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Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa

     Marlene Booth, filmmaker of Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa, lives, married with kinder, in the People's Republic of Cambridge, Mazssachusetts. There, sticking out in the multicultural crowd isn't being Jewish but saying "No" to portabellas. But she was raised in the '50s and early '60s in Des Moines, then 98% Pleasantville Christian. As she explains in her thoughtful, entertaining personal documentary (a deserved hit of the recent Boston Jewish Film Festival), she worried all the time about what the goyem would think if she made her Orthodox Judaism obvious to them.

     A first problem in the 1950s was the Rosenbergs, executed after allegedly passed state secrets to the Communists. "We had to be nice so people wouldn't think all Jews were like that," her patriotic mother warned Marlene. And then there was that traumatic day, after Marlene proudly explained Chanukah to her first grade class, that a shiksa schoolmate insidiously whispered, "Do you see her? She doesn't believe in Jesus!"

     Marlene's conclusion: "Being Jewish was not for show-and-tell"; and so she grew up with a split consciousness. On the one hand, she was a beaming, affable midwesterner, who could believe, "Iowa was a great place to grow up. Most people were salt-of-the-earth farmer stock, the nicest people on earth." On the other hand, she would keep secret from them her Hebraic soul, her deepest identity, unveiled at thrice-a-week visits to Beth-El Jacob shul, what she called "my second home."

     Booth has never changed--and so the film, and so her confession that, about her life-long devout Judaism, "I felt different all the time, even ashamed." How, she wondered, could she love so completely her Jewishness, and yet never shed her childhood embarrassment about being identified publicly by her religion?

     My favorite part of Yidl in the Middle is the least programmed, the least controlled by voice over, when Booth goes home for her 30th Roosevelt High reunion with a movie crew. She forces herself, in having to explain the camera to her one-time schoolmates, to say out loud that she is Jewish... and to say it in Des Moines. There's a priceless meeting with the turned-up-nose blonde beauty queen, still a knockout, and the two females are still at cross-purposes. Now the ex-queen wishes that she's picked out Jewish friends at Roosevelt "for the stimulation and cameraderie," and because she might have studied harder. Marlene can only mutter, "I would have died to look like you."

     When Booth grew up in Iowa, one of five children, many of her relatives also conregated there. Now 21 out of 22 have moved elsewhere: sadly for her, a Des Moines diaspora. She herself tried living in Israel for a time, where she felt very American among all Jews; and then she came to Massachusetts, where she raised a religious family, made a series of documentaries about Judaism in America, and even started a Hebrew school. Why reside in Cambridge? For Booth, it's a halfway point, she says, between Iowa and Jerusalem!

(January, 1999)


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