September 30 was a delicious day for this secular Jew: corned beef and kishka at Joan & Ed’s Deli in Natick’s Sherwood Plaza followed by, at the Gann Academy in Waltham, a 300-person tribute to the achievements of Sharon Pucker Rivo, co-founder of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. It was the Boston Center for Jewish Heritage that presented Rivo the Zvi Cohen Leadership and Legacy Award. Since 1976, she, along with the National Center’s late co-director, Mimi Krant, has managed to locate, and find funding for the restoration of, 36 Yiddish-language films, all of which had been lost to the world, many during the Holocaust. The National Center has collected 10,000 cans of films about Jewish culture, the largest depository of Jewish filmic material outside Israel. What Rivo calls “a picture album of the Jewish people.”
At the Gann, Rivo offered a half-hour video presentation showcasing some of the National Center’s precious holdings. The first clip was from a 1903 documentary, an extended overhead shot looking down on Jewish vendors on New York’s Lower East Side, many of them women manning the outdoor counters, peddling rags, wrapping fish, etc. Rivo: “We’ve had scholars come to Brandeis to look at the clothes. Others study the gender roles.” She showed home movies shot in Eastern European shtetls in the 1930s, poor, unfortunate Jewish communities that were to be wiped out by the Nazis. And then, “the heart and soul of our collection,” scenes from Yiddish dramatic films starring actor immortals. There was Molly Picon, the Jewish Lillian Gish, breaking bread, stuffing herself with food in a 1923 film produced in Austria. And then Maurice Schwartz, the Yiddish Olivier, stumbling about in Tevye (1939), Job-like, cursing God’s silence as his beloved daughter scooted off to marry a goy.
Where did Rivo get her idea of preserving Jewish culture? She recalled an epiphanic moment in 1954, when a TV set entered her Kansas City home. “I was with my grandmother, who had come from Lithuania in 1903. We were watching, I think it was The Colgate Comedy Hour, which had comic Eddie Cantor, with his big turning eyes and his big nose, singing, ‘Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider!’ My grandmother remarked, ‘Only in America could a Jew do this before all the people!’ ” A half-century later: Rivo found the only extant film record of former president Harry Truman speaking at an Israel fundraiser on Eddie Cantor’s 65th birthday, in 1957. “We are making a copy,” she said, “for the Truman Presidential Library.”
There’s maybe not enough for the Jews in Michael Atkinson & Lauren Shifrin’s Flickipedia: Perfect Films for Every Occasion. The Ten Commandments, Exodus, and A Rugrats Passover are among the slim Pesach choices. But every goyishe and/or American holiday is covered in spades in this knowledgeable, witty, stylish guide by Atkinson, a Phoenix freelance film reviewer, and Shifrin, his movie-crazy spouse. You can start your Halloween countdown now with choices ranging from Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), which is “jampacked with gothic imagery — from black masses to possessed nuns” to Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005), whose “sumptuous Black Foresty animation virtually oozes with gray, toy-shop atmosphere.” Flickipedia is the book now in the honored spot at my apartment: beside the toilet. Bad day at work? The authors suggest Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: “This squalid indie may be a useful vehicle for venting.”