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A Cultural Question

Jewish Worlds is back after two years. It should have waited a third.

Considerably less satisfying is The Shvitz, an uninformative, rambling overview of Jewish steam baths in New York that relies on anecdotes and observations from rather mundane, cliched storytellers. Somewhat better is Black to the Promised Land, in which documentarian Madeleine Ali follows 11 African-American teenagers from an alternative high school in Brooklyn to an Israeli kibbutz, where they live and work for ten weeks. Though it raises many more questions than it answers, the film brings to life how the teens adapted, if not transformed, themselves, and how their hosts modified some disturbing preconceptions.

If these two films don't quite work, two others shouldn't have been included in Jewish Worlds at all. The painfully earnest American documentary Cancer in Two Voices -- a video portrait of how two lesbian lovers deal with the oncoming death of one of them from breast cancer -- has nothing whatsoever to do with Jewishness. The lovers mention that they're Jewish, but don't talk about it; instead, in the face of demise, they're exceedingly sincere and highly self-aware about being exceedingly sincere and highly self-aware (it's no surprise that they're writing a sort of self-help book about their experiences). The Revenge of Itzik Finkelstein is Jewish enough -- it's an Israeli film -- but it's also lame, technically inexpert and emptily self-indulgent. It's worth mentioning only to point out that if this won the 1993 Best Picture award from the Israeli Academy of Motion Pictures, then Israeli cinema, oy!

Still, the last word belongs to The Last Klezmer. Klezmer is "the soul of the people," Kozlowski declares. It's significant that the film shows him teaching his music to Polish students who aren't Jewish, but who consider it crucial regional learning. It's also significant that in one marvelously illustrative scene, "Hello, Dolly" is turned into klezmer, while in another, standoffish strangers, reluctant to show Kozlowski "the place where Germans killed people during the war," are so moved by the sight of him breaking down, falling to the ground and kissing his father's grave, that they, too, sob. "I get the greatest satisfaction," Kozlowski says, "that I am one of those who hasn't allowed the culture, God forbid, to die." God forbid. Would that more of the other films did the same.

Jewish Worlds 5 runs Saturdays and Sundays, March 18 through April 9, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet.

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