Golden-Age Television With A Yiddish Accent
Tue, 09/06/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Two news DVDs with roots in Jewish culture, soon to go on sale, reflect a growing interest in Jewish life from the Old Country.
Two news DVDs with roots in Jewish culture, soon to go on sale, reflect a growing interest in Jewish life from the Old Country.

There has been a good deal of blather written about the “Golden Age of Television,” a period when shows were broadcast live, great writers tackled important themes and the airwaves were brimming with fine acting.

Certainly there was a considerable amount of inventive and risk-taking programming around in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but there was also a lot of ponderous middle-brow shlock that doesn’t bear revisiting. But on the strength of two soon-to-be-released DVDs from the Archive of American Television, one untapped source of real wonders, forgotten in the rush to canonize other over-hyped pieces of nostalgia, may be the short-lived “Play of the Week,” a series created by David Susskind that ran only from 1959-61.

Every week this series would offer a full-length classic, from Shakespeare to Shaw, Sartre to Strindberg. No preachy Paddy Chayefsky or simpering Rod Serling; just the straight, hard stuff, drawing on the pool of great then-young actors from the New York stage that really gave life to the Golden Age. The first two DVDs to be released in this series are timed to coincide with the Days of Awe, and they draw on a source of material that was — and still is — seldom seen on the small screen: the rich trove of Eastern European Jewish classics.

“The World of Sholom Aleichem” is made up of three Yiddish stories that were adapted by Arnold Perl for his Off-Broadway play that premiered in 1953. Originally broadcast in 1959, this “World” is a surprisingly spritely and earnest anthology composed of one Chelm story, the Peretz parable “Bontshe Shweig,” and a one-act dramatization of Sholom Aleichem’s “The High School.” The cast includes numerous victims of the blacklist – Zero Mostel, Morris Carnovsky, Jack Gilford, Lee Grant and Sam Levene – and gives them a chance to climb back out of the shadows, an opportunity each grabs with restrained ferocity. Add to that group Gertrude Berg and Nancy Walker, and the result is charming, delightfully true to the source material and, startlingly, to Jewish ritual traditions. (When was the last time you saw someone braiding a challah during a TV drama?)

The second program is a bit less star-studded but no less impressive: an adaptation by Joseph Liss of S. An-Sky’s “The Dybbuk” with a harrowingly other-worldly performance by Michael Tolan as Channon, the ill-fated kabbalist whose spirit takes over his betrothed’s body. As Leah, the object of his attentions, this production features an uneven but frequently thrilling performance by a young Carol Lawrence, who takes full advantage of her dance background. Theodore Bikel has little to do as her father, but Ludwig Donath caps a lengthy career as a character actor with his stern Rabbi Azrael. Directed by Sidney Lumet, who would soon desert TV for the movies, the teleplay has some of the unholy claustrophobia that makes “Twelve Angry Men” one of his most effective films.

“The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” will be available on DVD Sept. 27, and wlll be found online at Amazon.com or in your local video store.

Who Was Paul Goodman?

 

In his time, Paul Goodman was immensely, vitally influential. He was an anarchist and pacifist activist, poet, novelist, short-story writer, philosopher, practicing lay psychiatrist, urban planner, ecologist avant la lettre, sociologist, public intellectual, and a radical Jew who was openly gay in 1947.

His 1960 book “Growing Up Absurd” was a seminal text of its decade, and his relentless work against the draft and the Vietnam War was a powerful part of the creation of an effective anti-war movement.

But if you ask a college student today, “who was Paul Goodman,” you would probably get a blank stare. The speed with which people can vanish from the public consciousness in the post-modern world is dazzling and frightening. On the evidence of his excellent new film “Paul Goodman Changed My Life,” director-producer Jonathan Lee seems well aware of that often sorry phenomenon. Indeed, the film appears in no small part designed to push Goodman (who died of a heart attack at 60 in 1972) back onto the public stage that he relished.

Goodman was, to quote a few of the film’s witnesses, “ornery, difficult, inconvenient,” but also “generous, loving, brilliant.” William F. Buckley introduces him in one clip by saying he “is everything, except as far as I know a basketball player.” (It would be delicious to have had Goodman slam-dunk on the godfather of modern conservatism, but no such luck.) Irving Howe once said of Goodman that he was a “Jewish intellectual alienated to the point of complete reduction.” Early in the film, Michael Walzer puts him in a line stretching all the way back to “the prophets of ancient Israel.” He was a freelance gadfly and social critic of the sort that every society desperately needs. In his simultaneous thirst for and rejection of community, Goodman seems well fitted for the biblical mantle of prophecy.

Lee’s approach to Goodman at first seems as scattershot as its subject’s own protean mass of identities and interests. But slowly the film takes on a shape, partly guided by chronology, partly by the progression of Goodman’s many facets. As we seem him become part of the wondrously shape-shifting gang of CCNY alumni who were the New York Jewish intellectuals of the post-WWII era, and then a contributor to the then-liberal Commentary and other similarly inclined journals of thought, as he leaps from one miraculously iconoclastic set of ideas to another, we also see him take on the added roles of husband and father and, dare one say it, foster father to a disaffected generation.

Goodman was a spiky, sometimes prickly man. As an early practitioner of gestalt therapy, he could be downright difficult. His close friend and analysand Judith Malina, co-founder of The Living Theater, recalls her sessions as consisting largely of a barrage of insults from him. Yet his tenderness towards his children, while occasionally undermined by the direction of his attentions elsewhere (frequently to young men or to causes), was unmistakable, and it is not a shock that it was his son Mathew’s sudden death in a fall that precipitated a sudden decline in Goodman’s productivity and his health.

In the end, “Paul Goodman Changed My Life” is a bittersweet film, freighted with a melancholy not unlike its protagonist’s, hoping and working for a better world, but uncertain of a future run by fallible human beings. If Lee seems to be actively urging his audience to bring Goodman’s writings and thought back into the forefront of public debate, that’s not at all a bad thing. As an old movie ad campaign said the year after Goodman’s death, boy do we need it now.

“Paul Goodman Changed My Life,” directed by Jonathan Lee, will play at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) from Oct. 19 to Nov. 1. For information, go to www.filmforum.org.