Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Uploading Jewish history onto the Internet

By Ronit Roccas

The Kurdish girl in the 1953 film "The Carpet" is glad to marry the boy her father has chosen for her. She does not know about the conditions the two fathers have agreed upon. However, under the wedding canopy, when the groom tries to step on her left foot to ensure his control in the home, she moves her foot away. "I don't believe in those magical charms," she is heard saying in the background. The groom does not give up and tries to step on her foot yet again, but she refuses to concede and moves her foot once more. By his third attempt she has nowhere left to escape. The place is crowded and the two of them are too close to one another. She pulls her foot out of her shoe and lets the groom step on the empty shoe, so he will have the illusion of being in control.

"The Carpet," directed by Arieh (Leopold) Lahola, is being screened in full (it is 15 minutes long) at the Web site of the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive's virtual film project, located at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The project was completed some two weeks ago, when about 400 films that depict the history of the Jewish people during the period before the Holocaust were uploaded. All the films can be viewed, for free, at

The film archive was founded in the 1960s by Professor Moshe Davis and other history professors from the Hebrew University. In 1973 the World Zionist Organization declared the collection its official film archive. Over the years the annals became known by the name of their first donor, Avraham Farhad, a businessman of Iranian origin. However, in 1987, director Steven Spielberg made a generous donation to the archive and it was decided to name it after him.

The archive's virtual film project was launched in earnest five years ago, even though a modest site had already existed in the mid-1990s. When the process of uploading the films to the Internet began, not many people had a high-speed connection and it was very difficult to view them. Today the films are loaded quickly, the site's search feature has been improved and one can choose films from an alphabetized list.

Wendy Luterman, a senior librarian at the Spielberg Jewish Film Archive, who has been responsible for the site since 1998, relates that the site's 400 films were chosen from among the archive's approximately 20,000 clips. Luterman adds that although, officially, the project has been completed, "Our ultimate aim is to post 500 films." According to her, "The films are divided into five categories: Jewish communities, the Holocaust and World War II, films from the period preceding the establishment of the state and films about the Hebrew University."

How did you obtain the films?

Luterman: "The archive is the official deposit of several national institutions: the Jewish National Fund, the United Israel Appeal, the Jewish Federations and of course the World Zionist Organization. We receive their official films, in addition to other movies that we get from private producers and from Hadassah (The Women's Zionist Organization of America)." Among the most noteworthy films are five that were shot in the summer of 1939 in Poland. "The aim of these rare films was to reassure," Luterman relates, "to show that the European Jewish community still existed and was flourishing. This in effect constitutes the last visual documentation of Polish Jewry before the Holocaust." The institutional films, especially those that were produced after the establishment of the State of Israel, often reflect a dogmatic position that is difficult to digest and therefore also fascinating. For example, the 1973 film "Education is for Life," which depicts the promising education system in Israel, includes scenes in which young people of what the film alludes to as Muslim origin, are seen lounging around on the street, smoking cigarettes. The movie hints that they have relinquished their studies and are not contributing to the country, "because they don't know otherwise," as the narrator says.

At the moment the project is in English. Do you plan to upload it in Hebrew as well?

"A modest interface in Hebrew does exist - it includes 11 films. We are now in the process of negotiations to upload an interface in Hebrew as well. That is the next phase."

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