The American Jewish experience has been most famously captured in great novels such as Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” and Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral.” However, Aviva Kempner — who attended the University and wrote for the Michigan Daily from 1965 to 1969 and earned a Master of Arts in 1971— took another artistic route. During her time at the University, she sold tickets at the Michigan Theater, where her co-workers said “maybe someday you’ll show your films there.”
An Emmy nominee and Guggenheim Fellow, Kempner wanted to make “films that talk about Jewish heroes.”
“I always grew up loving cinema, and I had a lot of friends that were doing human rights in law school who were documentary filmmakers, and I really respected the format,” she said. “I think the stories that can be told in documentaries can really make a difference.”
Kempner’s journey to documentary filmmaking wasn’t straightforward. After her time at the University, she attended law school, but failing the bar exam (“I don’t do well on multiple choice questions,” she says), she decided to return to her Jewish heritage: “I decided I had to make a film about Jews fighting Nazis.” She began work in 1979, and in 1986 she produced her first feature film “Partisans of Vilna,” the story of Jewish men and women who created the partisan movement during World War II in Vilna, Lithuania.
Her films are not just about Jewish heroes, but “Jewish heroes fighting ‘isms.’ ” Similar to the fight against Fascism and anti-Semitism by the partisans in Europe, her Peabody Award-winning second feature, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” chronicles the life of Hank Greenberg who battled against American anti-Semitism. Greenberg, one of the greatest Detroit Tigers and baseball players ever, was the first Jewish superstar athlete. His story was a predecessor for, and usurped by, that of Jackie Robinson. Unlike the majority of Major League Baseball players, Greenberg welcomed Robinson to the league, and he was one of the first to do so. Nicknamed “the Hebrew Hammer,” he was the idol of young Jewish boys across America. However, he faced heavy hostility from a predominantly white, working-class audience, especially when he refused to play on Yom Kippur.
After “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” Kempner directed a documentary on the life of radio and television personality Gertrude Berg, “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.” Berg, who created and starred in the radio and television serials “The Goldbergs,” faced her own ’isms: sexism and McCarthyism.
Like a former ball boy who becomes a major league slugger, three of Kempner’s films have been shown at the Michigan Theater, including her latest “Rosenwald,” which was screened in September. After hearing famous civil rights activist Julian Bond — who features heavily in the film — speak about the intersection between Black and Jewish communities, Kempner thought, “My God! I have got to do this movie.”
The film documents the life of millionaire businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who was both a partial owner and leader of Sears, Roebuck and Company. He founded the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and the Rosenwald Fund, which provided matching donations to African American communities to build more than 5,300 schools across the nation, though many were burned down. He also worked closely with famous educator Booker T. Washington. By funding the schools fully, he allowed the communities to work together to finish the funding. Furthermore, the foundation gave out hundreds of grants to African-American intellectuals in various fields. Described by Bond as a “who’s who of Black America," recipients of the grants include Ralph Ellison, Marian Anderson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gordon Parks, Dr. Charles Drew, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence and Claude McKay.
Unlike 19th century industrial giants Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who have become American folklore, Julius Rosenwald has faded from history. It’s doubtful many outside of the Jewish community — or the generations after the fund dissolved in 1948 — are aware of the profound contributions and influence Rosenwald had on American society. As Kempner notes, he was a poor exemplar for the Gilded Age: “He was very modest and doing things without getting credit for it.” Rosenwald himself, who didn’t even finish high school, comically dispelled the mythos of the heroic entrepreneur. “Do not be fooled into believing that because a man is rich he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary.”
Together with archival footage and clips from American movies — “I don’t just want talking heads” — Kempner interviewed the family members that have kept Rosenwald’s legacy alive. The documentary is a testament to the importance of keeping generational histories. “Go through oral histories. You never know when they’ll come in handy,” she advised.
Despite the nearly 100 years that have passed since Rosenwald’s death, his story remains relevant for contemporary America.
“There’s so many issues and after effects from the Jim Crow era, there’s a lot of lessons to be told in this film about what we need to do,” Kempner said. “Communities can work together. We can make a difference, and all of us have some J.R. in us. We’re all responsible for improving people’s lives.”