Shtetlers Movie Review

Film Movement
Reviewed for and, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten.
Director: Katya Ustinova
Screenwriter: Katya Ustinova
Cast: Volodya Malishevsky, Nadya Malishevsky, Noah Kafmansky, Isaac Vainshelboum, Emily Kessler, Vladimir Gorbulsky, Slava Farber
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/11/23
Opens: February 3, 2023

Is there an American over the age of fifty who has not seen “Fiddler on the Roof”—in the movies if not on Broadway? What accounts for the popularity one of Broadway’s longest-reigning musicals? There’s the music of course. Mostly there’s a nostalgic feeling about a lost civilization without the accoutrements that we today cannot live without. Without the iPhone, the computer, Tik Tok, even washing machines, dishwashers, monster SUVs. The shtetl is dead, at least for the most part, yet there are people today living largely in central Ukraine still housed in the small cottages that we consider not just rural but virtually off the map. These folks are Christian Orthodox. The Jews of Ukraine had been murdered by the Nazis, sometimes with the help of Ukrainian police serving as enablers. Happily, that Eastern Europe country suffering from a modern holocaust, appear to have redeemed themselves under the protection of a Jewish president who heroically did not go into exile but stayed on to motivate his people to deliver a surprising blow to the Putinesque intruders.

“Shtetlers,” people who lived in shtetls, or pre-Holocaust villages inhabited by Jews—is directed, written and photographed by Katya Ustinova in her debut film, a look at this vanished civilization mostly in Ukraine to stand in as well for shtetls in Moldova, Latvia, Lithuanian, Estonia and Belarus. The film, opening with a charming animation, is introduced by a Ukranian Orthodox Christian who sets an unusual tone. Listening to him you’d think that the shtetl Jews were adored by the non-Jewish community, employed and taught trades like hat making, baking matzo brie and egg dishes. At least one Christian notes that “the Jews were just like us.” Gee. These Christians and Jews lived just across a river from one another and related to one another as you might expect normal Eastern Europeans to relate.

He notes that his Jewish neighbor once tried to get him to go into the trades, the crafts, rather than give up pig farming, but recalls that his Hebraic buddy gave up, saying “you can’t make a craftsman out of a peasant.” All in good, teasing, spirit. Not only are these Christians philo-Semitic: one fella even spent time weeding the Jewish graveyard, and you can bet there are lots of stones with most Jews just before and during World War 2 murdered by Germans and their enablers: 2,700,000 in the Soviet shtetls. Nor did the Jews fare like people in Utopia when the Russians drove them out, as Stalin was himself an anti-Semite, a disease that would lead a large number of Soviet Jews to ultimately win visas to lead mostly for the U.S. and Israel.

Among the fascinating stories we get from the documentary is that Rabbi Noah Kafmansky headed a non-kosher synagogue, an oxymoron which can be explained by the idea that many Christians prayed therein. They looked upon Kafmansky that way a Catholic today might look on a priest during confession. They absorbed the advice he gave to them about sundry problems like robbery, a family member’s alcoholism, a threat by a neighbor—to which he generally blessed them with “may your enemies leave you alone.”

Now and then some black and white footage would appear: a scene of fighting in the war contrasted with the look of buildings still standing now unoccupied. The film was shot in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; in Manhattan; in Jerusalem; in Israel’s West Bank; in Ukraine, all in the service of giving us in our highly technological world some insight into the lives of people who once lived like Tevye, Tzeitel, Golde, Motel and others, surviving in the late Nineteenth Century on the cusp on new ideas: intermarriage, romantic love, politics, fantasies of wealth. At just eighty minutes the picture never loses its momentum, its look at various people who appear to give the impression that Christians just love those of the Hebrew persuasion.

80 minutes. © 2023 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

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