Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: First Person Jewish by Alisa S. Lebow

First Person Jewish
Alisa S. Lebow

Published by University of Minnesota Press

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

First Person Jewish could equally have been called First Person? Jewish and Queer. The first chapter in the book contains a detailed reading of D’Est, an experimental travel film shot in Central Europe by French filmmaker Chantal Akerman, a film that is only marginally vocal about her Jewishness and totally silent about her lesbianism. Chapters 3 and 4 consider the vexed question of an (in)coherent Jewish/queer identity in a number of experimental autobiographical documentaries by queer Jews, arguing that queerness is often the suppressed term which cannot be articulated in the context of secular Ashkenazi Euro-American Jewish identity – which, the book argues, is constituted through family.

Alisa Lebow, a filmmaker as well as a theorist, sets herself a tough task: she focuses on “a minority of a minority of a minority,” experimental first-person documentaries by self-identified Jews. It’s a fascinating exercise in making visible (the University of Minnesota series on documentary, in which the book is published, is called Visible Evidence). She makes visible films that are often culturally invisible – and literally unseeable. D’Est, for example, was part of an installation, an event film, while others are video projects only available from tiny distributors or university libraries. As Lebow argues, all the films are also concerned with what can be made visible, whether it’s the opacity of Akerman’s approach to the Sho’ah or Ruth Novaczek’s ever-increasing puzzle of alter egos.

What, asks the book, makes Jewishness and/or queerness visible? Secular Judaism and queer identity share an almost obsessive interest in the shifting, unstable, indefinable identity; they also share a pointed critique of the clichés and stereotypes employed to make Jewishness and queerness visible – in fact, employed one term to make visible the other, as Lebow reveals in her discussion on the 19th century Western European stereotype of the neurasthenic Jew. And both communities have vexed relationships to being visible: on the one hand, Act Up! demanded it; on the other, writers like Judith Butler have argued that it’s not that simple, and that visibility does not mean tolerance or social change. The fear of persecution attendant on visibility is never far from the surface, either.

So a number of the filmmakers that Lebow discusses, like Novaczek, Gregg Bordowitz and Jonathan Caouette, create a mirror-hall of characters to disappear into, which disconcerts the notion that any individual can ever be fully visible, but also slips the question. The counter-example Lebow provides is her own film, Treyf, made with her then-girlfriend Cynthia Madansky. Treyf documents the couple’s coming to consciousness about Zionism, in some ways suggesting that it is their lesbian identity that allows them to think oppositionally. Because they are treyf, they can think treyf (in the context of conservative American Jewry) thoughts.

Lebow’s work of auto-critique on the film is the best, and most intriguing, piece of writing in the book, not least in the honesty that judges aspects of the film a failure. Part of that failure, implicitly, is the need to explain intentions in a critical commentary, which focuses pointedly on the failures to (fully) represent Jewishness rather than questioning the will towards lesbian visibility (which has been brilliantly critiqued by Amy Villarejo in Lesbian Rule). The book at once celebrates this act of commentary, and sidesteps its centrality, its embrace of Jewish traditions of Mishnaic and Talmudic discussion and annotation that give rise (one the one hand) to the neurotic nebbish intellectual popularised by Woody Allen and (on the other) to the comic shtetl stereotype of the Jew who gives three answers to two questions, running out of hands.

There’s a queerness here as well, rising up between the lines, as seen to great effect in Michelle Citron’s CD-ROM project Mixed Greens. Citron is the filmmaker who gets shortest shrift in First Person Jewish, even though her first film Daughter Rite remains a cornerstone in feminist cinema (and a great example of shifting masks and alter egos) and her more recent work has been concerned explicitly with both queerness and Jewishness. In Mixed Greens, they intersect in three storylines (each in several scenes) that merge into one via Citron’s autobiographical portrait: the Citron family’s emigration from Dublin to Boston; Michelle’s coming out as a feminist, a lesbian, and a filmmaker; and a staged documentary history of a half-century of lesbian America. Arranged as a matrix, scenes can be viewed in any order.

Like Lebow, Citron practises auto-critique, and her book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions also appears in the Visible Evidence series. In it, she provides a fascinating discussion of how religion, class and sexuality are and are not visible in the family home movies that she used to form part of Daughter Rite. Her patient and terrible journey of rebuilding memories of familial abuse through re-viewing the movies and her own ‘take’ on them suggests what’s at stake in Lebow’s discussion. But where Lebow concludes that autobiography is ultimately thanatography (in Derrida’s term), a voice from beyond the grave, Citron’s use and misuse of Freud (whose work and reputation bundle together neurosis, sexual desire, and constant questioning) gives new lease to bios, the life force that these films – by their existence, by their visibility – represent.

Queer theorist Lee Edelman’s most recent book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, suggests that that the most politically subversive quality of queer people is their failure to breed. It’s an outrageous and radical suggestion, particularly as queer people have always had children, whether through IVF or ‘natural’ conception, in straight marriages, and/or through adoption. Lebow doesn’t bring up Edelman thanato-theory in her study, although it makes an interesting framework for considering why the films that she reads insist on placing individual identity within the context of a family. Lebow intimates that queerness may represent, unconsciously, the end of the line for the family inheritance of Jewishness, which several of these films mourn in the person of a grandmother. Certainly, Jews are supposed to procreate, for religious and nationalistic reasons, and non-procreation feels like both failure and resistance.

But death? In her conclusion, Lebow takes up Barbara Myerhoff and Lynne Littman’s In Her Own Time, a documentary about Myerhoff making a documentary about the Hasidic Jews of Fairfax while battling, and succumbing to, cancer. Lebow calls it a “limit case” for autobiography and cites it in defence of death’s grip on autobiographical filmmaking. Not only does this play into the stereotype of Jewish victimhood, of the deathliness of the Sho’ah being the single defining quality shared by contemporary world Jewry, but it also denies the powerful life-instinct of a filmmaker working between chemo sessions, shooting from her wheelchair and presenting her own living, dying body to the camera. Queer Jewish creation may or may not be the same thing as procreation, but it’s every bit as engaged in saying, “To life, to life, l’chaim!”

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



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