Deborah Kaufman is the author of the "Flower Child Noir."
Deborah Kaufman is the author of the "Flower Child Noir."

‘Flower Child Noir’: Berkeley filmmaker Deborah Kaufman pens a ‘poetry-memoir’

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Deborah Kaufman is best known in the Bay Area as a filmmaker and the founder of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

With the publication of “Flower Child Noir,” her new “hybrid poetry-memoir” about growing up in San Francisco, she is sharing another side of her creativity.

“I still don’t think of myself as a poet,” the Berkeley resident and longtime member of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont said in an interview. “I am a filmmaker.”

With her husband, Alan Snitow, Kaufman, 67, has made seven documentary films. Their latest, “Town Destroyer,” is about the controversy surrounding New Deal-era murals at San Francisco’s George Washington High School. It will be screened at Stanford’s Levinthal Hall on April 20.

Yet writing has long been part of Kaufman’s life. She wrote poetry in junior high and high school and took writing workshops in college at UC Santa Cruz. She occasionally performed her original poems at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Theatre San Francisco.

Her mother, Shirley Kaufman Daleski, published nine books of poetry and also translated the work of other poets, including Abba Kovner, Amir Gilboa and Judith Herzberg. Her father, the late internist Dr. Bernard Kaufman, penned a memoir.

Kaufman grew up in a “Jewish-positive family,” she said, adding, “As you grow older and change, you look back at your personal history and the history of your tribe in different ways.”

The title of her new collection is meant to express “the contradiction of our fantasy of flowers and hippies in the late 1960s as a happy, cosmic time of sex, drugs, rock and roll with the noir conditions that were hard-boiled, moody and bleak, with unhappy endings,” she said. A sense of noir factors in some of the poems, as well.

Perhaps these poems have been a way to figure out my own identity and also my Jewish identity

“I refer to that when I write about the music and the freedom we all had growing up in San Francisco at the same time that we faced possible nuclear armageddon, the horrors of the Vietnam War, ‘urban renewal,’ as they called it, of the Fillmore District and other destabilizing things in the atmosphere,” Kaufman said.

“Flower Child Noir” was developed — and nourished — in classes at The Writing Salon, where almost four years ago, a teacher told Kaufman, “You’ve got a book.” In the book, Kaufman deftly juxtaposes light and dark, sparks readers’ own memories and provides many a surprise ending as she addresses moments in her life from when she was a young girl through the burial of her mother in 2016.

In between, Kaufman quits the Girl Scouts over its authoritarian ethos, encounters antisemitism in the schoolyard at West Portal Elementary School, attends the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, uses “sticky pre-teen fingers” to roll joints, wrestles with privilege, smells “myrrh and sea salt” where the N Judah line ends, grapples with her parents’ divorce, watches her mother tape the windows of her Jerusalem apartment “to stave off shattered glass” during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 (her mother had made aliyah earlier that year and Deborah happened to be visiting), makes and loses friends and poignantly traces the lifespan of a Formica table “the color of cracked ice.”

“Putting the poems in chronological order gave the book a shape and also was my way of asserting control over the experiences,” Kaufman said. “Perhaps these poems have been a way to figure out my own identity and also my Jewish identity, a topic that figures large in the book.”

Her goal all along, she said, was that her poems be honest.

“I’m inspired to write, though I’m still trying to understand how language is an opportunity for expression, for agency and for defining oneself in that process,” she added. “I work to get to the nub of it, and to capture the music of the language, the rhythm of the words — the sound of a poem when it is read aloud.”

Kaufman said that during the pandemic, she went through “a zillion drafts” to shape the collection, and she eliminated a lot of poems to make the book more concise so it could better serve as a memoir. Asked to name a favorite, she was reluctant to choose. “My favorite poems are those I’m writing now,” she said. “My sense of writing is growing and changing, and I’m feeling looser, freer.”

Will the new poems be part of a second book? “I hope [there’s] another book,” Kaufman said, “but right now I’m focusing on the writing, not the packaging.”

West Portal

By Deborah Kaufman, from “Flower Child Noir”

I knocked on Willie Mays’ door,
mumbling “Trick or Treat,”
shy, in my terry-cloth tiger suit.
I was eight and he lived close by
after racists forced him
from the leafy neighborhood just blocks away.
His big hands ladled lolly-pops
into our paper bags, signed photos for us
on the front steps
while our knees knocked with excitement.

West Portal Elementary before busing,
stars and stripes hung high
in the auditorium where we recited the pledge
and waited in line for the polio vaccine,
sweet sugar cube on little pink tongues.
Day in, day out, air raid drills under wooden desks,
the bleak room where Miss Sangster scolded me
when I painted turquoise cubes
floating in space, instead of the pitcher with flowers.

Kids everywhere, our playground
a pandemonium of laughter, small fists
on tetherballs, steel chains
swinging as we flew higher, leaning
on leather strips, heads thrown back.
I wasn’t athletic but I sometimes won at four-square,
and only grasped who I was one day
on the blazing asphalt when I beat Rosie
and she yelled in my face, “Dirty Jew!”

I never fit in, though Janie invited me over,
such a thrill, until she proudly pointed
to the dreadful crucifix dangling over her bed,
the frightening naked man
with spikes in painted flesh.
“You killed Jesus!” she whispered to me
with freaky glee, her green eyes
gleaming, the words blistering, thrashing
in my ears as I ran home, the candy gone sour.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.