NEW YORK — The title of the film is “There Are Jews Here,” but after seeing the Jan. 12 screening of the documentary at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York, viewers would have been forgiven if they suggested a new title: “There Were Jews Here.”
The film tells the story of four small American towns that once had thriving Jewish communities and now struggle to get enough people into a room for a minyan. Only one of the towns — Dothan, Ala. — shows any signs of hope for the future, and that’s because of a relocation project that offers $50,000 in moving costs.
The other towns featured in the film — Laredo, Texas; Latrobe, Pa.; and Butte, Mont. — are all beset by the same demographic reality: American Jews have abandoned small towns to move into cities, making the preservation of identity extremely challenging for those left behind.
Before the film screening last week in Manhattan, director Brad Lichtenstein — whose first film was about Andre Steiner, a Jewish Schindler figure —stood outside the auditorium and hugged well-wishers and friends.
He was mobbed by folks after the film, as well.
“One of the things that always happens — like is happening here tonight — is you meet people who have a connection to these communities,” said Lichtenstein, president of 371 Productions. “They came from one, they have an aunt or uncle, and so it always compels people to want to talk about that town and their memories of it and their experiences.”
Lichtenstein was patient and interested as people told him their tales; his film, after all, is made up of exactly the same kind of stories.
There’s Nancy Oyer in Butte, who struggles with health problems as she tries, almost singlehandedly, to keep a synagogue thriving.
There’s Mickey Radman in Latrobe, an 82-year-old who tearfully faces the closure of the synagogue he’s been attending all his life.
There are Uri and Susie Druker in Laredo, trying to raise a Jewish family as their synagogue hemorrhages members and support.
And there are Terence and Karen Arenson, who move from Los Angeles to Dothan, because the kind of Jewish community they seek is out of their reach in L.A.
There are many emotional moments in the film, and many instances in which the viewer clearly sees the documentary subjects grapple with deep internal conflict.
Oyer, a geologist, moved to Montana for love of the land, but has found that keeping Judaism alive in Butte is something of a DIY endeavor. For her congregation, she plays the role of rabbi and cantor and president, just as another woman did for years until she got too exhausted by it.
When Oyer struggles with health problems that prevent her from performing her duties, she sees how tenuous the synagogue community really is.
Uri Druker, too, feels the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Though he is deeply committed to his hometown of Laredo and to his congregation, as he and Susie begin to raise a family, they worry about their sons’ isolation. It’s heartbreaking to see the way one of their sons responds with unbridled joy when he visits the San Antonio JCC, as though they’ve just arrived at Disneyland.
It is lonely to be Jewish in these small towns, the film reveals, in part because so many of the residents now live with ghosts.
Watching Mickey Radman go through photo albums and memorabilia from the Latrobe synagogue, we see plentiful evidence of a vital, populous Jewish community that’s all but gone. In a building with empty pews, Radman dissolves into tears.
But there are upbeat moments, too. For one thing, the film highlights the inspiring role women play in preserving these communities.
In Latrobe, Jeanette Wolff tries to inspire congregants with a “we’re not dead yet!” speech at the bima.
In Dothan, Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith welcomes new arrivals. In Laredo, Susie gathers with Spanish-speaking Jews to study Torah.
“I tend to want to tell stories that involve people that might not have as much representation, or at least tell stories in ways in which people don’t fulfill their stereotypes,” said Lichtenstein. “I got really attracted to stories like Nancy’s, where it’s her and it’s her mom that are passing the traditions down, and Janet — they’re the ones who are holding up that community.”
Lichtenstein said one of his favorite scenes in the film is the Montana Hadassah meeting that Nancy and her sister attend.
“I just love that there’s this raw joy,” he said, pointing to the warmth and freedom it seemed the women displayed in a female-only space.
There are also happy scenes of the Arensons in Dothan — one of the few small American towns whose Jewish population is increasing rather than decreasing, thanks to the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services’ Family Relocation Project.
Lichtenstein’s co-director was Morgan Elise Johnson, who Lichtenstein credited with helping him see the subject matter objectively.
“The dynamic of having Morgan as my partner in making the film and her growing up in the black church — her father’s a pastor — she kind of put me in a position to see my own culture and religion fresh, which was actually really lovely,” said Lichtenstein, who celebrated Jewish holidays with the people in the film and sometimes was drafted into services.
“There was a moment in Laredo where we were just kind of visiting, we hadn’t started filming yet, and they needed a 10th for minyan and they wanted me to chant the blessings over the Torah,” he said, “and thank God I had first-through-fifth-grade Hebrew day school and I could jump up there and do it. You start to feel like you’re part of family while you’re making a film in a way that’s awkward sometimes, but mostly it was just kind of joyful to reconnect. “
There’s a lot of prayer and liturgical music in the film, an emphasis Lichtenstein says Johnson gave the film because of her own interest in music. The film score was composed by Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, No. 66 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Reid was at the New York screening, too, in part to meet the Drukers, who had come from Laredo to take part in an after-film Q and A. Reid spent so much time watching them as he wrote the music, he told them, he felt like he was meeting celebrities.
Reid and Lichtenstein have worked together for almost 20 years on various film projects, including “Ghosts of Attica” for the BBC, and ‘Almost Home and As Goes Janesville” for PBS.
But the African-American Reid was especially pleased that Lichtenstein reached out to him to work on this film.
“I was really touched because it’s a Jewish film and he trusted me that I would get to the [heart] of what’s happening,” Reid said. “Any film that has an ethnic dimension is a challenge because you kind of don’t want to make the cliched music and you don’t want to ignore those elements.”
He found a happy medium by incorporating clarinet into the score.
“I also thought about the fact that there’s the aspect of apartness and aloneness,” he said, “so a lot of the things I used — guitar, acoustic bass, a kind of softer palette —because the film has a poignancy to it.
Watching people go through the phases — denial, rage, acceptance, but in small expressions — it’s very powerful. It was a challenge, but I really enjoyed it.”
Lichtenstein said it was no accident that the people who worked on the film came from disparate backgrounds.
“I have real deep commitment to diversity in that sense,” he said, “that people from all different backgrounds should all work together on art. It makes the art better.”
Liz Spikol is news editor for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.