn Anderson, a director whose cult following has steadily grown over the past decade, his first Oscar.

It also is likely to raise the profile of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish novelist who, Anderson has said, inspired the film’s quirky Eastern European setting and several of its characters.

Indeed, a new book about him, “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World,” just won the Jewish Book Council’s National Jewish Book Award for Best Jewish Biography.

 
 
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