Rosenwald, the fascinating doc about Jewish millionaire/philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, opens this weekend in LA. He was owner of Sears, who during the Jim Crow era funded more than 5,300 black schools in the deep south and was responsible for educating intellectuals and artists that would later become crucial political and cultural leaders. Inspired by the late Julian Bond (whose father and uncle were both Rosenwald fellows), Aviva Kempner (Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) sheds light on this silent partner of the pre-civil rights movement, who was influenced by Booker T. Washington (above with Rosenwald) and Rabbi Emil Hirsch.
Bill Desowitz: Maya Angelou makes the connection between the Jewish experience and the Black experience. That crystalizes what motivated Rosenwald.
Aviva Kempner: Right, between the pogroms and the lynchings. That’s what Julius Rosenwald believed in and what he was fighting for. That was a great moment for us. He was very active in the Jewish community but he just saw beyond it. He saw what was happening in America and decided he had to respond. I’m proud of what he did and to tell his story, especially now when we have a whole set of other issues [referring to Jim Crow-like voting rights tactics in The New York Times
Magazine article, A Dream Undone ].
BD: There were two sides to Rosenwald: transforming Sears into a modern business and giving back through education.
AK: Rosenwald was all about honesty: if people are going to order stuff, you have to make sure that they are there. But the big thing is what he learned in the synagogue: the principal of tikkunolam (repairing the world) and he took it to a new height. There’s a Julius Rosenwald in us all and I hope that’s the feeling people believe when they leave the theater.
BD: What was your process like?
AK: My MO is to overshoot. I’m my own worst producer because I have to pay for everything I want. I was going for the best interviews and the best materials and it was very important to find footage to fit in even though it was 150 years ago. That’s why I like to use feature footage because often times the portrayals they depict is very accurate, like when I got Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, the scene just fits for how the peddlers went from house to house to sell to immigrants
and to Native Americans.
BD: What were some of the highlights for you?
AK: One thing is the schools: you haven’t seen the end-credits yet because I’m still fund raising for eight more days. But the National Trust chose to restore all these schools and I think that’s so powerful in terms of the living legend of what Julius Rosenwald was all about. And now the Michigan Boulevard Garden apartments are being restored into the Rosenwald Courts that’ll open for next summer. But the kinds of thing that I didn’t know about are the magnitude of the
great migration: the courage it took to go north. And not only that but the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters [was an important early part of the civil rights movement].
And the extent of the fund and how encompassing it was in supporting African American arts and letters. And I’m hoping we’ll get some more of that in today’s world. And I have a Masters in urban planning and that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much about architecture. They were green way before there was green.