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Klezmer On Fish Street

Veteran documentarian/musician Yale Strom's traverses a Poland awash in cultural irony as he explores what remains of Jewish ethnicity in Eastern Europe. While a brisk tourist trade has led to the packaging of the Holocaust -- complete with kosher-style restaurants, souvenir yellow stars, and "Schindler's List" tours of Treblinka and Auschwitz -- a surge in the popularity of Klezmer music among gentile Poles has created what one interviewee calls "virtual Jewish reality" -- Jewish culture without Jews.

Veteran documentarian/musician Yale Strom’s traverses a Poland awash in cultural irony as he explores what remains of Jewish ethnicity in Eastern Europe. While a brisk tourist trade has led to the packaging of the Holocaust — complete with kosher-style restaurants, souvenir yellow stars, and “Schindler’s List” tours of Treblinka and Auschwitz — a surge in the popularity of Klezmer music among gentile Poles has created what one interviewee calls “virtual Jewish reality” — Jewish culture without Jews. Fascinating subject and rousing wall-to-wall Klezmer music strongly sell an otherwise rather questionably structured film. Castle Hill opens “Fish” April 16 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema.

Pic appears to follow a group of Klezmer musicians from Boston, the Klezmaniacs, from Polish town to Polish town, though helmer Strom never really sets up the situation or properly introduces the players. Docu is loosely structured around songs (heard in performance or in rehearsal or half-remembered on street corners) and around conversations with English-speaking Jews who have returned, either permanently or temporarily, to Poland. The returnees movingly recount war stories, while superimposed faces of dead family members haunt their reminiscences.

“Klezmer on Fish Street” finds a swinging Jewish revival occurring in places with practically no Jews: Krakow, which hosts a major Klezmer festival, is the home of maybe a hundred or so Jews. The birthplace of the translator/grandmother of the visiting Klezmer group, the town of Bedzin, boasted a population of 21,000 Jews in 1931, but had none in 2003.

Meanwhile, pockets of lore and memorabilia spring up locally like de facto Jewish theme parks. Various interviewees, Jewish and gentile, speculate on what this ethnic commodification implies. Is it a genuine attempt to deal with a genocidal past or merely a way of co-opting Jewish culture without having to deal directly with Jews?

And then there is the artistic question, or, as an American woman psychiatrist neatly rhymes it, “It’s not can a white boy play the blues but can a goy play the Jews.”

While gentiles study Yiddish, frequent Jewish cabarets and chow down in restaurants with Hebrew lettering (all owned and run by goyim), many Jews who hid and who struggled to assimilate want no part of this ersatz Jewish revival. Their sons and daughters, on the other hand, belatedly made aware of their Jewish heritage, are beginning to search out their roots and embrace their ethnicity.

For Strom and indeed for most of the Jews interviewed, Poland is a place of nightmare, a cemetery about which they air highly ambivalent feelings. As in “Hiding and Seeking” by Strom’s erstwhile co-director Oren Rudavsky, Poland represents the ultimate test of safety from past trauma. Almost no trace is left of Jewish synagogues and neighborhoods, and the natives are not always friendly.

When residents call police to protest noisy late-night musical celebrations by the American Klezmer musicians in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, things turn tense and somewhat ugly. Strom suspensefully cuts back several times to this near-confrontation, creating visual tension and menace where relatively little actually seems to exist.

This is not to question the reality of Poland’s long history of anti-Semitism (one man speaks of the 2,000 Jews who were killed after the war when they came back to reclaim their homes), nor its continuation to this day (Strom’s camera “casually” picks up swastikas on walls and cemetery gates). But Strom’s attempts to visualize the paradoxes of the situation tend to be somewhat uneven.

The sudden intrusion of archival photos of massive piles of name tags or eyeglasses stuck into footage of present-day festivities seems far more forced than, say, the arrested look on the faces of an old peasant couple in a horse-drawn cart as a bus full of lament-chanting Jews passes them on the road to Treblinka.

Tech credits are OK, though the music editing and sound recording are seldom up to the quality of the music itself.

Klezmer On Fish Street

Production: A Castle Hill release of a BlackStream Films production. Produced by Elizabeth Schwartz. Directed by Yale Strom.

Crew: Camera (DV, color), David Leitner; editor, Yefim Gribov; music, Strom; associate producer, Marion Schacter Kaplan. Reviewed on cassette, New York, April 10, 2004. Running time: 85 MIN. (English, Polish, Yiddish, German dialogue)

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