Growing up a 'Yidl in the middle'

I don't think that I had met Marlene Booth before last week, but it sure does seem like it.

It turns out that we both grew up in Des Moines in the 1950s and '60s. We both went to the Iowa State Fair and summer concerts on the statehouse lawn. We may have passed each other in the grandstands when my East High School Scarlets basketball or football teams played our archrivals, her Roosevelt High Roughriders.

I know that we both sang the "Iowa Corn Song" ("We're from Iowa-y, Iowa-y, best state in the land, joy on every hand"), and we both appeared with our siblings in ads in the Des Moines Register for Anderson-Erickson dairy (alas, no milk mustaches).

I also know that, along with feeling like an Iowan, Ms. Booth had another deeply felt identity: She was Jewish growing up in a largely Christian community.

I know all this because I just saw the delightful documentary "Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa," produced, directed, and written by Booth.

This filmmaking is so far from what Hollywood is doing that a viewer almost forgets she's working in the same medium. Her style is simple, gentle, disarming, and genuine. Rather than trying to manipulate emotions, she seeks truth and it's this truth that fascinates.

Discrimination, her film reveals, was rarely overt and open in Iowa. It came sometimes unintended from well-meaning, good-hearted friends and neighbors. Being Jewish in Iowa in the 1950s was an era of "5 o'clock friendships" that lasted only through the workday. It meant "you weren't supposed to argue or disagree," she says as the film's narrator. That wasn't the Iowa way. "We were Iowa Jews - cheerful, eager to please," not "pushy."

Her family's Russian name is lost. Her grandfather was given "Booth" as he came through the line at Ellis Island. To feel more Jewish, young Miss Booth and a friend invented the "Finklestein" family, writing letters in which they imagined its members and activities.

Her father, a retired firefighter, now lives in California. Sitting in what she calls his "Iowa shrine," a room full of mementoes, he still calls a friend back home each week, just to catch up.

Today, Hasidic Jews have moved to Des Moines. Their clothing and hair styles openly announce that they are different. For Iowa Jews, the gap between private practice and public image has narrowed.

Booth now lives with her husband and children in Cambridge, Mass. After going back to her 30th high school reunion, she realized how she has changed too. Today, she concludes, though she is "seeing differences" among people, she's also "seeking common ground."

Maybe I'm biased, but I don't think you have to be from Iowa - or Jewish - to enjoy this film, any more than you need be from Minnesota or Lutheran to understand Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon tales. The universal human condition extends even into Iowa.

Booth's film plays Jan. 7, 13, 14, 20 at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Like many other low-budget, high-content documentaries, it deserves a wider audience.

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