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‘West Side Stories’: The movie that Denver Jews cannot stop talking about

The original Hebrew Educational Alliance building on West Colfax Avenue and Meade Street. (Beck Archives)West Side Stories,” an hour-long documentary about Denver’s Jewish shtetl of long ago, induces tears of nostalgia in those who grew up in its Yiddish arms.

People like me who never lived on the West Side will also cry — because they never felt that soothing embrace.

The documentary, directed by Steve Feld, premiered to 800 Denverites last week at the HEA. For days, hearts remained suspended in memory’s grip.

“I must have gotten 650 kisses last night,” Libby Rosen, 89, tells the Intermountain Jewish News. Along with numerous Westsiders, she contributed her amazing recollections to the film.

Libby attributes her immutable memories of her West Side youth to the family-centered nature of the community.

“People didn’t have the money to go to movies or dinner parties,” she says. “Everything we did was built around the home or the synagogue or the park — for me, it was Rude Park.

“We made our own good times, honey.”

Feld first entertained doing a documentary on the close-knit neighborhood in 1993, when he moved back to Denver after a career as a writer, director and producer in Los Angeles.

“I started doing videos for various Jewish organizations here, and every time I sat down to talk with people, they said I needed to make a film about the West Side,” he says. “I thought about it for years.

“Then about a year-and-a-half ago, my brother Sandy and Ron Bernstein approached me within days of each other and said, ‘We have to do this because the history is fascinating.’”

Most documentaries cost between $100,000 and $500,000 from start to completion.

“We didn’t have that kind of money,” says Feld. “So we decided to select a handful of prominent Westsiders, interview them, and put together a 10-minute marketing video to try and obtain grants.

“But when we began interviewing people, they said, ‘If you interview me, you’re going to have to interview this person, too.’”

The list of six individuals grew to 50.

“We couldn’t afford to pay crews to film, so I started running the camera and Ron was my assistant,” Feld says of the avalanche of work. “It was just the two of us. And when we finished, we realized we had enough material for the documentary.”

The cost of the film, which took a year to make, was $16,000.

Each interviewee shared his or her extraordinarily intact memories of the West Side “for over for an hour,” Feld says. “There were so many great stories that we couldn’t include them all.”

Different people offered different perspectives of the West Side experience.

Ida Strauss, who has since passed away, “was the oldest person we interviewed,” Feld says. “Steve Farber, representing the last of the great generations on the West Side, had a much different view.”

While some elderly people can’t remember what they ate for breakfast, “those we spoke to remembered every minor detail from their childhood on the West Side,” he adds.

“That was the strength of this community. Everyone had such vivid and wonderful memories of growing up there.”

The historical photographs — family portraits, wooden shuls, grocery stores, athletic contests, kids in go-carts and playing dice games in alleys, unpaved streets, the ubiquitous Yiddish signs — were donated by individuals and Dr. Jeanne Abrams, head of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society and Beck Archives.

Feldman Mortuary sponsored the premiere of “West Side Stories,” produced under the auspices of the HEA, on the occasion of the mortuary’s 75th anniversary.

A week before the premiere, Feld loaned me a rough cut of “West Side Stories” to view in the privacy of my home. After three sips of coffee, I slipped into those hospitable, welcoming West Side arms.

Enchanting narratives, accompanied by ceaseless photographic images, breathed life into this transplanted Eastern European shtetl situated along the West Colfax viaduct that grew into the communal address for traditional Denver Jewry.

The West Side began in the late 1800s after the Gold Rush.

An influx of Jews from the ill-fated Cotopaxi colony contributed to the West Side’s growth.

Jews sent to Denver by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the East Coast migration of Jews seeking treatment for TB at the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (1904) cemented this self-identified traditional Jewish enclave.

The Yiddish-speaking community was populated by peddlers, merchants, groceries, bakeries, dairy farmers, used furniture stores, Yiddish newspapers, saloons, Torah students and aspiring pugilists.

In one store, you could buy tefilin and a 3-cent copy of The Forward.

There were shuls on every corner — 27 synagogues to be exact — reflecting the Old World origins of their founders. For many years, Rabbi Solomon Shapiro led the services. He made everyone cry. Aliyahs were auctioned.

(A West Side man who raised chickens for a living built his own shul because he disliked all 27 existing houses of worship.)

All the boys had nicknames: Froggy, Governor, Boston, Shmaltzy, Kuku Vinegar (or something like that). The camera asks another man to divulge his distinctive moniker. “Don’t ask,” he warns. Nicknames were so integral to their identities that they didn’t always learn a contemporary’s given name.

Gambling in the form of an Italian dice game called Barbut was a favorite back alley diversion. It was a relatively harmless pursuit, but we can only imagine the horror of Westside mothers who learned that their sweet boys were less than perfect.

Irv Brown talks about the athletic competency of Jordon “Jordy” Perlmutter, Leonard Alterman, Ed Pepper, Nate Fell, Dick Yates and others. The Guldman Center, with its basketball courts and baseball fields, “was a safe haven for these kids.”

“Without the Guldman Center, Bob Loup and I probably would have ended up in reform school,” says Jerry Gray.

By the late 1940s, a rivalry sprang up between Westsiders and their more affluent counterparts on Denver’s East Side. Eventually, however, they became friends.

The section on Shabbat is particularly moving — but not lacking in comedic accents. Comedy was integral to the West Side experience.

“We used the dining room on Friday nights,” says Bob Loup. “All the other times we ate in the kitchen.”

A few days before Shabbos, families walked to Sozny’s or Brizman’s fish market to buy carp to make gefilte fish. The carp were then placed in bathtubs at home, soaking up water until they met their fate.

People remember cautiously scanning their tubs for carp before sticking in their toes.

“Everyone’s house smelled the same on Shabbos,” Rosyne Gardenswartz says.

“We lived next door to Cantor Jack Lefkowitz of the Alliance,” she remembers. “Every Shabbos morning he would wake us with his gorgeous singing voice.”

When the Hebrew Educational Alliance formed in 1932, it became the central rallying point for Westsiders. The annual dinners attracted 600 to 800 people. “They were the highlight of the social season,” says Neal Price of the HEA.

Rabbi Manuel Laderman, the first American-born English-speaking rabbi in the West Side’s history, assumed the pulpit at the Alliance. To this day, Westsiders praise his accessibility and kindness.

“Oh, the rabbi was a giant of a man,” says Mickey Gart.

“He had a philosophy of treating everyone with respect, which is a very Jewish thing,” concurs Abe Wagner. After services on Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Laderman played football with the kids. The entire street was closed off.

The West Side may have instituted the first economic cooperative in the West. Storekeepers loaned each other money and freely shared inventory. Competition was non-existent.

Every Chanukah, A.B. Hirschfeld passed out a little money to the children. The neighborhood established the West Colfax Loan Association for refugees. “We never locked our doors,” the interview subjects repeated. “Never.”

This selfless ethos characterized the West Side, which lost its cohesive identity due to urban growth and the ability to realize upscale economic aspirations in the 1950s.

The emotional interview with Ian Gardenswartz, whose tears threaten to interrupt the flow, summarizes the indelible spirit of the West Side.

One spring, as Ian and his brother Wesley helped their parents fill Passover grocery orders, there was a knock at the door.

Brother Mark Gardenswartz, who was studying in Boulder, made the trip to Denver to surprise and assist his family during this harried time.

“My dad opened the door and said, ‘Florence Nightingale has come to save the day!’

“And that’s what the West Side was all about,” Ian says.

The proof of an excellent film is evident in the general buzz that lingers after its conclusion. If people talk about it over coffee that night and in small groups at work the following morning, it’s indicative of moderate success.

But when nearly everyone who visits the IJN or calls the office on an unrelated matter several days later expresses unbridled enthusiasm, you know something truly magical has transpired.

This is the case with “West Side Stories.”

“It was a snapshot of my life,” says IJN account executive Bernie Papper, who can’t stop thinking about the documentary. “It was the most memorable time — and it will never come again.”

Feld, who describes “West Side Stories” as a work in progress, says the film is both a tribute to a vanished culture and a teaching tool for future generations.

“We want to preserve the history of the West Side because we think it’s unique,” he says. “There are so many stories out there, and we don’t want to lose them after the storytellers are no longer with us.

“In a very real sense, this documentary honors them all. But we want everyone in the Denver metropolitan area to see where these people came from.

“This documentary is not just for the Jewish community, but for all of Denver. We want people to appreciate the culture that defined the old West Side.”

“West Side Stories” was directed by Steve Feld; produced by Ron Bernstein, Sandy Feld and Marc Rosen; and narrated by Keith Riker.

The film’s closing credits thank Dr. Jeanne Abrams, Ken Berry, Ron Bernstein, Irv Brown, the family of Lester Gold, Steve Farber, Jerry Feld, Paul Feld, Steven P. Feld, Ian Gardenswartz, Walter Goldberg, Gerald Gray, Wally Halper, Jerry Lande, Robert Loup, Gary Mosko, Jordon Perlmutter, Libby Rosen, Steve Rosen, Meyer Saltzman, Ron Schiff, Goldie Smith, Rosetta and Harold Steinberg, the family of Ida Strauss, Abe Wagner, Leah Wolpa, Mike Zelinger and Morris Zelinger.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Senior Writer | [email protected]

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