Documenting the Jewish Experience on Film
AJS PERSPECTIVES | SUMMER 2023 | 23
SHALOM GOREWITZ is a filmmaker whose work in the early days of video art plays like a poetic imagining of a conscientious objection—to war, to social injustice, to the negation of history. It brims with a sense of faith, devo- tion, and the spiritual all within a profound sense of Jewishness.
In a recent conversation, Gorewitz talked about his work with the renowned artist and teacher Allan Kaprow, who was his advisor at California Institute of the Arts and inventor of the “Happenings” in the 1960s. Gorewitz recalls how one of Kaprow’s Happenings echoed the “nomadic experience when the tribes moved their disassembled homes across the Sinai as well as the plight of refugees.” Kaprow’s work was seemingly quite attentive to the more mystical and ritualistic nature of Jewish life. As Gorewitz noted, “Kaprow’s work was always communal. He didn’t have a purpose beyond the experience. The events were defined by duration, location, and physical activity. These are also the elements of home-based rituals, public prayers, and meditation.”
He goes on to say, “Mysticism is baked into Jewish liturgy and observant life.” This, of course, resonates with my own observations earlier in this text about Maya Deren’s interest in Kabbalah and the presence of a strand of Jewish mysticism throughout the historical avant-garde of the twentieth century. It is also true of Gorewitz’s own work in film and video.
Gorewitz plays a distinct role in the Jewish avant-garde of the late twentieth century via his cinematic exploration of personal identity, history, and the post-1960s trauma that his generation was left to navigate after World War II, Vietnam, and their aftermath. This corresponds with the era of the Havurah movement and the birth of the Jewish counter-culture, focused on social justice and a kind of Jewish place-making that often coalesced around the arts. Gorewitz’s early work is emblematic of the way in which many Jewish artists wrestled, through the arts, with the ghosts of the Holocaust and with Adorno’s proclama- tion that after the Holocaust, poetry (or the arts) would be impossible. Writing about his films, the poet Jessica Greenbaum noted, “In Gorewitz’ mirroring of the trauma- tized mind, ‘The war never stops,’ and ‘everything is
filtered’ through a montage of Nazi warfare and familial loss. The past has so little regard for its place that Nazi soldiers continue to march—a march of time that doesn’t go anywhere and keeps the horrors stomping at the back—and sometimes the front—of the speaker’s mind.... This liminal space might be dreamlike, but as Gorewitz says, the haunted person becomes ‘an exile to dreams.’”
In Gorewitz’s film Damaged Visions he juxtaposes dream- like visions with the landscape of his mother’s home in Romania and a voiceover that asks the questions he ponders about his family, himself, and others. He wonders “whether his grandfather’s death was a suicide or a murder, and whether part of his grandfather lives in the filmmaker, and whether part of the filmmaker has been buried with his grandfather. Through this barrage of conscious and subconscious knowing, Gorewitz asks, ‘Are others feeling this?’” The answer is yes, many Jewish artists then as now asked the same or similar questions through their work in film, leaving us with an ever-ex- panding Jewish cinematic archive.
University of Wisconsin—Madison