A Discussion on the Story Behind the Film
Drawing from an in-depth oral history interview with Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, a short documentary film named Beyle: The Artist and Her Legacy is now in production. Christa Whitney, director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, talks about the film, which explores the life and legacy of Yiddish activist and artist Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. In a conversation with Eitan Kensky, the Yiddish Book Center’s director of digital initiatives, Christa shares the story behind the film, as well as the effort to fund its completion through a Kickstarter campaign, which you can support before it closes October 31, 2017.
Eitan: Who is Beyle Shechter-Gottesman and how did you get interested in her?
Christa: Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman was a multi-talented artist, organizer, and activist. She was born in Vienna in 1920, raised in Czernowitz, and came to United States after surviving the Holocaust. She settled on a street named Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, along with a few other families. It was right next to a Sholem Aleichem Yiddish secular school, and it was there that several families raising their children in Yiddish created a svive (community) that became known as “Bainbridgivke.”
She had studied painting and drawing as a young woman, and that carried through her entire life. She began writing to entertain the children, and continued to write poetry and songs after the kids were all grown up. She was a community organizer, too, establishing a Yiddish conversation and writing groups that still meet to this day. She also helped to transition that Sholem Aleichem school into a cultural center, still one of the few places you can attend monthly events totally in Yiddish.
I found out about her as I started learning about the New York Yiddish-speaking scene.
EK: How many times did you get to meet her before she passed away?
CW: I interviewed her in 2012 at Yidish-Vokh, a week-long family summer camp totally in Yiddish. I got to know her son Itzik better through KlezKanada and other Yiddish events.
EK: How did you decide that you wanted to make a short film about Beyle? What was it that interested you enough to want to devote the time and energy to making a documentary about her?
CW: Both her son and granddaughter, along with many cousins, nieces, and nephews who are still active in the Yiddish world. She is one of the members of what people sometimes lovingly and respectfully refer to as the “Yiddish dynasty” or “royalty.” She represents this certain type of ideologically-motivated continuity of Yiddish language and culture—from prominence in Central/Eastern Europe to New York.
She also left such a lasting legacy. Books of poetry, but also songs that are sung by people all over the world. So that meant there were a lot of people we could talk to about her for the film. Also, for a film the visuals are critical, so the fact that she was creative in these various mediums was appealing.
EK: As you say, she studied painting and drawing. What kind of visual legacy did she leave behind?
CW: Hundreds—if not thousands—of paintings and sketches. Also, embroidery and sculpture. Most of which are still in her former house on Bainbridge Ave. I was just there recently and it’s a treasure trove.
EK: You get to see glimpses of her home in the trailer for the Kickstarter. It’s like a museum.
CW: Yes. Her art is everywhere. And there’s a whole basement, too, which I haven’t even been to yet. Her granddaughter Esther talks about it as a magical place.
EK: How many of her family members have you been able to interview for the oral history project?
CW: Let’s see…Her son, Itzik, granddaughter Ester, nieces Sore-Rukhl Schaechter and Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, grandnephew Naftali Ejdelman and grandniece Meena-Lifshe Viswanath. Also, her nephew-in-law Meylekh Viswanath.
EK: How much of that material—if any—are you hoping to work into the Beyle film? Or, perhaps another question: What goes in to making these shorts?
CW: Our process, since we’re predominantly an oral history archive, is that we start with the interviews. Then we rewatch those interviews and try to see what salient points, highlights, and interesting patterns emerge. Then we figure out a narrative structure (the script, essentially).
After that, we turn to the visual component. For this film, we’ve been very fortunate to work with the assistant editor of the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, Liz Walber. She added this wonderful layer to the film through parallax animation of Beyle’s artwork. So throughout the film, you have the interviews; Beyle's paintings, sketches, poetry, and songs; historic photographs; archival footage; film of her home in the Bronx; and more.
It’s all woven together. Liz and I talk about how we see this multimedia presentation as a reflection of the way Beyle worked—she was creative always, regardless of the medium: paper, canvas, and community.
EK: Honestly, it all sounds really exciting.
A groysn dank (a huge thank you) to our generous supporters:
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