A couple of decades ago we got a phone call from an old friend, a lawyer practicing in Yokohama. He seemed unusually worried and asked us, "Are you guys okay?" Slightly baffled, I replied in the affirmative and asked him what had triggered his frenzied call. "I saw on CNN that there was rioting in Washington Heights and I was concerned about you." Rioting in Washington Heights was news to me. Such are the joys of our globalized communications galaxy.
I tell this story for what it says about the neighborhood I've called home for 34 years. The rioting, such as it was, was about 3/8 of a mile from my door, but I never heard it. If our Japanese friend hadn't phoned I wouldn't have known it happened until I saw the next day's newspaper. The class and ethnic lines in the Heights were that strong.
Seeing the documentary "Sosua: Make a Better World" reminded me of the incident. Directed by Peter Miller and Rene Silverman, this hour-long film follows the creation of a musical play about the almost forgotten historical event in which the Dominican Republic accepted Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the wake of the Evian conference on the fate of Europe's Jews. The dividing line I referred to splits working-class Dominicans and middle-class Jews, while also separating progressive and unaffiliated Jews from their more Orthodox (and poorer) neighbors. The divisions are real, tacitly understood and for the most part observed with little obvious friction. Yet the tensions are there, particularly where the Dominican and Orthodox communities rub up against one another.
Given that context, which the film sketches out in quick, deft strokes, it is laudable that the local YMHA chose to bring musical theater legend Elizabeth Swados to the Heights to create a show for children and young adults that would use the story of Sosua as a vehicle for putting Dominican and Jewish kids together on stage. Victoria Neznansky, the Y's program director and originator of the project, puts it nicely at the beginning of the film, "This community needs music, needs things that will bring it together. . . The people who saved each other are here in this community."
Miller and Silverman are a bit hamstrung by the brief running time of their film. They introduce individual members of the company and begin to trace their backgrounds only to abandon them midway through the film as the problems bred by impending deadlines begin to take precedence. Using an almost hilariously optimistic newsreel from the '30s, they trace the actual history of the Jewish-Dominican colony. They are momentarily distracted by the problems of rehearsals and tech, Swados's overwhelming schedule and the sheer difficulty of unifying a group of kids among whom the most important disparities are neither ethnic nor economic but, quite simply, experiential. The range of theater experience in the group apparently runs from the old-timers (at 17) to the enthusiastic tyros.
Given these competing imperatives, it's hardly surprising that the filmmakers seem in a quandary over how to get everything into the film. They wisely choose to let chronology dominate, giving "Sosua: Make a Better World" a governing structure that keeps the film moving brightly.
Despite the subject matter of the stage play, this is not a documentary about the Shoah. At its best, it is a small testimony to the power of working towards a shared goal to bring together people who otherwise might cross the street to avoid one another. To its lasting credit, the film doesn't duck the real tensions, acknowledging that one of the Jewish kids was mugged in a subway station on the way home from a rehearsal, and noting that the Dominican dictator Trujillo wanted the Jewish refugees as a way of "whitening" the island, a process that began with the murder of thousands of Haitians.
"Sosua: Make a Better World" never sugar-coats the reality. As Swados says toward the end of the production, "I think [the kids] appreciate each other more. It's not Disney, you can't expect it to happen in a day or to happen completely."
Just so long as something happens.
"Sosua: Make a Better World," directed by Peter Miller and Rene Silverman, is available from http://www.sosuafilm.com.
George Robinson is the author of Essential Judaism and Essential Torah, and is the film and music critic for The Jewish Week. A frequent speaker at Jewish film festivals, JCCs and synagogues, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . In the interest of full disclosure, one of the children in this film is the daughter of a friend of the author.