Filmmaker Aviva Kempner has been here before: She has been within striking distance of the release of her documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a project that has consumed 13 years of her life. Now, only $150,000 stands between Kempner and her film’s completion. Though the film premiered at a D.C. benefit last week and is scheduled for a run in San Francisco this week and New York next year, Kempner needs the extra money to obtain rights for parts of the film and to enlarge it to 35 mm stock. She hopes to secure a D.C. venue to screen the completed project.
The documentary, composed of interviews and period footage, chronicles the career of Greenberg, the first Jewish ballplayer inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kempner, co-founder of D.C.’s Jewish Film Festival, grew up in Detroit, where Greenberg played for the Tigers from 1933 to 1946. At 6-foot-4, the strapping Greenberg was his team’s power slugger in one of America’s most anti-Semitic cities (home to Henry Ford and radio hatemonger Father Coughlin). In his second season, Greenberg raised eyebrows by sitting out of a crucial pennant-race game with the Yankees to observe Yom Kippur.
The Tigers lost the game, but they won the pennant when Greenberg returned.
To Kempner, Greenberg represents the “most incredible story of religion converging with sports.” Though she never saw Greenberg play, Kempner remembers her immigrant father’s devotion to the Tigers as he listened to every game on a small transistor radio. When Yom Kippur came around, her father would remind his children that Hank Greenberg did not play on the Day of Atonement. “I’m so happy to be able to document my father’s hero, my childhood hero,” says Kempner.
Thirteen years ago, when Greenberg died, Kempner had finished work on Partisans of Vilna, a documentary about Jewish resistance to the Nazis. She realized that Greenberg’s story would allow her to “counter stereotypes about Jews” that “we are weak, scrawny, and nebbishes with glasses.”
Over the past 13 years, Kempner has received support on the Greenberg project from Norman Lear, Mel Brooks, and Michael Ovitz, among others. Both the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities have funded grants. Many of her crew members have been based here in town, as well. Kempner has done much of the post-production work using an editing table on the third floor of her colorful home, which is adorned with abstract artwork painted by her mother, a Holocaust survivor.
It has been a long haul, though Kempner considers the timing of the release apt: A unique convergence of events—the end of the millennium, the demise of Tiger Stadium, and last year’s McGwire-Sosa home-run race (Greenberg almost broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record in 1938)—make the film “an affirmative message for a new century,” she says. Considering that Sammy Sosa faced none of the “insidious catcalling” faced by another minority ballplayer, Greenberg, Kempner believes we have “come a long way as a nation.”—Neal Carruth