on the
American/Jewish Immigration Story

"Dancing with My Father," is an emotional genealogy that follows a family's transition into America. It is the story of how the grandchildren of immigrants can continue to shape the immigrant experience through the actions of their own lives.

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 glass factory.

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 America. 

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.