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Tzivi’s April ’09 Spotlight

Last year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival brought us glimpses of modern Jewish life in Chile and Mexico.

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“Cancer Bitch” sculpture © Connie Roberts. For more information, contact artist:

Last year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival brought us glimpses of modern Jewish life in Chile and Mexico. This year’s schedule includes three Jewish-themed films from Argentina: a documentary (Our Disappeared), a contemporary feature filmed partly in Israel (Letters for Jenny), and a costume drama set in the early 20th century (Camera Obscura). Of these three, my favorite is definitely Camera Obscura, directed and co-written by María Victoria Menis (based on Angélica Gorodischer’s novella).

A baby is born on ship in the Buenos Aires harbor, mere inches from the new land. Her mother loathes this doubly-cursed “Russian” girl child, but for her father she embodies all that he has loved and lost. The years pass. As she goes about her day, Gertrudis turns every tiny task into an aesthetic masterpiece: meals, table settings, everything just so. Her husband is both pious and prosperous; he knows his life is blessed, but he takes it all for granted. Then someone new enters their household, and Gertrudis looks at herself in the mirror as if for the first time. Never did the sight of a simple pair of earrings make a greater emotional impact!

Menis has received prizes from film festivals all around the Spanish-speaking world. Relying on her superb visual style, she keeps dialogue to a minimum, enhancing her quiet tableaux with natural sounds as well as Yiddish songs and klezmer tunes. Camera Obscura also has three animated sequences, two of which reminded me of the dream sequences Salvador Dali designed for Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 film Spellbound.

Camera Obscura will be shown twice, on Friday April 24 at 8:15 p.m., and on Sunday April 26 at 5 p.m. Both screenings will be at the Landmark Century Theatre on North Clark Street, and filmmaker María Victoria Menis will be present for Q&A sessions after each screening. The Chicago Latino Film Festival runs from April 17 thru April 29. To order tickets, visit


You’re a writer in your early 50s, well respected on your home turf and living a good life. But you read Anne Frank’s diary at an impressionable age, spent time in closets for years afterwards “hiding from the Nazis,” and always wondered when the other shoe would drop. Then, one day, just when everything seems fine, you have a routine mammogram… And so begins S.L. Wisenberg’s new book The Adventures of Cancer Bitch.

You probably don’t need Sandi to tell you that breast cancer disproportionately targets Ashkenazi women. Very likely you’ve lost people you love to this disease; perhaps you’re even being treated for it now yourself. Regardless of what you think you already know firsthand, Sandi’s book is a must read for members of our community. Having lived a life committed to Jewish ritual as well as Jewish literature, Sandi uses acerbic self-reflection to search for higher truth (both spiritual and medical).

Sandi’s book tour will take her to places as near as Iowa City and as far as Sofia, Bulgaria, (where she’ll be presenting at June’s Bet Debora Conference), but here in Chicago we’ll have many chances to hear her describe her Adventures, including April 6 at Loyola (north campus); May 6 at 57th Street Books (Hyde Park); and May 14 at Northwestern (Evanston). To order the book, learn more about specific stops on the book tour, and/or read her ongoing observations on daily life, visit Sandi’s Blog:


The theme of this year’s Metropolitan Chicago ORT fundraiser is "Jewish Roots in Faraway Lands,” featuring two young writers: Ariel Sabar and Sadia Shepard. Sabar is the author of My Father's Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, and Shepard is the author of The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home.

Both books describe traumatic family dislocation. Sabar’s father is forced to flee from the ancient town of Zakho, while Shepard’s mother is forever exiled from her home in Bombay. And yet, a few decades later, these two children are adults raising children of their own in America. Each book is fascinating, and their parallel storylines reverberate.

ORT’s luncheon, scheduled for Sunday April 26, is open to the public, so call (847) 291-0475 if you’d like to make reservations, or visit their website:

The next night, Monday April 27, Shepard will also show her 40 minute documentary film In Search of the Bene Israel at Spertus. The program begins at 6:30 p.m. For tickets, visit:


The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs has a new Randolph Street venue for “jewel box” productions called DCA Theater. The current play, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, is a collection of vignettes based on actual interviews conducted by playwright Robin Soans in 2003. Eight talented actors each play a multitude of characters, and each voice is interesting, but I’m afraid the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Snippets of common humanity may be fine for appetizers and side dishes, but there’s no substantive main course, and I left feeling hungry, even after the post-play Q&A.

I had the opposite reaction when I saw the Silk Road Theatre Project’s new production of Pangs of the Messiah. Pangs is set in a West Bank settlement sometime in the near future. The United States is brokering a peace agreement that will finally establish a Palestinian state, and the residents of the settlement are in turmoil.

I was deeply moved by their predicament, and I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish. I was especially impressed by the balance of male and female voices. Israeli playwright Motti Lerner never lets us forget the demands of daily life, even under the most extreme conditions. Whatever your own personal feelings are about “the two state solution,” it is critical to remember that specific lives will be forever affected by politically-motivated decisions, and Lerner’s accomplishment is to show there simply are no easy answers.

The Arab-Israeli Cookbook runs through April 5. For tickets, call (312) 742-8497, or visit:

Pangs of the Messiah runs through Sunday, May 3 at The Historic Chicago Temple Building at 77 West Washington. For tickets, call (312) 857-1234, or visit:

To read my interview with Motti Lerner, visit:


Cadillac Records is a musical history of Chicago Blues starring Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James, and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters. It’s tremendously entertaining, has great resonance, and was one of my favorite films of 2008.

Last December, just before Barack Obama named Rahm Emanuel White House chief of staff, a well-known political consultant said: "Rahm can be a ‘mamzer,’ but he’s our mamzer." I’d like to make the same case for Leonard Chess. Born Lejzor Czyz, Chess came to Chicago from Belarus in 1928 at age 11. You won’t truly appreciate what you see onscreen if you don’t know this basic fact.

For an opinion on the overall veracity of the film, I turned to Blues harmonica genius Jerry Portnoy (a longtime member of Muddy’s band). “My father had a store on Maxwell Street (Max Portnoy & Son, King of Carpets),” Jerry told me. “The Maxwell Street Market was a magical place. Little Walter played his harp right down the street. There's a musical relationship that explains the extraordinary percentage of Jews drawn to play the Blues—Jews hear the wailing of the cantor. Leonard Chess was this guy who saw a synergy between his needs and what he loved about this music (and the artists who played this music). It was a natural fit. And to a large extent, most of the film was fairly accurate.”

To read more about Jerry Portnoy, visit:

To read my full review of Cadillac Records, visit:

Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples ( Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Visit for online copies of prior columns.

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