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LOS ANGELES — Take a walk through Los Angeles’s Pan Pacific Park this week, and you might hear elderly Jews recounting stories from throughout their long lives. Risa Igelfeld, 101 and a half, describes fleeing Nazi persecution in 1938 Austria following Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” during which thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were destroyed. Then there’s 81-year-old Lawrence Kubik, a Hollywood film producer who recalls dropping acid with the Grateful Dead before the production of his 1971 “Electric Western” movie Zachariah. Ninety-four-year-old Barbara Baral, who moved to Los Angeles from Ohio as a young woman, talks about appearing in a film by sexploitation director Russ Meyer — not as one of his buxom femme fatales, but as a town scold who frowned on the bare-bosomed leading ladies.
Follow their voices and you’ll find yourself outside a small makeshift movie theater next to the Holocaust Museum, with a symbolic seat for one (due to the pandemic, visitors are not permitted inside the structure). Inside, video interviews with these and other seniors appear on a 78-inch monitor, visible through large windows, while the audio is projected outside, audible within about 500 feet. Topped with reeds, the theater doubles as a sukkah, a temporary hut constructed for Sukkot, the weeklong Jewish harvest festival that began last Friday and continues through this Friday.
The brainchild of filmmaker Tiffany Woolf, the project is called The Ushpizin of the Silver Screen, and features a four-hour loop of short interviews of seniors offering memories, history, and wisdom, both from everyday individuals as well as entertainers like Carl Reiner, Larry King, and Norman Lear. Some of these were filmed in the subjects’ homes, while those filmed during the pandemic were conducted over Zoom calls.
The Ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests”) are seven important Jewish figures, including Abraham, Moses, and David, who are symbolically invited into the Sukkah, one on each night of Sukkot. Recently, Jewish matriarchs — the Ushpizot — including Sarah, Miriam, and Esther, have been added to the roster. “Every night they come into the sukkah to share the theme for evening: benevolence, kindness, justice … ,” Woolf explained during the live-streamed opening reception last Friday.
The Ushpizin of the Silver Screen, produced in conjunction with Jewish cultural nonprofit Reboot, is part of a larger series of outdoor installations and art projects organized by funding organization CANVAS, which aims to “encourage and support a 21st-century Jewish cultural renaissance.” Titled Dwelling in a Time of Plagues, the series begins this Sukkot, with other projects by other artists located in New York, Portland, and Tucson, and will continue during Passover next spring. Notably, these are two of the most inviting and celebratory Jewish holidays, when visitors and strangers are welcomed into homes and sukkot. Taken as a whole, the projects tackle the crises we are collectively struggling with: living through the pandemic and the accompanying isolation, struggles for social and racial justice, and environmental catastrophe.
Woolf had been documenting the oral histories of Jewish seniors before the pandemic hit, but her project took on a new resonance in light of the dangers and loneliness that the coronavirus posed for them. “Elders are the most impacted, but also the most resilient and have the most to offer about how to get through this time,” Woolf said during the virtual opening.
The edited videos are not exhaustive personal histories, but rather highlight moments of perseverance, humor, joy, family, and the often unpredictable paths our lives take. Igelfeld, bright-eyed in a floral blouse and vibrant orange scarf, describes finding love with her second husband, who grew up just blocks from her in Vienna. However, the two wouldn’t begin their romantic relationship until decades later, after the death of her first husband, when they reunited in Los Angeles. “I wasn’t going to go under,” she says defiantly of the ups and downs of her life. “I was going to go on living and find the sunny side of life.”
Director, writer, actor, and comedian Carl Reiner, whose interview Woolf says was his last before his death earlier this year at the age of 98, recounts his legendary career in comedy, life-long friendship with Mel Brooks, and geriatric sexual advice he received from octogenarian George Burns: “Ever try to put an oyster in a slot machine?” he quipped.
Fortunately, many of the videos are available online. Still, there is a certain pleasure — rare in our socially distanced moment — of experiencing stories in public, communally, albeit at a distance from other onlookers.
In a time of isolation and anxiety, making connections in whatever way possible is something that Woolf hopes to inspire with her installation. Not just to listen to the testimonials she has recorded, but to reach out to our elders, to assuage their loneliness as well as benefit from their histories.
“Sukkot is a festival of joy,” she said during the livestream. “I’d love people to decide to call their grandmother. It doesn’t have to be perfect. This is a time of imperfection. Capture their stories in any way you can.”