January 11, 2007
NCJF: A treasury of Jewish cinema
Sharon Pucker Rivo recently dropped by my home to talk about the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) and left behind a catalog of the center's holdings.
It's rare that a catalog makes for spellbinding reading, but I discovered in it a new and fascinating picture of pulsating Jewish history, as viewed by filmmakers over more than 100 years.
The oldest film listed is the silent "Levy and Cohen: The Irish Comedians," which was made in 1903 and runs for all of one minute. By the time the great American director D.W. Griffith ("Birth of a Nation") made "Romance of a Jewess" in 1908, the 16 mm film ran an astonishing 10 minutes.
Rivo dropped off a DVD of one of the latest catalog listings, Paul Mazursky's "Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy."
I hate to admit it, but after decades of writing about Jewish-themed movies, I had only the vaguest notion of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF), but executive director Rivo filled me in.
Located on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., as an independent entity, NCJF holds the world's largest, most comprehensive collection of Jewish-themed films and videos.
Included are some 10,000 cans of film, holding features, documentaries, shorts, newsreels, home movies and institutional films from 1903 to the present, augmented by thousands of master videotapes.
Many of the older holdings have been restored by the center, which also serves as a research resource, organizer of film festivals and distributor to institutions and individuals.
Almost every Diaspora community in the world is represented, with particularly rich holdings from Poland, the Soviet Union and the United States. Holocaust films record the Final Solution at work in obscure places, and there is even a selection of Nazi propaganda films.
Rivo takes special pride in her Yiddish-language collection of 35 features, including restored productions of Poland's "Yidl Mitn Fidl" (Yiddle Wth His Fiddle), the Soviet Union's 1919 "Tovarish Abraham" (Comrade Abraham) and America's "Der Yidisher Kenig Lir" (The Yiddish King Lear), in which the Shakespearean tragedy time-travels to the Jewish Vilna of the early 1900s.