All families have secrets. Sometimes these secrets are known widely within the family but not shared with outsiders. In other cases, these secrets are kept from close members of the family even, or particularly, those directly affected by them. But eventually the truth usually emerges and the process can be painful for those involved.
There are two fascinating stories told by women who slowly discovered the truth about their family history.
In her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, filmmaker Sarah Polley reveals how she learned of a major secret within her family that was kept not only from her but from almost everyone else and how she stumbled upon the truth. The documentary is quite fascinating on two levels, in terms of the story itself and about how she chose to tell the story, the latter leading to questions in the viewer’s own mind of how much she tells is true. In other words, while she is purportedly presenting a documentary, are elements of it fictional? (I cannot more fully discuss the last point without providing a major spoiler. I tell what it is in comment #4.)
Here’s the trailer.
The Schwartz‘s seemed like any other Jewish family in Woodstock, N.Y.., except for one thing: mom and dad were obviously white, and their daughter Lacey was obviously not.
That racial disconnect would be easier to fathom if Peggy and Robert Schwartz hadn’t had everyone believing their dark-skinned daughter was the biological child of both parents.
It would take “Little White Lie,” the film an adult Lacey made about family secrets and religious identity, to unpack this mystery.
“I grew up in a world of synagogue, Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs,” Schwartz narrates over a home movie montage of Jewish holiday celebrations and her own bat mitzvah.
“So it never occurred to me that I was passing,” she continues. “I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t. I actually grew up believing I was white.”
Here’s the trailer.
Here’s a longer interview where Schwartz goes into more detail about how the whole secret unraveled.
This film illustrates the fact that Jews of color, though not uncommon in some parts of the world, are a rarity in the US and have to negotiate their way though that mix of identities. This made me recall an event some years ago when Jewish friends of ours were our houseguests during Passover. We held the seder at our house and my daughters, who were very young at that time, were bemused by the unfamiliar rituals but gamely took part, following a booklet of the Passover ceremony written for children, while my friend provided commentary and explanations.
In preparation for the seder, my friend had given me a list of items to buy at our local supermarket. So there I was walking up and down the unfamiliar kosher foods aisle with the list in hand trying to find things like gefilte fish when out of the corner of my eye I observed a woman looking at me. I could sense that she was dying with curiosity to know what a brown-skinned man was doing looking for kosher food and whether I was some kind of exotic Jewish immigrant. Eventually she could not stand the suspense anymore and came up to me and asked if she could help me find things. I could tell that while she was genuine in being helpful, she was also looking for a conversational opening to find out more. I accepted her offer and put an end to her puzzlement by explaining why I was shopping for these items. She seemed pleased to have the ‘mystery’ solved.