Feminists in Focus: Reporting back from the New York Jewish Film Festival ‘Yolande: An Unsung Heroine’ – the Egyptian Jewish spy – and ‘Red Shirley’

At the 20th New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (through Jan. 27).

“Yolande: An Unsung Heroine”

Well before Mubarak, when Egypt had a king, and pashas and spies gathered on the balcony of Cairo’s Grand Continental Hotel, Yolande Gabai de Botton was gathering intelligence for the embryonic Jewish State.

The French-educated child of a Jewish-Egyptian family, Yolande was the beautiful blonde internationalist, risking both her son’s life and her own as a spy, operating a network of informers including an agent within the Muslim Brotherhood. Her contacts were so good that she got the Arab League minutes before the Arab League secretary.

Yolande used her work as a journalist as cover for reporting on Cairo’s power elite – right up to the king — for Israel’s pre-state de facto government, the Jewish Agency. She reported directly to Teddy Kollek, the future long-time mayor of Jerusalem, back when he headed intelligence for the Jewish Agency.

The way one smitten diplomat remembers the quintessential charmer: “Yolande didn’t smile with her mouth. She smiled with her whole body.” This heroine of a vanished era could have been better served by a film done with more panache – tighter editing, better use of multiple interviews with the Israelis and Egyptians who knew her in her various
identities. Since Dan Wolman is one of Israel’s top directors, one would have expected his 60-minute documentary to be more than true to its sources.

But the world of a vanished Cairo – old black and white stills of feluccas with their giant single triangular sails plying the waterways, archival footage of the Egyptian elite and the masses, music from the 1940’s, not to mention Yolande’s story – is such heady
stuff that the film is riveting.

Alas for Yolande and Israel’s future diplomacy with Arab neighbors. The daring woman operating as an enticing sophisticate didn’t fit in with Israel’s fledgling Foreign Ministry. Her son remembers their “Robinson Crusoe existence” in a tiny Jerusalem flat, where Yolande’s mansion-sized Oriental rugs curled up the walls.   This Zionist spy, who had been jailed in Cairo, was rejected by her Foreign Ministry colleagues as too international, too dovish, too elegant in a country where elegance was a sign of decadence.

In fact, when she showed up in Paris with Israel’s U.N. delegation, her old Arab buddies greeted her as a friend. She lunched with future Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France and continued to meet with top Egyptians. What a shame for a future-that-might-have-been that the Israeli government had no interest in the Arab world dealings Yolande continued to access.

“Red Shirley”

Shirley Novick, a tough 100-year-old union organizer, deserves a better video biographer. Clearly the reason the 28-minute video made it into this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival is that the gutsy Shirley was interviewed by younger cousin Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground.

He seems to have been motivated not by his cousin’s remarkable life but by his new digital camera, which he handed over to photographer Ralph Gibson. Neither of them had the respect for subject or audience to master focusing the camera. At least Reed had the sense to add a good audio system so we can understand this articulate woman. He then added a cousinly jolt with a soundtrack he composed for his band, Metal Machine Trio.

Spare us Lou Reed’s condescending questions. His responses to her life’s story, told with a Yiddish accent, can be summed up as: “You gotta be kidding!” It’s as if he’s trying to turn her into some Yiddish joke. No, Lou, Shirley did not stuff her two embroidered pillows into her two suitcases. She just brought the embroidered pillowcases, not the pillows, with her to America.

The film’s most poignant moment is Shirley’s dedicating the film to her hometown in Poland, which was wiped out by the Nazis. In the post-screening question period, Shirley, now 102, in a wheelchair, with failing eyesight, describes the mostly Jewish shtetl of 1,000 as highly cultivated, with a library filled with French, German, Russian and Polish literature, which they read in the original or in Hebrew or Yiddish.

She immigrated to Canada at 19, and hesitated to go to the U.S. after reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” But after six months she was ready to leave Montreal as “too provincial,” and was smuggled across the border in 1928. She went to work as a seamstress in New York’s garment industry, a union organizer who was the only Jew among Italians.

In the question period, she made the point that the garment industry hasn’t changed much from the last century, other than blacks, Puerto Ricans and Chinese replacing Jews and Italians. The bosses “still get away with bad conditions,” which she keeps up to date on through talks with the current workers at the union medical clinic. “It’s time that people know about the conditions of the recent newcomers to New York,” Shirley told the audience. Now that’s the call to action “Red Shirley” should have made.

A video camera was taping Shirley and her videographers’ post screening. Hopefully this pithy footage will find its way into “Red Shirley.”

For more information, watch the trailer for “Red Shirley” on Youtube.

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