Lawrence Weiner: ALL THE STARS IN THE SKY HAVE THE SAME FACE


Through Spring 2021

Learn more
Passover begins March 27. Explore holiday Judaica at the Jewish Museum Shop.

Upcoming Events

Who We Are

Welcome to the Jewish Museum, a museum in New York City at the intersection of art and Jewish culture for people of all backgrounds. Whether you visit our home in the elegant Warburg mansion on Museum Mile, or engage with us online, there is something for everyone. Through our exhibitions, programs, and collection of nearly 30,000 works of art, ceremonial objects, and media, visitors can journey through 4,000 years of art and Jewish culture from around the world.


Our Mission

The Jewish Museum is dedicated to the enjoyment, understanding, and preservation of the artistic and cultural heritage of the Jewish people through its unparalleled collections and distinguished exhibitions. Learn More

History

The Jewish Museum was founded in 1904 in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where it was housed for more than four decades. Located along New York's Museum Mile, this elegant former residence has been the home of the Museum since 1947. Learn More

Stories

New York Jewish Film Festival 2021: Shorts Q&A Series Read More

Part 5: Discussion with Emily Cheeger, director of “Holy Woman” (2020)

Presented virtually by the Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, the 2021 New York Jewish Film Festival offers a selection of films from around the world that explore the Jewish experience. This year’s program of shorts features works by directors Harvey Wang, Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman, Dhimitër Ismailaj-Valona, Emily Cheeger, and Arkadij Khaet & Mickey Paatzsch. The Jewish Museum caught up with each filmmaker for a brief Q&A.

Still from “Holy Woman,” (2020). Directed by Emily Cheeger.

Holy Woman
Emily Cheeger, 2020, USA, 20m
Yiddish with English subtitles

The Jewish Museum: Holy Woman is the result of years of you have spent writing stories about the Hasidic world in Borough Park, Brooklyn, but I understand that you are not from an ultra-Orthodox household yourself. How did you get involved in this community?

Emily Cheeger: In 2013, I moved to New York City to attend the NYU Graduate Film Program. I lived in Brooklyn, where I soon became starkly aware of the deep cultural rift that existed between my neighborhood, Greenpoint, just north of Williamsburg, and the Hasidic community only a few blocks away.

One night after a film shoot, I encountered a stranger who asked for directions to a bar. He had clearly escaped his Hasidic neighborhood of South Williamsburg for a few hours, and our ensuing conversation turned out to be a portentous crossroads for me. I felt a deep need to understand this person and the world he came from. I could tell he was running away from something, but I had no idea what. I wanted to know.

Still from “Holy Woman,” (2020). Directed by Emily Cheeger.

I went home and googled “rebel Hasidim” and fell down a rabbit hole. I discovered a whole new world where integrity and personal freedom were questions of life and death. I decided that I wanted to write screenplays about people such as the person I had just encountered and would never see again. I also knew that in order to do so effectively, I would need to spend years learning about the community, the culture, the language, and the experiences of the people therein. It was a huge commitment, but I pursued it. So, I spent the next several years doing everything I could as an outsider to get to know the community better. I corresponded with people at first, semi-anonymously, and within about a year, started to get to know people in person, particularly those on the fringes of the community. They became some of my closest friends — and many of them still are.

Still from “Holy Woman,” (2020). Directed by Emily Cheeger.

JM: The film is entirely in Yiddish. Did you work exclusively with actors who grew up speaking the language?

EC: Yes, almost exclusively. It was really important to me to cast people who grew up in the culture, speaking the language and wearing the clothing, so that they could make up for any gaps in my knowledge. There are so many nuances to Hasidic culture that the accent with which you speak can vary even from block to block within a neighborhood. So can the details in your garb or head covering.

I also really wanted my actors to be already intimately familiar with the customs, prayers, and the body language that the characters would have, without my having to instruct them. As an outsider, I was committed to bringing in people who would help me to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts. A lot of films have been made in pseudo-Hasidic settings and the lack of attention to detail in those films always felt exploitative to me. Over the years, I have worked to build the capacity to tell these stories as authentically as I can.

Still from “Holy Woman,” (2020). Directed by Emily Cheeger.

JM: You’ve said that one motivation for making Holy Woman is that you find representations of Hasidic culture in film and media to be overly monolithic or reductive. With that in mind, what were some of your goals with this particular film, narrative or otherwise?

EC: It boils down to me wanting to be a worthy mouthpiece for the stories of these people that I have been so involved with over the years. The goal of any good film is to create deeper compassion for humanity; to spend time in another’s shoes; to communicate something truthful. The twist is that after writing a whole feature script that was dogmatically realistic, I decided to tell a shorter story that could be truthful in its essence, while also being fantastical.

JM: Once the protagonist Neshama begins her mystical transformation, she is caught in a bind: she presents as both a man and a woman, but she lives in a conservative society that makes this seemingly impossible (her husband even refers to her, quite cruelly, as a “mixed up mish-mash of a creature”). I wonder if there are discussions about feminism and gender in Jewish Orthodoxy — whether more theoretical, or anecdotal — that have influenced you.

EC: There are a lot of religious legal traditions and paradoxes that influenced the development of Holy Woman, as well as some more personal spiritual questions I was interested in about the nature of the soul, identity, and consciousness. One of the core Talmudic concepts of the story is that of kol isha b’erva — the nakedness of a woman’s voice. This notion dictates that the singing voice of a woman, heard in public, is the equivalent of seeing her naked. It is unchaste, unseemly, perhaps even obscene.

In the Hasidic community, where the singing voices of men are ubiquitous, dominant, exalted, and inescapable, this double standard is heightened. As such, the female voice is a powerful tool and metaphor through which to explore integrity and identity in the Hasidic world. As a singer myself, one of the hardest things for me to reconcile with Orthodox law is the conflict I felt around this concept. But I was more interested in asking questions than offering answers.

Still from “Holy Woman,” (2020). Directed by Emily Cheeger.

JM: Could you talk about the role of humor as a device in your storytelling process?

EC: I think humor is a great way to talk about difficult things in a way that makes them approachable. Humor is also a huge part of Jewish culture — whether you grow up secular or religious — so it was an instinctive choice. It’s a great unifier, and an inextricable element of satire, which plays a big role in this film, which I think of as an affectionate satire. Aside from that, I’m also deeply influenced by the Modernist humor of authors such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov, and Gary Shteyngart and there’s a long tradition of magical realist satire in the Judeo-Slavic diaspora. It must be in my blood.

Emily Cheeger is the director of Holy Woman. This year’s program of shorts is available Jan. 20 at noon ET to Jan. 23 at noon ET: Get Tickets

Madeline Weisburg, Curatorial Assistant, the Jewish Museum


New York Jewish Film Festival 2021: Shorts Q&A Series was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

New York Jewish Film Festival 2021: Shorts Q&A Series Read More

Part 4: Discussion with Arkadij Khaet and Mickey Paatzsch, directors of “Mazel Tov Cocktail” (2020)

Presented virtually by the Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, the 2021 New York Jewish Film Festival offers a selection of films from around the world that explore the Jewish experience. This year’s program of shorts features works by directors Harvey Wang, Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman, Dhimitër Ismailaj-Valona, Emily Cheeger, and Arkadij Khaet & Mickey Paatzsch. The Jewish Museum caught up with each filmmaker for a brief Q&A.

Still from “Mazel Tov Cocktail,” 2020. Directed by Arkadij Khaet and Mickey Paatzsch.

The Jewish Museum: In Mazel Tov Cocktail, you are working with an idiom used in a variety of self-reflective and self-referential styles of cinema: the protagonist, Dima, speaks directly to the camera. How did you land on this narrative approach?

Arkadij Khaet: Before we started with the script work, we had pages of monologues written for Dima. The premise was: what would we like to tell German society about life from a subjective, Jewish point of view, in thirty minutes?

Mickey Paatzsch: Arkadij himself is a Jew living in Germany. In the early nineties, his family left Moldova and settled in Oberhausen in western Germany. Over the years, Arkadij experienced German people reacting to his Jewish identity in a lot of different ways and as a filmmaker, he collected those impressions and took notes. We wanted to preserve the essence of Arkadij’s intimate, stream of consciousness-style notes, which led us to the decision to have our protagonist break the fourth wall. In the film, Dima simply speaks from his perspective about how he feels and what he thinks about Germans, Jews, memory, and anti-Semitism.

Still from “Mazel Tov Cocktail,” 2020. Directed by Arkadij Khaet and Mickey Paatzsch.

Arkadij Khaet: When we started writing, it was pretty clear that we didn’t want to put these monologues into scenes, but instead felt it was best to let Dima speak directly to the audience. Before shooting Mazel Tov Cocktail, we had only made classic narrative films. It took a lot of rehearsing and a very precise camerawork to make Dima’s monologues work.

JM: Your camera work is quick and lively, which works to effectively underscore the confrontational nature of the short. Can you talk a bit about how this technical aspect functions in the film for you?

AK: When writing the script, we knew that that our movie should be short, at around thirty minutes long, but we wanted to include over twelve different characters, who Dima meets throughout the city. Together with our Director of Photography Nikolaus Schreiber, we developed a cinematic concept to master this challenge. We like films that are playful and have a certain pace but the most important thing was to give our protagonist, Dima, a stage. Wide angle shots give the actor the opportunity to use his whole body; low angle shots also support the stage-like atmosphere.

MP: We wanted to capture the dynamic and speed of Dima’s journey, so we decided to shoot him by dolly and Steadicam without doing too many cuts. The camera is also used to introduce new characters and places with rapid movements. All this being said, viewers should be able to follow Dima’s complex narrative without losing their orientation.

Still from “Mazel Tov Cocktail,” 2020. Directed by Arkadij Khaet and Mickey Paatzsch.

JM: It’s not so often that we see Jewish characters in contemporary films represented as part of a distinctly immigrant population like the one seen in Mazel Tov Cocktail. Even though the film centers on the life of a Russian-Jewish teenager living in Germany today, to me, Dima’s story implicitly points to the broader political issues facing Middle Eastern and African diasporic communities in Western Europe — namely, the rise of anti-immigration nationalist politics in the region. Is that something you wanted to highlight?

AK: Yes and we specifically allude to this in the scene with the right-wing politician. In Germany, there is a right-wing political party called the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), which claims to sympathize with the Jewish community in Germany all the while stirring up hatred against immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. In the film, Dima understands this behavior as a political strategy and confronts the politician. The German right wing’s purported love of Jews is simply a masking of racism against migrants, although statistics do verify that anti-Semitism rises exponentially if racism is on the increase. Dima empathizes with diasporic communities in Europe because they share a similar background. He knows how it is to be treated as an outsider and to not be fully accepted in “mainstream” society.

Arkadij Khaet & Mickey Paatzsch are the directors of Mazel Tov Cocktail. This year’s program of shorts is available Jan. 20 at noon ET to Jan. 23 at noon ET: Get Tickets

Madeline Weisburg, Curatorial Assistant, the Jewish Museum


New York Jewish Film Festival 2021: Shorts Q&A Series was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

New York Jewish Film Festival 2021: Shorts Q&A Series Read More

Part 3: Discussion with Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman, directors of “Mimi and Panda” (2019)

Presented virtually by the Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center, the 2021 New York Jewish Film Festival offers a selection of films from around the world that explore the Jewish experience. This year’s program of shorts features works by directors Harvey Wang, Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman, Dhimitër Ismailaj-Valona, Emily Cheeger, and Arkadij Khaet & Mickey Paatzsch. The Jewish Museum caught up with each filmmaker for a brief Q&A.

Still from “Mimi and Panda,” 2019. Directed by Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman.

Mimi and Panda
Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman, 2019, Canada, 4m

The Jewish Museum: I love how Mimi and Panda are a pair, but you each approached the task of putting your films together differently. For example, Panda is filled with drawings and Mimi includes a lot of family photos. Was this something you two planned?

Panda Shi Berman: We didn’t plan to do it differently, but we ended up doing it in different ways since we had different ideas.

I am an artist and wanted to include some watercolor paintings. I thought it would be better to use paintings because I wanted to use more abstract ideas that you just can’t find in a photo. Since it’s my own story, I thought it was better to use my own art. I like how Mimi showed her whole family and included everyone, from both her mom and her dad’s side. I think both films turned out pretty great.

Mimi Luc-Berman: My story focuses on my photo at both the beginning and end and asks you to really look at it. I also wanted to show my family photos throughout the story. I decided to go with photos because that way, I could add my entire family in it and that makes it more personal to me — using all the people I know and love. I like that Panda took the time to paint her pictures, because it shows that she really put in an effort for this and showed off her talents.

Still from “Mimi and Panda,” 2019. Directed by Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman.

JM: What are you both working on next?

PSB: I’m in a special cyber arts program at school, and so I make a lot of digital art projects. I really like doing visual arts, because I get to learn lots of new tools and techniques to improve my drawings. Mimi and I worked together on a special video for our Baba’s 80th birthday this year. And right now, I’m working on a project to animate a poem. I want to continue to explore my Jewish-Chinese identity in more films and share it with everyone!

MLB: I made another movie about my trip to Israel and Jordon last year. And I’ve made a stop motion video for a school project. I love digital arts, such as making short movies. I’m working on an audition for an arts high school, for their filmmaking program, so I hope to be making more movies in the future. I think it will be cool to do a project together with Panda, since we both are learning different things all the time, and we can put our ideas together to make something great about our family.

Miriam Luc-Berman & Panda Shi Berman are the directors of Mimi and Panda. This year’s program of shorts is available Jan. 20 at noon ET to Jan. 23 at noon ET: Get Tickets

Madeline Weisburg, Curatorial Assistant, the Jewish Museum


New York Jewish Film Festival 2021: Shorts Q&A Series was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Shop

Trace Menorah by Via Maris

Shop Online

The Smart Dreidel

Shop Online

Hanukkah Cards

Shop Online

Become a Member

Jewish Museum members help us achieve our mission and also receive great benefits, including early access to exhibitions, free admission, discounts, and more.

Join or Renew Today