“The Mamboniks,” screening at the 2019 S.F. Jewish Film Festival, documents Jews who were part of the mambo dance craze after World War II.
“The Mamboniks,” screening at the 2019 S.F. Jewish Film Festival, documents Jews who were part of the mambo dance craze after World War II.

S.F. Jewish Film Fest: ‘Fiddler,’ ‘Mamboniks,’ and dancing Jews

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I haven’t seen all 65 films scheduled for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, but I’m willing to bet that only two of them feature somebody dancing with a bottle balanced on his head.

“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” the festival opener on July 18, is a thorough, full-length documentary about the making of the hit 1964 Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The musical’s dance featuring four bottle-balancing men makes for an indelible scene. The documentary relates that director-choreographer Jerome Robbins invented the dance after attending a raucous Orthodox Jewish wedding.

In “The Mamboniks,” a sweet feature documentary about the outsize Jewish participation in the post-World War II American mambo dance craze, one elderly dancer shimmies with a bottle atop his head. “Lusty” Allan Lustgarten admits that it’s an attention-seeking “shtick” he adopted decades ago.

Both of these documentaries combine interviews and historical film clips to chronicle the development of two important Jewish entertainment phenomena, especially in New York.

If you can see only one of them, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” describes a richer and more significant history with larger cultural impact, while “The Mamboniks” entertains with a veritable conga line of over-the-top octogenarians.

Viewed together, though, the documentaries depict the two sides of an eternal Jewish conundrum that was especially vexing for midcentury American Jews: how fervently to cling to Jewish traditions in a rapidly changing world?

Of course, the “Fiddler” musical follows Tevye the dairyman, who lives in the shtetl of Anatevka in 1905. He struggles with his daughters’ increasingly radical demands as they seek to marry. He also faces surging anti-Semitism that ultimately forces all of Anatevka’s Jews to flee to America.

The children of such immigrants could be the lively but aging dancers profiled in “The Mamboniks.” These first-generation American Jews were attracted to the infectious rhythms of Latin music and the bright lights of postwar Manhattan and Miami Beach. Mambo was, and apparently still is, their passion.

About the word “mamboniks”: Some of the dancers emphasize the first syllable, others the second. The word’s origin also is in dispute. Generally, the Yiddish suffix “nik” refers to someone involved in an activity, hence a mambo dancer is a “mambonik.” Yet one “mambonik” claimed that the term is an offshoot of the Yiddish word “trombonik,” or troublemaker.

Mambo music combines African rhythms with Cuban melodies. Mambo culture migrated after the war from Havana to New York and Miami Beach, where it absorbed the boldness of big bands and the flash of swing dancing.

Mambonik Marilyn “Buttons” Winters says mambo “was all about sex, and so like I say, hot, hot, hot. I mean hot.”

Jewish teens in the 1940s and ’50s might have first heard the new rhythms at a bar mitzvah or Jewish wedding party, when mambo and cha cha replaced klezmer as New York Jewish dance music. One mambonik took mambo lessons as a teen at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural center. Others learned at Catskills hotels or on charter cruises from New York to Miami.

Mamboniks flooded Manhattan’s Palladium Ballroom, opened by Jewish furrier Maxwell Hyman in 1948. There they mixed comfortably with dancers from other ethnic groups: Italians, Puerto Ricans and African Americans.

The documentary introduces several Jewish mambo musicians. Pianist Irving Fields, the artist who recorded the Latin Jewish LPs “Bagels and Bongos” and “More Bagels and Bongos,” is shown in black-and-white footage singing his song “Miami Beach Rhumba.”

Marvin Baumel, the film’s guide to contemporary Miami Beach, was known in the 1950s as Rey (King) Mambo, a skinny bandleader with a frilly shirt, horn-rimmed glasses and pencil-thin mustache.

Mambo died out in the early 1960s with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and the closing of the Palladium. Yet the elder mamboniks still dance in Miami Beach, where they reminisce about the hotels that featured Latin dance bands.

The documentary never considers a current hot-button issue: whether the non-Latin mamboniks are guilty of cultural appropriation. If they are, it’s no more so than the many non-Jewish actors who have performed “Fiddler on the Roof” somewhere around the world every day in the 50-plus years since the show opened.

The musical developed as a labor of Jewish love by disparate theater folks — Robbins, songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, writer Joseph Stein and producer Harold Prince.

“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” documents their compulsion to put Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” stories, as well as their own neglected Jewish heritage, on the Broadway stage.

Even the creators weren’t expecting the show to gain broad acceptance. But audiences understood that the Jewish values portrayed in the musical, such as reverence for tradition, love of family and the importance of community, were universal. Tevye’s humanity radiated, too.

The universality shines through in clips from “Fiddler” productions in Japan and Thailand performed in their native languages.

Along with interviews of the musical’s creative team, the documentary features many historical delights. Harnick praises the quality of Sholem Aleichem’s writing. We hear demo tapes of some “Fiddler” songs, including one that was cut. We see Bock and Harnick around a piano, performing the songs on TV. We learn that after the musical’s road test in Detroit is panned, Robbins makes wholesale changes, including his demand that Bock and Harnick write “Tradition” as a contextual opening song.

Writer Calvin Trillin is one of many Jewish cultural icons interviewed in the documentary. He says the musical “allowed many Jews to acknowledge their European roots.”

Not everyone was convinced. Author Fran Leibowitz called the show “nostalgia for something that never happened. Jews hated the Old Country.”

Yet the preponderance of interviews is so positive that “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” occasionally plays more as a tribute than a documentary.

Still, like the musical, the documentary will prompt Jewish kvelling. And isn’t that the point?

“Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” 6:30 p.m. July 18 at the Castro Theatre, S.F., with director Max Lewkowicz expected to attend. Followed at 9 p.m. by opening-night party for 21 and older at Contemporary Jewish Museum. “The Mamboniks,” 4:05 p.m. July 21 at CinéArts, Palo Alto, 8:55 p.m. July 27 at the Castro, S.F., and 4:30 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Piedmont in Oakland. sfjff.org

Andrew Muchin

Andrew Muchin is a freelance writer and host of the weekly "Sounds Jewish" radio program on Mississippi Public Broadcasting Music Radio and Radio-J.com.