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Aviva Kempner

Aviva Kempner

“I’m part of whole body of immigrant kids,” says filmmaker Aviva Kempner, “who are trying to recapture our cultural history. Even what Spike Lee does [with a film like 4 Little Girls] is to go back and tell stories that are little known. We use filmmaking to tell our family lore. For me, Hank’s family lore.”

Hank is Hank Greenberg, first baseman, left fielder, and clean-up hitter for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and 40s. In her immensely entertaining documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Kempner makes a strong case for the Tiger as not only an extraordinary ball player, but a powerful Jewish role model.

As Kempner explains, her modus operandi is “presenting non-stereotypical images of Jews.” In 1986, when she was in Los Angeles for the premiere of Partisans of Vilna, a documentary about the little-known Jewish resistance during World War II that she co-wrote and produced, Kempner heard that Hank Greenberg had died. She describes that moment as a flashbulb going off.

“This was my father’s hero,” she recalls, “and I was thinking about what was happening to American Jews while their brethren were being murdered in Europe, and this was a way [to explore that era]. I grew up hearing my dad talking about Hank Greenberg, the Jewish baseball player, especially on Yom Kippur.”

In 1934, when Detroit was embroiled in a touch-and-go pennant race with the New York Yankees, several games were scheduled during the Jewish holidays. Whether Greenberg would play on those days became a hot topic, and the 23-year-old was torn. After seeking rabbinical advice, Greenberg ended up playing during Rosh Hashanah (the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline that wished him Happy New Year in Hebrew). But on the Day of Atonement, Hammerin’ Hank opted for the synagogue instead of Briggs Stadium.

Greenberg, the son of Romanian immigrants, didn’t consider himself to be extremely observant, but his very personal decision resonated through an American Jewish community that faced institutionalized anti-Semitism and thorny questions of assimilation. He became a symbol of immense pride, a 6’3” slugger who succeeded in that most American of games without denying his Jewish heritage.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

There’s an added significance to Greenberg being a star in Detroit, where Father Charles Coughlin preached hate via the radio airwaves and Henry Ford’s tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, ended up on Adolf Hitler’s reading list.

“For me, there’s a triple purpose for doing this film,” Kempner explains. “First, it’s to tell a story about Hank Greenberg, who I think is totally under-known. Second, is to relate how difficult it was for Jews in the Thirties and somewhat in the Forties, and to show how inappropriate that kind of catcalling is in baseball [Greenberg was constant showered with virulent verbal abuse from spectators] or the kind of demagoguery that Coughlin represented. And the third thing is just to celebrate what I grew up with in Detroit.”

Aviva Kempner’s own family history would make a fascinating documentary. Her father, Harold Kempner, was public relations director at a displaced persons camp in Munich in 1945 when he reunited an Auschwitz survivor with his sister, Helen Ciesla, who had survived World War II in Germany by passing as a Polish Catholic. Harold and Helen married, and moved to Detroit when Aviva was four.

“I was brought up in a very liberal home,” she says, “and I grew up in an integrated neighborhood [Detroit’s Sherwood Forest].” Even though she dabbled in acting while enrolled in the Science and Arts program at Cass Technical High School, Kempner took a completely different route at the University of Michigan, where she covered the late 1960s anti-war movement for the Michigan Daily, and received degrees in psychology and urban planning.

Two years in Mexico with VISTA were followed by enrollment in the activist law school, Antioch, in Washington D.C. Her social conscience found Kempner working in immigration law and lobbying for human rights causes. But two events – failing the Bar exam and experiencing “a real epiphany of my Jewish roots” – made her decide to get the word out in a different way. “I really believe in the power of cinema,” she states, “and I really think that film can teach and change people’s minds if you portray a lost history.”

Raising the $1 million budget to create “a documentary that feels like a feature film” meant that The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg took nearly thirteen years to complete. Kempner, who also works as a film critic and programmer (she established a Jewish film festival in Washington, D.C., where she now resides), doesn’t regret the effort. Even when she considers the fact that documentaries generally reach a much smaller audience than their fictional counterparts.

“I’d love if a feature film is made [about Hank Greenberg],” Kempner explains, “but there’s nothing like seeing the actual footage of how a player played or hear the warmth, the humor, the near tears of the fans talking about what it meant to see him play. I mean, I don’t think anything replaces the humor and poignancy and power of the actual footage and the actual fans.”

Interview by Serena Donadoni
Released on July 21, 2000
First published in the Metro Times.