Julius Rosenwald in a scene from "Rosenwald"

Interview: Aviva Kempner on Uncovering a Hidden History in “Rosenwald”

As one of cinema’s great chroniclers of Jewish-American history, Aviva Kempner has long noted how history informs the present, telling the stories of ‘40s TV icon Gertrude Berg in “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” or Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg in “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” But in the case of Julius Rosenwald, Kempner has found someone who never rose to great fame in his heyday yet is responsible for some of the biggest names you know today through his support of African-American causes.

“Everything leads back to Rosenwald,” says Kempner, just days away from embarking on a barnstorming tour of the US for her third feature “Rosenwald.” “Yesterday, there was a big article in the New York Times about how they’re trying to chip away at voting rights. All I could think was how Rosenwald would be supporting lawyers, trying to work against it.”

Though Rosenwald may not be a household name, his handiwork was in every household at the turn of the 20th century, helping to pioneer the retail delivery business with 24-hour turnaround and the catalog as part owner of Sears. Growing up in Jewish home not far from Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, his belief in the charitable concept of tzedakah led him to invest in education and housing for African-Americans, first offering seed money for the construction of YMCAs around the country to give them a place to sleep in segregated neighborhoods and subsequently creating a fund that aided with the building of nearly 5000 schools across the South and Midwest. Though these philanthropic efforts came with the stipulation that Rosenwald would only be responsible for part of the funding, it led to African-Americans developing an infrastructure to raise money within their given community.

Kempner interviews many whose lives were touched by Rosenwald, a list that includes former NAACP President Julian Bond, U.S. Congressman John Lewis, and director George C. Wolfe, and showcases the work of countless more as the film opens up to demonstrate the ongoing ramifications of the Rosenwald Fund, which supported African-American artists far and wide such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Gordon Parks jr., Zora Neale Hurston and Marian Anderson. While Kempner was in Los Angeles, she spoke of how first started on a 12-year journey to bring Rosenwald’s life to the big screen, his legacy and how his story fits into the larger one that she’s tried to tell during her filmmaking career.

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington in "Rosenwald"Is it true you had heard a Julian Bond speech and that’s how this came about?

That’s right. Twelve years ago this summer – I call it my orthodox bat mitzvah film [since] girls at 12 have bat mitzvah. I heard him speak on Martha’s Vineyard and the speech was [promoted] about [the connection between] Jews and African-Americans, so I thought it was the Civil Rights era. I was pleasantly surprised and fascinated to hear that it really was about something so long ago, which I think is the big reason it’s not known. I had known a little bit, but not to the extent of what I learned making the film. I got an initial grant to research maybe about seven years ago and at the time, I decided to also work on this as I was finishing “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.”

Is this one of those subjects where you learn one thing and it leads to another?

It was very hard to determine what to do because of the breadth of what he did You can see the film in three parts. There’s the history of how his father came to this country and he made money [with his] innovations in Sears, the influence of his rabbi, and certainly what he learned from slavery. Then what he did with that knowledge and with that inspiration, and works with the communities to build the schools. So you start with people went to schools and the people who are his relatives. Then there was his legacy with the fund. Where do you start with all these incredible names? There was no way I could not talk about all those incredible figures. If anything, there’s more to be talked about, and it’s just going to have to be on the DVD.

You learn new things every day. There’s a Jacob Lawrence exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art now, and one at [the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston] that’s Gordon Parks. It just seems that [Rosenwald’s] name inadvertently is kept alive through the artists he’s supported and the changing issues that are happening in this country.

It was surprising to see George C. Wolfe speak about how his mother taught at a Rosenwald school. How did you learn of that connection?

Well, a friend of mine had made a film on him, and he’s from Kentucky, so I knew he was southern, and I saw him at the Sundance Film Festival, and I [asked] “Do you know anything about the Rosenwald schools?” His eyes just lit up. I wrote him, and six months later, he answered me. There’ll be more of him on the DVD.

Since your DVDs for Hank Greenberg and Mrs. Goldberg had so much extra material, was there anything you had to lose for the feature that one might be able to expect there?

It’s more stories. Julius Rosenwald in tandem with the mayor of Chicago prevented “Birth of a Nation” from being shown at Chicago because it was so racist. Rosenwald was very active in Washington DC, even during World War I. He came for a year to help mastermind and oversee the distribution of supplies for the soldiers. He was also very active in fighting crime and Al Capone.

In general, how did you actually become a biographer of great Jewish figures?

You can thank the DC Bar for flunking me. [laughs] I went to law school and I did very well, practicing immigration law. Unfortunately, my dad died suddenly when I was 30, and I buried him the day I graduated from law school, so I just wasn’t in good shape to take the Bar. But I had done a lot of work in human rights community, and film was one of the vehicles we used to raise money to drum up support and consciousness [for various issues]. I had a lot of friends who were filmmakers and as a child of a [Holocaust] survivor, I had the desire to make a film about Jews fighting Nazis. I just had this epiphany, and a very wealthy uncle that gave me the initial money. The rest is history.

That’s why it’s also important to always have something about defeating the Nazis in my films. In the first film, Hank Greenberg went off and fought [in World War II] and also hit home runs against Hitler. Molly Goldberg had episodes about Kristallnacht and did a lot in the war effort. I thought [for “Rosenwald”] “Well, there’s no way I’m going to have this, he was so much earlier.” Then I heard the Tuskegee story, which was completely new to me, and the Eleanor Roosevelt story [during the time she served on the board of the Rosenwald Fund]. I was really worried because Ken Burns was doing this series on Roosevelt, so I thought, “Oh my God, he’s going to have this story.” Did not touch it.

You’ve said chronicled a different “-ism” with each of your films. Has that actually been intentional?

Pretty intentional. We dealt with fascism. I dealt with antisemitism. I dealt with sexism and McCarthyism, and this time, racism. Also, common negative stereotypes. There’s always that purposeful spirit in terms of wanting to do something.

Having been a chronicler of Jewish culture for so long, was it interesting to tell a history here of the African American community?

Yeah, especially since I grew up in Detroit, and for the last 40 years, I’ve lived in Washington [DC], so I’ve always had as many African-American friends as white friends. My high school was that way and college a little bit, so it’s nothing new to me, but to learn their history was something new. That’s why on the slogan on the back of the T-shirts we’re going to make it’s going to say, “History matters.”

What was it like going to the South and seeing the schools?

I ate too much sweet potato pie. [laughs] But it was wonderful. Of course, it’s a different kind of South than what I was depicting, so that helped a lot too. A hundred of the [Rosenwald] schools have been declared national treasures by the National Trust for Historical Preservation, so they’re being restored and [will be] remade into community centers. Then I think even more will happen. The Michigan Garden Apartments are being restored at the end of next year. They’ll be back to its full glory, and they’re going to be called the Rosenwald Courts.

You always use fun clips from popular culture to illustrate what you couldn’t otherwise with footage of the subjects and here you’ve got a couple doozies from “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman” and a TV western where Clint Eastwood communes with a couple of Jews. Where did you find those?

When Hasia Diner, the scholar who had just written a book about how the Jewish peddler would go house to house and often times serve immigrants, African-Americans, and Native-Americans, I thought, “Hmm.” I remembered there was a “Dr. Quinn” Christmas [special] and there it was, just in the order she said. That was a real A-Ha moment. Then I thought, “Well, let me look at other westerns.” I went to the Paley Center for TV, and sure enough, there was many different episodes with peddler scenes. When you can have Clint Eastwood speaking Yiddish, it was just fun and sometimes you’ve got to have that because I feel docs that feel can be educational and entertaining.

Releasing these films seem to be every bit the undertaking as actually making them since they often play around the country for a year or more theatrically. Is it rewarding?

Every weekend I will be on the road with it. Friday night, I was at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and I got a standing ovation, so you get a lot out of that feeling. We’ll see what happens. Yesterday, I was at the Academy and people just loved it. At the NAACP [Convention], we had a screening about three hours after Obama spoke. We didn’t cross paths, but we have different people stand up and say, “I went to Rosenwald School. It made all the difference in my life.” A young man said, “I didn’t want to come tonight. My sister really pushed me into coming. I am so glad I went because now I know what kind of life I should lead.” Nothing beats that.

“Rosenwald” opens on August 14 in New York at the Sunshine Cinema and August 28 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and the Encino Town Center 5. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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