Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Paul Mazursky | Yippee

 With Paul Mazursky’s death on June 30, 2014, I revisited several of his films and watched a couple of others, including Enemies, A Love Story and Moscow on the Hudson (which coincidentally starred Robin Williams, who died a short while later), films I had not previously seen. What intrigued me most, however—given my fascination in this volume with the Ukraine—was another film that had previously eluded me, Mazursky’s documentary Yippee, which not only was filmed in Ukraine, but was intricately intertwined with Ukrainian historical events.

     In the late 1990s I met Mazursky while working on a volume on American film by U.S. poets and fiction writers. After having invited numerous poet and fiction-writing friends to contribute essays, I became disappointed with the results, and began to look to film writers themselves as possible contributors. A mutual friend, knowing of my project, offered to introduce me to Paul, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon talking. Strangely, today I remember none of our conversation and can’t even remember the name of the friend who introduced us. Mazursky did seem open to the idea, but, later abandoning the project, I never got back with him. I have the feeling, also, that I’d met Mazursky previously at a bar in the highrise office building across the street from my home where I often joined director Paul Bertel (in whose Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills Mazursky had acted), photography curator Robert Sobieszek, and others; but obviously we did not know one another very well or I would remember more clearly.

about that fire
by Douglas Messerli

Paul Mazursky (director) Yippee / 2006


A few years ago, Howard came home to report what he found as a rather troubling phenomenon, a event that offended him. He and two other Los Angeles County Museum of Art curators were walking for a few blocks on Highland Avenue when they were suddenly approached by three young Hassidic boys: “Are you Jewish?” they queried. All three were Jewish, and they immediately knew what the young men were asking, not if they were or were not Jewish, but might they not wish to become Hassidic. “Jews don’t proselytize,” Howard later responded. “In their 17th and 18th century traditional costume, they were asking us to join them in their outdated dress and beliefs; they were urging us to join in their kind of tribalism which I very much resent.”

      So too does the noted film director, Paul Mazursky bring up just such questions regarding his own sudden decision to travel to Ukraine in 2005 to attend an annual Hassidic event: the celebration at the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Beslov (1772-1810)—who rejuvenated the Hassidic movement by combining the esoteric symbolism of the Kabbalah and deep study of the Torah—in Uman, three hours from Kiev, the place where the director’s own grandfather fled to escape anti-Semitism.

     A visit to his optician, David Miretsky, occasioned the journey, when Miretsky reported that the glasses would not be immediately ready since he was going on a pilgrimage.

     “Jews don’t go on pilgrimages,” responded Mazursky.

     Miretsky answered, “Well I do,” explaining how every year over 20,000 mostly Hassidic males gathered at Rosh Hashanah to sing psalms at the gravesite of Nachman, an experience that had utterly changed his life.

     Other acquaintances, Rabbi Ezriel Tauber and Moroccon-born rock musician Shmuel Levy, were also planning to attend, and before he apparently had thought through the consequences, the notably “secular” and atheist-leaning Mazursky found himself agreeing to join them and the film the experience. As Miretsky reports, “He was skeptical at first. Jews are skeptical by nature.”

      It is, in fact, Mazursky’s American tourist-like skepticism which helps to make his documentary Yippee such a likeable film. Most of the others surrounding him are already convinced, and each make claim to having been completely transformed by the experience of traveling to what, at first, appears as a kind of male-bonding retreat of several days. Despite his friends’ quite expert explanations of the traditions surrounding the events and preparing him for what he soon discovers for himself, Mazursky almost clumsily lurches through the outlandish event, trying to explain to others why his camera is trained upon them (no one he meets seems to have ever heard of any of his films, including his Isaac Singer retelling of
), questioning their unusual behaviors, and vaguely flirting with local Ukrainian women whom he meets (“I want to see a beautiful women. I’ve been locked away for days with 25,000 men,” he quips).

     Traveling through Munich he briefly encounters the spectacle of the German Oktoberfest, which might be said to represents the antithesis of the experience he is about to encounter, but, in fact, shares many similarities. If the huge German beer halls (which I describe, with a reaction very similar to that of Mazursky in My Year ____) are filled with seemingly neo-Nazis exuding the pure joy of their drunkenness, the streets of Uman, we soon discover, are filled with dancing and singing Hassids in an equally ecstatic sense of being.    The citizens of the town of about 80,000 have mixed feelings about their annual visitors, some of the women Mazursky interviews hinting that they find their guests “uncivilized,” whole others just defining their behavior as “different.” Yet all are appreciative of the money the intruders bring with them. And there is, overall, a great sense of open acceptance by the Ukrianians. Even the police, who have hired by the Jewish organizers of the event, seem protective and assertively tolerant of the several mass demonstrations, particularly on the final sabot evening celebration.

    Throughout, Mazursky finds a great deal to entertain both himself and the audience. A comedian known as the Jay Leno of Tel Aviv gives his impressions of Israeli leaders and ex-Arab leaders such as Benjimin Netanyahu and Yassar Arafat. An engaging neurosurgeon from London wittily denies the misogynist-seeming makeup of the crowd while simultaneously dishing the happiness of his own married life. And throughout, Mazursky tosses out one liners and with a near fanatical joyfulness repeats again and again a single joke:

                 Schwartz meets Cohen in the garment district. He says “ I heard
                 about the fire.” 
                “Shhhh!  Tomorrow!”

     As if to prove Mazursky right about his notion that only Jews know how to laugh, nearly everyone he meets laughs heartily at his somewhat anti-Semitic comedic implication that Cohen is planning to set his own business afire—presumably for the insurance money.

      At another point he and his friends take a short trip to visit the home of Nachman’s grandfather, Baal Shem Tov; and later they celebrate late into the night by drinking the best of Ukrainian vodka, resulting in their own drunkenness.

     And then there is the thousands of Hassidim—a davening, dancing, singing, whirling, twirling through—who through their ecstasy of pure joy utterly contradict any feelings one may have harbored about their being an over-serious, hermetic, and isolated sect.

     Mazursky admits that as a young boy growing up in Brooklyn he had himself taunted the local “seder boys,” claiming that, if nothing else, the trip to Uman has given him a new sense of their “all being individuals” and a new feeling of tolerance, something which I believe the audience comes to shar.

     At the end of his film, however, he admits that he has had no major transformation and, that despite the claims of his friends that he is refusing to admit any personal or religious revelations, he remains a secular and skeptical Jew.    Yet we cannot help but realize another kind of significance, as outlined by the British neurosurgeon of the event. The famed Rabbi Nachman, he explains, was born in Medzhybizh, Ukraine, moving first to Breslov (Bratslav) where he lived until 1810 until a major fire in that city destroyed his home. A group of secular Jews soon after invited him to move to Uman where they provided housing for him. With a nearby lake and a beautiful woods nearby, Nachman enjoyed his last days there.

     By that time Nachman was suffering from tuberculosis, and died soon after at the age of 38. According to legend, Nachman had long before reported that Unman, where in 1768 more than 20,000 Jewish martyrs had been buried after the Haidamak Massacre of Unman.

     Upon the last Rosh Hashana of his life, Nachman invited his followers to visit the city on an annual pilgrimage:

            If someone comes to my grave, gives a coin to charity, and says these ten Psalms
            [the Tikkun HaKlali], I will pull him out from the depths of Gehinnom! It makes 
            no difference what he did until that day, but from that day on, he must take upon
            himself not to return to his foolish ways"


Through the revolutionary and later Communist regimes only a few risked the voyage. And during World War II, after Hitler himself visited the city, more than a thousand local Jews were shot and thrown into the lake. The fact that the Hassidic men now gather at this bloody spot each year, argued the neurosurgeon, is statement itself of the healing possibilities of history.

      The town that once had signified the horrible fire of violent hate was now annual lit-up (quite literally as we observe) with the spiritual celebrations of those whose ancestors had so terribly suffered, Mazursky’s narrative suggests. Without perhaps really intending to, the fires embedded within the tales told in this director’s story (the fire of Nachman’s home, the firing of weapons) have unintentionally redeemed Cohen’s greedy potential act of Mazursky’s slightly enigmatic joke.


Los Angeles, September 10, 2014

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