When “Where Are You From” Is a Very Loaded Question

May 30, 2017


artenstein_on-location-in-new-mexicoNo matter how you slice it, the Jewish story is an immigration story. Setting aside thousands of years and focusing just on contemporary history, Jews in every corner of the world have answers to the question “Where are you from” that are equal parts very similar and totally different from each other. Filmmaker Isaac Artenstein has been keenly aware of this fact from his childhood crossing between San Diego and Tijuana and for more than 15 years he has been slowly immersing himself in different Jewish communities across the American southwest and the Mexican north. He is telling the stories of Jewish communities, their movement and their identity.

Artenstein, whose filmography includes “A Day Without a Mexican,” started with his own family history for “Tijuana Jews,” a documentary he finished in 2010.

“I kind of got tired of explaining to people how Artensteins come from Mexico,” the filmmaker recalls one morning over the phone from Los Angeles where he’s editing a new project. “A lot of people just don’t know the different routes that people took when escaping the Holocaust.”

Both of Isaac’s parents were born in Mexico and lived in Vera Cruz until Artenstein senior decided to head north for Tijuana. Their families were from Poland and Turkey, so Yiddish and Spanish were their native languages. In turn, Isaac grew up speaking both of those, plus English (he was born in San Diego), and some Hebrew. It was like this for Jewish families throughout Tijuana.

“There’s a saying – you ask a Jew where they’re from and you get a story,” Isaac says. “I always liked those great stories, how they got to the new world, so to speak, from Europe and the Middle East.”

For “Tijuana Jews,” Artenstein interviewed his own father and mother about their time owning a curio shop on Tijuana’s main tourist road Avenida de la Revolución. In the film, Isaac, who narrates, suggests the impetus for the documentary was when his parents decided to close down their shop. Isaac says that’s where he learned English, selling wares to American shoppers in town for an escape from the constrictions of life in the United States.

One Jewish pioneer in particular, Jack Swed, a Syrian Jew, helped establish Revolution Avenue as Tijuana’s center of commerce.

“He was one of the earliest Jewish businessmen along the tourist street.”

It was thriving in the 1920s at the height of prohibition and the heyday of the Agua Caliente casino and racetrack.

“A lot of Hollywood stars would go there, go to the casino, hang out, get entertained,” Isaac relays.

In “Tijuana Jews” Jack’s wife Shirley shares a story of a dancer named Rita Jancino who turned out to be Rita Hayworth who rose to be one of the top Hollywood actresses of the 1940s.

It wasn’t all Hollywood glitz and tequila-soaked glamour in the early days of Jewish life in Tijuana. Through his research for the film, Artenstein found documentation from a Mr. Samuel Greenberg about anti-Semitic demonstrations in the early 50s along Revolution Avenue.

“The way he tells it,” Artenstein says of his conversation with Greenberg, “there was a German businessman on the main drag and he got everybody riled up that the Jews were taking over all the businesses in Tijuana.

“To the community’s credit,” Artenstein continues, “the authorities stepped in and they really protected the Jewish businessmen and eventually things got better. The people who were demonstrating against the Jews finally got to know the Jewish community and they got to be friends and business partners.”

Artenstein says it was surprising and “very wonderful” to get those first-hand details of life in his childhood home.

Since finishing “Tijuana Jews” and showing it at Jewish film festivals, Artenstein has embarked on a larger Jewish-history-in-film project, this time a four-part series on frontier Jews of the American southwest, exploring El Paso, New Mexico, Arizona and San Diego. The New Mexico chapter, “Challah Rising in the Desert” will show at the Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival in early July. Artesntein is close to completion on “To the Ends of the Earth: The Jews of San Diego,” which he’s producing in association with the San Diego History Center, where the Jewish history of San Diego exhibition is up until next year.

“The stories that I’ve heard in Arizona, El Paso, New Mexico, they’re very similar to the San Diego Jewish pioneer experience, which of course is centered around Old Town,” the filmmaker says.

While there are recurring themes in each of these new Jewish communities – Jews run businesses and help grow the economy; Jews hold office in disproportionate numbers to their population; Jews find unique ways to keep kosher and observe Shabbat without an established temple or formal rabbi; Artenstein realizes that Jews are one piece of the pioneer puzzle.

“We tend to think of the old west as cowboys and Indians, which is cliché of course, but it’s mostly about the Anglo westward expansion. There are other immigrant stories that were really key. They were not only Jews who were pioneers, when you look at Old Town there were people from England, there were Italians, so they were part of the larger immigrant experience but at the same time there was something very unique about Jews.

“At the end of the day when I step back,” Isaac continues, “and I’m looking at ‘Tijuana Jews,’ ‘Challah Rising’ and now the new project ‘To the Ends of the Earth,’ it’s so much having to do with identity,” Isaac explains. “In addition to all these great stories, anecdotes and historical facts, what binds them together is a sense of Jewish identity which is always redefining itself.”

Across the frontier Jewish communities, the flavors change – literally, in the case of New Mexico, where “Challah Rising” features mouth-watering footage of a bakery that has perfected green chili challah that’s “so New Mexico” – but the people espouse a rugged curiosity about the future and a dogged connection to the past. It is perhaps that ongoing see-saw that makes these Jews so interesting as documentary subjects.

Isaac Artenstein will preview “To the Ends of the Earth: The Jews of San Diego” at the San Diego History Center gala on June 10. Artenstein will also premiere “Challah Rising in the Desert: The Jews of New Mexico” on July 6 in the Lyceum Space at Horton Plaza. All of the footage for the San Diego and Tijuana films will be archived at the History Center. Artenstein says this will be more than 60 hours of interviews, available to the public once archived.

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