Skip Engagement; see the Ritchie Boys
This was supposed to be a post about The Five-Year Engagement. For weeks I saw cute trailers that included a "yarmulke scene" (two families in one room debating wedding details with a rabbi), so naturally I assumed Engagement would have some genuine "Jewish content." After all, Engagement stars Jason Segel, and even though his mother wasn't Jewish, Segel had a bar mitzvah and identifies himself as Jewish. (As he recently told the Jewish Journal: "I definitely have a Jewish drawer; it's in my office at home. It's like where my tallis and stuff are…")
But don't be fooled. In addition to the yarmulke scene, there are fleeting appearances by a Chabadnik and a second rabbi, but their total screen time (the Chabadnik plus both rabbis) is barely a minute. That leaves 123 minutes of tedium in a terrible film that's a totally egregious waste of time and talent.
And speaking as an aggrieved resident of the flyover zone, you would never know from Engagement that Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan is actually a thriving business that has been profiled in the New York Times and named "The Coolest Small Company in America" by Inc Magazine. In Engagement Zingerman's just serves sloppy Reuben sandwiches, and "Tom Solomon" (the Segal character from San Francisco) acts like working at Zingerman's is worse than serving time in Folsom State Prison.
So let's move on.
I recently heard Deborah Dash Moore speak about her terrific book G.I. Jews at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in connection with their new exhibit "Ours to Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War." Way back in 2005, I interviewed Moore when her book was first released, and she told me about a documentary called The Ritchie Boys that was currently playing on the Jewish film festival circuit. So I looked for The Ritchie Boys for years, and I am pleased to report it is finally available to all on DVD.
In many ways, Christian Bauer's film is a standard "talking heads" documentary in which a group of senior citizens recount their wartime exploits, but these seniors had stories I had never heard before.
"The Ritchie Boys" were a group of Jewish refugees who arrived in the United States as teenagers in the 1930. Most of them were from Germany and all of them spoke fluent German. As soon as the United States entered World War II, these young men enlisted, and American military commanders quickly realized they had an untapped resource. So they were ordered to Camp Ritchie in rural Maryland (hence the name "Ritchie Boys") and trained in intelligence work. Sent overseas, they became translators and interrogators as soon as the D-Day Invasion brought American soldiers onto the continent. The information they collected was priceless and helped the Allies bring the war in Europe to a rapid conclusion.
Once they returned stateside, they exceled in a wide variety of diverse professions. Si Lewen became a noted painter. Rudy Michaels became chief counsel for the California Department of Social Services. Morris Parloff became chief of psychotherapy research at the National Institute of Mental Health. Richard Schifter represented the United States on the U.N. Security Council. Guy Stern became a distinguished professor of German literature at Wayne State University. And they all credit their time as "Ritchie Boys" with helping them shed their past traumas and become fervent Americans.
As they slog through blood and mud, we go with them, but sometimes they're also incredibly funny. Guy Stern and Fred Howard (a successful businessman best-known as the inventor of L'eggs pantyhose) tell how they created a "Good Cop/Bad Cop" interrogation team. Stern would disguise himself as "Kommissar Krukov," enter the room cursing in heavily-accented German, and demand that the Americans turn the prisoner over to the Russians. Then Howard would arrive and offer to rescue the prisoner from "Krukov." The terrified German soldier was soon telling Howard everything he knew in hopes of escaping the dreaded "Krukov." Yes, it sometimes sounds a bit like the '60s sitcom Hogan's Heroes, but every word also has the ring of truth.
Surely "The Ritchie Boys" represent everything Emma Lazarus could have hoped for when she wrote the words "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," now engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
The Ritchie Boys is available on Netflix with options for both DVD rental and online streaming. The "Ours to Fight For" exhibit closes on June 17, with special programs continuing for several weeks. On the evening of May 10, for example, ILHMEC will present "IN CONVERSATION WITH… Jewish GIs of World War II." For reservations call 847-967-4889.
Ironically Deborah Dash Moore is the Director of the vibrant Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, so I'll bet she spends many happy hours with family and friends eating at Zingerman's.