Argentinean filmmaker Gabriel Pomeraniec’s first feature documentary, Tango: A Story with Jews, explores tango music and its Jewish influences in a Zelig-like film. The film is not so much all over the place as it simply can’t contain its enthusiasm for all things relating the Jews and tango.
The tango originated in the slums of Buenos Aires in the 1890s and had its heyday in the early twentieth century. By 1930, the Depression, followed by the Perón military dictatorship and then the rock ‘n roll revolution of the ’50s and ’60s all contributed to the decline of the tango. The dance made a comeback in the ’80s and ’90s and in 2004 UNESCO, the cultural and scientific organization of the United Nations, declared the tango a part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage.”
At the height of its popularity, there was no question that Argentina’s national dance was shaped by Jewish immigrants. Argentina first welcomed Eastern European Jews to its shores in the 1880s. Fleeing pogroms and other manifestations of anti-Semitism, these Jews arrived in South America determined that their new countries would become their homelands.
Pomeraniec shows that many of these Jews brought the instruments with which they played klezmer music. Like the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial—with chocolate and peanut butter inevitably colliding—klezmer musicians found a natural partner in the music of the tango. In the film a young contemporary Jewish musician says that when he plays tango music, “klezmer phrasing is imprinted on every note I play.” A Jewish singer notes the influence of cantorial music in the composing and singing of early twentieth-century tangos. “What would Buenos Aires be without the imprint of the Jews?” he asks wistfully.
Tango: A Story with Jews, is based on journalist and historian José Judkovski’s book of the same title. Judkovski, who narrates the film, is an engaging raconteur of all things related to Jewish tango. Argentine Jews immersed themselves in the music to “capture it for the future.” Judkovski explains this need to preserve the music of the tango came from the most Jewish of impulses “to tell the children,” to pass on a love of music, tango and Argentina to future generations.
In the Buenos Aires of the 1920s Arturo Bernstein was the tango’s main composer and performer. He had talented peers in Raúl Kaplan, the Rubinstein Brothers and Alberto Bresporasvan. Judkovski observes that these men eventually exported the tango to Europe and even Russia on orchestral tours. They were also virtuoso violinists that tinged the tango with an idiosyncratic Jewish sadness and melancholia.
Bearing in mind musical Jewish sadness and melancholia, I immediately think of a Chagall painting—a fiddler on the roof playing his sweet, doleful melodies. I think of my grandfather who played the violin well enough to join the musicians’ union and fiddle his way through Yale where he earned an engineering degree in 1913.
If one of the criteria of a successful documentary is to convey a fresh perspective on a familiar subject—in this case it’s done through the effective subtext of the violin as the most Jewish of instruments—then Tango: A Story with Jews, makes the grade. While the film’s editing could have been streamlined for the sake of clarity, it’s still a memorable portrayal of how Jewish music and sensibilities took Argentina and its tango in surprising, new directions.
The Boston Jewish Film Festival has two screenings of Tango: A Story with Jews coming up. Wednesday night’s screening is a big event including a live tango performance. Thursday’s matinee is just the film. Both events take place at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.