As a filmmaker, I am drawn to themes of family and identity, issues
essential in understanding family conflict and reconciliation, in
confronting history and oneself. These themes are often best
conveyed through the power of a personal history that represents
communal concerns. In my own case, I discovered that my complex
relationship with my father wasn't deeply informed by the realities
of his mother's life in Central Europe. At the age 17, when
she arrived in Cleveland, Ohio in 1909, she felt her earlier life
was a closed book. Yet, I found that our pasts fill our present
in a deep if sometimes invisible way.
Much is written on the immigrant experience, but rarely is the
experience of their children and their children's children addressed.
I never expected that in the search for my father I would find a
new understanding of my Jewish identity. At first, the immigration
themes were secondary to my interests. I was much more focused on
the father/daughter relationship, on marriage and divorce. I soon
realized that I first had to understand my Jewish history in order
to understand my father and myself.
To understand us, I realized I had to understand my grandmother.
In America, she was able to break the mold of what a Jewish woman
could do in the early 20th Century, but her family paid the price
for her business success. In 1915, I believe my grandmother
found herself caught between ambition and tradition, particularly
the unwritten rule that a married woman does not work outside the
home or family business. When she was truly bound to the house
with a new baby, I believe she took her frustration out on the child.
With an uncontrollable rage that no one was able to stop, she beat
her daughter as the extended family and later, my father, watched.
Everyone kept silent about her outbursts until I started to probe.
The story of my grandmother's weakness and the effect of her behavior
on subsequent generations offer us insight into the transition into
America for women and the challenges and frustrations they endured.
Jewish Life in rural Central Europe
Born in 1892, my grandmother's story reveals the limitations on
Jews in rural Slovakia and the extra restrictions on Jewish women.
With the on-camera help of my 84 and 90 year-old cousins, I learned
the details of the family history in Central Europe. Like
many Jewish families in Poland, my family left the shtetls in 1800
when Austro-Hungarian Emperor Joseph the II liberalized laws against
Jews. They had more opportunity to work and took up farming,
peddling, owning inns, money lending and occasionally, small manufacturing.
But the German merchants in the towns were afraid of competition,
so the Jews were forced to live in a network of tiny villages that
created a dispersed Jewish community.
My grandmother lived in Krize, a village of three hundred people,
with only three Jewish families. Although Anti-Semitism was
most evident around Easter, Jews knew they were outsiders.
They kept to themselves as well. Coming from a strict religious
family, my grandmother wasn't allowed to socialize with anyone but
Jews. Her brothers could emigrate after their bar mitzvahs, but
her isolation continued, compounded by minimal education, laborious
housework, and a social life confined to the extended family.
In 1908, her father's glass factory went bankrupt. Shamed
and humiliated he fled with his family to Cleveland, Ohio.
I traveled to museums in Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and local
archives in North Eastern Slovakia to find the images in the film.
It was difficult since the rural areas were poor and few photographs
were ever taken of these people's lives. In the Austrian National
Archives, I found a 1910 photo of her market town Bardejov.
At the Hungarian Ethnographic Museum, I found photos of rural taverns
run by Jews; in local archives in Slovakia, I found a photo of a
Jewish Immigrants in Cleveland
When my great-grandfather arrived in America he withdrew into the
security of his religious books. No one questioned his retreat
from life. In Cleveland as in Krize, Jewish women accepted
their traditional role and supported the scholar as an honor and
duty. Yet, it put enormous pressure on the women. While her
father studied all day, my grandmother's mother sold milk from her
cow and homemade wine from her basement. My grandmother went
to work in a knitting factory, joining many immigrant daughters
in the thriving Cleveland garment industry.
My grandmother never spoke of Krize or the anti-Semitism or her
loneliness. Her story always began in America where she felt
her life began. She lived in a poor, crowded Jewish neighborhood,
but saw a community striving for success. She went to night
school and had a social life. She worked hard in the factory
and earned the respect of men. Using audiotapes recorded in 1983,
my grandmother describes with pride, her role in training men. She
treasured her new status in a man's world and wanted more. Her Uncle
Henry Spira was her role model. He arrived at age 15 in 1887, and
moved from peddling notions to farmers to opening a bar. Immigrants
streamed into the bar to drink and to change money. Soon,
his bar became a bank serving a Jewish population that grew from
3500 when he arrived to 75,000 in 1910. His story fueled her
ambition along with the fact that he lived on the same block as
John D. Rockefeller. She believed she could do the same.
She must have flourished with her freedom to work, to make friends,
and to choose her own husband. But marriage ended all her
ambition and independence. Born ahead of her time, she was
helpless to challenge the tradition that a married woman does not
work outside the home or family business. Trapped again inside
the world of women, I think she felt robbed of her dreams and took
her anger out on her first child. Thus, an inheritance
of power through fear was passed from generation to generation,
hidden by the external signs of success and social acceptance in
Ironically, my grandmother was able to leave the home during the
Depression when survival became more important that tradition.
To help support the family, she re-entered the world of business
and eventually became the first woman in Cleveland to have her own
construction business. She almost achieved a success equal
to her uncle's until the death of her 41 year-old daughter stopped
her. Perhaps through remorse or a sense of punishment from
God, she gave it all up and retired.
She had an immense influence on my family, but by understanding
her story, we're changing the effect of her legacy. The documentary
culminates in a church, the former synagogue where my father was
a junior rabbi. Speaking to the African-American congregation,
the father/daughter journey coalesces for my father. He tells
a rabbi's story about a man who loved his daughter so much she wants
to know when she can have a child so she can love like that.
My father knows that he never expressed that kind of love to his own daughter
and regrets that he could not be more like the man in the story.
But now, at 80, he's trying to show the love that was buried for so long. The result of this dance with my
father is respect for the power of the father/daughter relationship,
the family pain, and the shared moments of intimacy.