Are there any conversations more calcified than the ones about Jews and money? Probably, but not many. So it feels momentous to find a different portal into that endless discussion, and a happy coincidence that it's this year's Seattle Jewish Film Festival that is inadvertently providing one. Inadvertently because the theme of the festival, now in its 14th year, is "Go Green!"—not, of course, as in "Go money!" And yet, in trying to select a bunch of "eco films" for their green Jewish Film Festival, the organizers actually ended up with a collection that has far more interesting things to say about the other kind of green, and it feels all the more current and urgent as a result.
It's odd, but the familiar stereotype of Jews as miserly bankers rising to the top of the capitalist heap through pitiless interest charging has always, and especially in America, ignored how many Jews were actually socialists and communists. Two of the festival's films—At Home in Utopia and A Gift to Stalin—address this collective memory-hole directly, and from fascinatingly different angles. At Home in Utopia is an American documentary about "the Coops," a large cooperative housing project in the Bronx launched by Jewish communist immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1920s. The way these new Americans refused to bend to the financial and social system they had landed in is startling, all the more so given the stereotype. In their communal basement libraries and gardens, in their defense of their Bronx neighbors facing eviction by profit-driven landlords, and in their disgust at this country's treatment of workers in general and African Americans in particular (in response to which the Coops decided to integrate in the 1930s, producing, among other fascinating outcomes, a few Yiddish-conversant African Americans), one sees a profoundly radical and complicated Jewish-American experience.
This is an almost forgotten Jewish America, the same immigrant stew that produced Allen Ginsberg, who would later "confess" in his poem "America": America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies/America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I'm not sorry. Not quite as nostalgic about his communist upbringing is the main character in A Gift to Stalin, an Israeli film about a young Jewish boy with delicate eyes who ends up on a packed, fetid train that is rolling through the Kazakhstan steppe as part of Joseph Stalin's program of ethnic purges in the 1930s. The visual echoes of the trains that would take Jews to concentration camps just a few years later in Hitler's Germany will not be lost on any viewers. The boy plays dead in order to get off the train, but loses his parents (who had come up with this means of escape) in the bargain. Where they go is unclear: perhaps to one of Stalin's forced-labor camps, perhaps to their deaths. The boy, now an orphan, is taken in and raised by a burly Kazakh Muslim rail worker, and together they navigate the dangerous backwater of a society in which an immoral communist leadership has come to encourage tremendous human suffering. The message is the exact opposite of that in At Home in Utopia, essentially: Mr. Stalin, I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I am very, very sorry.
The setting on the otherworldly Kazakhstan steppe and the nondoctrinaire moral journey that the characters undertake create a film that feels more universal than specifically Jewish, a quality shared by another notable offering from the festival, the French film Lemon Tree. This is a film about a lemon grove belonging to a Palestinian woman who inherited the grove from her father, who inherited it from his father before that. The grove sits right against a line dividing Palestinian and Israeli territory, and when the new Israeli defense minister moves in on the other side of the line, there ensues a clash over whether the grove is a security threat shading terrorists or a monument to the sacredness of family, memory, and well-tended earth. Here we have yet another country that seems to have forgotten its earlier, collectivist Jewish immigrants (in this case, the Jews who founded Israel's kibbutzim and were themselves tenders of lemon trees and other things). And here, again, we have at the center of all problems the very thing that Marx and his followers felt was always to be found at the center of all problems: property.