So, Nu?: Questioning Jewish Autobiographical Documentary

By Sophie Mayer


In the conclusion to First Person Jewish, her study of autobiographical documentary by Jewish filmmakers, Alisa Lebow takes up Barbara Myerhoff’s In Her Own Time, which she names her “limit case.” Myerhoff, a well-known ethnographer of American Jewish life, died before completing her film about the Hasidic community of Fairfax, Los Angeles, succumbing to the invasive cancer that had become the de-facto subject of the film, which was completed by Lynne Littman. Lebow incisively and precisely unpicks the ramifications of the film’s claims about authorship, authority, subjectivity and community, testing fixed notions of autobiographical documentary, and Jewish identity, against this unique text.

Yet the film is not so much a limit case as a fitting proof to Lebow’s claim (following Derrida) that autobiography is always thanatography, spoken from beyond (a) death. This questioning deathliness resonates particularly in the post-Holocaust family portraits, including Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, explored in the book’s first half. D’Est raises another, more haunting question: not only what does it mean for the Jewish self (in all its contradictions and negotiations with stereotypes and traditions) to be documentable, but what does it mean for Jewishness (rather than Judaism) to be visible at all? Lebow frames this question via Akerman’s reference to the Second Commandment: how is a Jewish cinema possible, in light of the prohibition of graven images? Her analysis of Akerman’s quietly defiant strategies of not-showing offers a striking answer.

In the second half of the book, which considers the intersection (or not) of queer and Jewish identities, Lebow considers how films such as Gregg Bordowitz’ Fast Trip, Long Drop appropriate nineteenth-century racist stereotypes to render a secular Jewish identity visible, in the absence of religious markers. In reading Treyf, the documentary that she made with Cynthia Madansky, Lebow argues that it is precisely the oppositionality, the treyfness, that the film foregrounds – both lesbianism and the couple’s anti-Zionist stance – that is Jewish, even as it is what Jewishness excludes. With impressive honesty, Lebow struggles with her film’s turn to inclusion (in which what is treyf is made kosher), but her study usefully demonstrates a similar formation in which opposition-as-Jewishness has become the only operational secular Euro-American Ashkenazi Jewish identity.

Her careful close reading grounds that opposition in a queer version of the traditional Jewish questioning, commentating strategies of interpretation, which themselves resonate in the development of critical theory, as reflected in the theorists with whom Lebow threads her arguments: Jacques Derrida, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler. Although this goes unsaid, they are all secular Jews, and their work, as mobilised in Lebow’s work, represents the bridge between (lost, mourned) historical Judaism and (indistinct, emergent) modern Jewishness that the filmmakers under discussion seek so inventively and urgently.

First Person Jewish by Alisa Lebow (UMN Press, 2008)

Sophie Mayer is Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anglophone and Francophone Cinema at the University of Cambridge. Her book The Cinema of Sally Potter is out with Wallflower Press in the Spring 2009.