Family secrets


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.

There is another documentary called Little White Lie (2014) that I have only read about but haven’t seen as yet because it has not been generally released.

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.

Comments

  1. anat says

    In Israel there are Jews from most available skin-tones – Ashkenazi, Sepharadi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian Jews, Bene Israel from India. Once upon a time there was a Chinese Jewish community, but it went extinct. Also plenty of converts from a variety of backgrounds, as well as assorted groups claiming Jewish roots with no verified history.

  2. Holms says

    Since I’m unlikely to ever encounter this film, could I beg a brief spoiler in say, rot13? The trailer really says nothing at all other than ‘mum was cheerful’.

  3. Mano Singham says

    SPOILER ALERT!

    Ok Holms, here’s the story.

    One spoiler is that as Sarah Polley tries to find out what her mother, who died of cancer when she was little, was really like, she discovers that she had had an affair and that the man she had long thought of as her father was not her biological father and how her siblings and half-siblings react to the news. She develops a relationship with her biological father as well.

    The second spoiler, a major one to me, is that the documentary features a lot of grainy video of her family shot on old super 8 film, including that of her mother and father and biological father when they were young. These are central to giving us an insight into what her mother was like. But towards the end we discover that these ‘home movies’ were actually shot by Polley using actors made up to portray her mother and the rest when they were younger, and technologically doctored to look like old films. This was very jarring, to me at least, and made me question what was true and what was false. Were we seeing a documentary or a feature film told in documentary style, like Spinal Tap? In reading about the film and Polley later, it appears to be a true story but her choice of how to tell it bothered me.

  4. StevoR says

    ..when Jewish friends of ours were our houseguests during Passover.

    Okay, you surprise me greatly with this, Mano Singham. I just got to ask here please – did you discuss your views on the Israel – Palestine conflict (& Israel generally) with them and, if so, how did they respond?

  5. Mano Singham says

    SteroR,

    What exactly is so greatly surprising about such an innocuous statement?

  6. StevoR says

    I thought you were really hostile to Jewish people and unlikely to have any Jewish friends based on your previous posts on Israel. Please could you answer my question?

  7. Kilian Hekhuis says

    StevoR: Why would someone who’s hostile to Israeli politics be hostile to American Jews? It seems you’re trolling.

  8. Mano Singham says

    StevoR @#5 and #7,

    Wow, your short response is so revealing of so many things, none of which are flattering to you.

    You seem to believe that criticism of Israeli government polices equates to dislike of Jews. That indicates that you have swallowed hook, line, and sinker the propaganda of the Israel lobby that promotes just such a belief in order to silence criticism of Israel.

    Go through my blog. I am very harshly critical of US government policies and Sri Lankan government policies and indeed of policies of many governments. In your mind, does that equate to dislike of Americans, Sri Lankans, and other people? If so, then I would pretty much hate the entire global population. Or is that equation only applied to Israel? That is not only palpably bad logic but incredibly shallow thinking. I challenge you to go through the entire archive and find even a single statement that indicates dislike of Jews as people or indeed of any grouping of any people based on who they are as opposed to what they do or what they believe. I really don’t care what race or ethnicity or nationality or other label that people belong to. It is what they do and the actions they advocate and promote that concern me.

    You clearly have no idea of the wide diversity of opinion among Jews that includes many who are even more critical of Israeli government policies and the Israel lobby than I am.

    As to your original question, have you not noticed that my blog is a very public forum? My views are not secret. My name is right at the top and it is not a pseudonym. My friends and relatives and colleagues are aware of my writings and read my blog. Unlike you, they have absolutely no difficulty distinguishing between criticisms of actions and policies of governments and organizations and criticisms of people. In fact, I have more meaningful discussions about Israel and the Middle East with my Jewish friends ( I find it truly bizarre that you think that I would not have any) than with people like you who are reflexive apologists of any and all Israeli polices, however bad.

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