The title of the film is There Are Jews Here but after seeing last week’s screening of the documentary in New York, viewers would be forgiven if they suggested a new title: “There Were Jews Here.”
The film tells the story of small American towns that once had thriving Jewish communities and now struggle to get enough people for a minyan. Only one of the towns — Dothan, Ala. — shows any signs of hope, and that’s because of a relocation project that offers $50,000 to move there.
The other featured towns — Laredo, Texas; Latrobe, Pa.; and Butte, Mont. — are all beset by the same demographic reality: American Jews have abandoned small towns to move into cities, making the preservation of identity challenging for those left behind.
Before the American Jewish Historical Society screening last week, director Brad Lichtenstein — whose first film was about a Jewish Schindler figure — stood outside and hugged well-wishers and friends.
He was mobbed by folks after the film, as well.
“One of the things that always happens is you meet people who have a connection to these communities,” he said. “It always compels people to want to talk about that town and their memories of it and their experiences.”
Lichtenstein was patient as people told him their tales; his film, after all, is made up of exactly the same kind of stories.
There’s Nancy Oyer in Butte, who struggles with health problems as she tries to keep a synagogue going.
There’s Mickey Radman in Latrobe, an 82-year-old who tearfully faces the closure of his synagogue.
There are Uri and Susie Druker in Laredo, where despite Uri’s best efforts, the synagogue hemorrhages members and support.
And there are Terence and Karen Arenson, who move from Los Angeles to Dothan because the kind of Jewish community they seek is out of reach in L.A.
It’s an emotional film, in which the characters suffer great internal conflict.
Oyer, a geologist, has found that keeping Judaism alive in Butte is something of a DIY endeavor. For her congregation, she plays the role of rabbi and cantor and president, just as another woman did before her.
When Oyer struggles with health problems that prevent her from performing her duties, she sees how tenuous her synagogue community really is.
Uri Druker, too, feels the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Though he is deeply committed to his hometown of Laredo and to his congregation, as he and Susie begin to raise a family, they worry about their sons’ isolation.
It’s heartbreaking, in fact, to see the way one of their sons responds with unbridled joy when he visits the San Antonio JCC, as though they’ve just arrived at Disneyland.
It is lonely to be Jewish in these small towns, in part because so many of the residents are living with ghosts.
Watching Mickey Radman go through photo albums from the Latrobe synagogue, we see plentiful evidence of an engaged, vital Jewish community that’s all but gone. In a building with empty pews, Radman dissolves into tears.
But there are upbeat moments, too. For one thing, the film highlights the inspiring role women play in preserving these communities.
In Latrobe, Jeanette Wolff tries to inspire congregants with a “we’re not dead yet!” speech at the bimah. In Dothan, Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith welcomes new arrivals. In Laredo, Susie gathers with Spanish-speaking Jews to study Torah.
“I tend to want to tell stories in ways in which people don’t fulfill their stereotypes,” Lichtenstein said. “I got really attracted to stories like Nancy’s, where it’s her and it’s her mom that are passing the traditions down.”
There are also happy scenes of the Arensons in Dothan — one of the few small towns whose Jewish population is increasing rather than decreasing, thanks to the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services’ Family Relocation Project.
Lichtenstein’s co-director was Morgan Elise Johnson.
“The dynamic of having Morgan as my partner in making the film and her growing up in the black church — her father’s a pastor — she kind of put me in a position to see my own culture and religion fresh, which was actually really lovely,” said Lichtenstein, who celebrated Jewish holidays with the people in the film and even got drafted into services.
“There was a moment in Laredo … when they needed a 10th for minyan, and they wanted me to chant the blessings over the Torah,” he said, “and thank God I had first-through-fifth-grade Hebrew day school and I could jump up there and do it.”
There’s a lot of prayer and liturgical music in the film, an emphasis Lichtenstein said Johnson gave the film because of her own interest in music. The film score was composed by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid.
Reid was at the New York screening, too, in part to meet Uri and Susie Druker, who had come from Laredo to take part in an after-film Q&A.
Reid and Lichtenstein have worked together for almost 20 years on various film projects. But the African-American Reid was especially pleased that Lichtenstein reached out to him.
“I was really touched because it’s a Jewish film and he trusted me that I would get to the [heart] of what’s happening,” Reid said.
Lichtenstein said it was no accident that the people who worked on the film came from disparate backgrounds.
“I have a real deep commitment to diversity,” he said, “that people from all different backgrounds should all work together on art. It makes the art better.”
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