What a truly special woman Barbara Myerhoff must have been. Almost every facet of her character shines through in Lynne Littman's "In Her Own Time": humor, strength, a questioning and nicely insubordinate nature, warmth, self-deprecation, an overwhelming interest in others and a lovely quick mind.
"In Her Own Time" is the second of two documentary investigations that the two women made together; the first was "Number Our Days," a succinct and deeply moving portrait of the elderly Jews in Venice, Calif., which won an Academy Award in 1977.
The films belong together, which is how they are now being shown (on five successive Sunday mornings, Sunday through Jan. 5 at the Music Hall, Beverly Hills), although with what we now know about the briefness of Myerhoff's life, "Number Our Days" achieves an extra measure of darkness. She had chosen the Jewish community of Venice to study with a true anthropologist's thoroughness because, as she said, being an old Jew was something possible to her. She would never be a South American Indian, she said, facing the camera almost jauntily, "but I will be old."
Cancer intervened. Myerhoff began a study of the Fairfax neighborhood's Orthodox Hasidic community knowing that she had lung cancer. Understandably, it tilted the shape of the film and her investigation. While bringing to light the strengths and values of Orthodoxy and what it holds for its members, she began to question what it might mean in her life as well.
Her interviews were with a cross section of Hasidic families: a young Soviet refusenik couple who had converted to Judaism and whose Orthodox remarriage here is celebrated with enormous joy; a wife and mother with teen-age children who chose to keep kosher, even at the risk of her own marriage; a firmly self-assured and beautiful young woman who explains politely, in answer to Myerhoff's questions about the possibility of straying in an Orthodox household, that "a religious woman does not make a mistake."
And all the while, Myerhoff is questioning her own beliefs--and changing. One woman describes the restrictions that Orthodoxy puts upon her almost rapturously because they gave her life order. Myerhoff knows she could not bear them for even a quarter of an hour.
Yet as the disease makes inroads on her strength, as she no longer strides into a modest backyard to speak to the family there but is carried up stairs or rolls along Fairfax Avenue in a wheelchair, she realizes that she is submitting to restrictions of her own. The organic life that Orthodoxy presents, "an envelope of belief which surrounds them," begins to seem more and more attractive.
And from the Fairfax residents comes an outreaching of love, concern and support for Myerhoff--an almost unmatched sense of spirituality and community that is terribly seductive. If at times it feels as though she were grasping at desperate measures, changing her name for another so that, in effect, the angel of death could not find her, who could argue against these measures at that point?
"I'll never be the same after doing this work," Myerhoff says simply, scant weeks before she died, and you feel a sense of calmness in her words. "In Her Own Time" creates the same sense of change, about the determined Myerhoff and about this abundantly giving community.
"IN HER OWN TIME"
Producers Vikram Jayanti, Lynne Littman. Director Littman, based on the fieldwork of Barbara Myerhoff in association with the USC department of anthropology.
Running time: 1 hour.