Alumni in the News

Alumna to be honored for her contributions to Jewish cinema

Photo by Mike Lovett

By Kerri Farrell

In 1976, Sharon Pucker Rivo ’61 stumbled upon the find that would become her life’s work.

Brandeis professor Leon Jick had hired Rivo, then a producer at Boston public TV station WGBH, to oversee an innovative media project. After investigating a tip from a rabbi friend, Rivo discovered the extensive private collection of Yiddish feature films amassed by Joseph Seiden, a producer of Yiddish films in the 1930s and 1940s who had collected languishing film materials in the post-war years.

When Rivo found this cache, she knew it was an opportunity. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, this is just too important,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘I have to save it.’ ”

Brandeis founding president Abram Sachar and Professor Larry Fuchs agreed, and invited the fledgling project onto campus.

“1976 was America’s bicentennial,” Rivo explains. “It was a time in our history when it was OK to be black, it was OK to be Jewish. It was OK to be recognized for your difference and to respect your own heritage. Those guys got that early on. This was a piece of Jewish history that had to be saved somehow.”

Rivo raised the $20,000 necessary to buy Seiden’s collection, and she established the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF), an independent non-profit arts organization, located on the Brandeis campus. Today, NCJF owns the largest collection of Jewish-content film in the world, outside of Israel.

Led by Rivo, the center's executive director, and her daughter, Lisa, NCJF also restores and preserves films; provides rare archival film materials to new films and exhibitions; and distributes the new films of more than 100 contemporary filmmakers to educational institutions and festivals. To date, the center has rescued thousands of rare movies and restored more than 100 endangered films.

Rivo has been a member of the Brandeis faculty for 20 years, teaching courses on film in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

On Feb. 23, Rivo will be honored at the 25th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival for her lifelong contributions to film archiving, distribution, curating and scholarship. Rivo will be recognized in conjunction with the premiere screening of the 1922 silent film “Breaking Home Ties,” at 6:30 p.m. at the Washington Jewish Community Center. The film was considered lost, but the world’s only existing print was discovered and restored by the center.

Jonathan Sarna ’75, MA’75, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis, credits Rivo and the NCJF for preserving a cultural tradition that was almost lost.

“Decades ago, Sharon Pucker Rivo undertook to save a small number of Yiddish films,” says Sarna, who also serves as the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. “Today we know that she has really saved an entire world of Jewish film, a world that but for her efforts would long ago have crumbled into oblivion.”

Date: February 3, 2015