‘Woodstock’ is strong, but misses festival’s Jewish story

Woodstock

 Part of the crowd on the first day of the Woodstock Festival. Photo: Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell/Wikimedia Commons

Woodstock: 50th anniversary

“Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation” is a new offering in the PBS “American Experience” series. It premiered last Friday in St. Louis, but there is an encore showing Tuesday, Aug. 20, at 7 p.m. (Channel 9 and available on PBS app/website.) The film is directed by and was co-written by BARAK GOODMAN, 56, who has helmed a number of very good documentaries. 

Goodman uses off-camera interviews with concertgoers, musicians, festival producers and festival staff, to tell the story of the “miracles” of Woodstock. These include the festival finding a venue in the first place, not to mention that 500,000 concertgoers remained peaceful and helped each other in trying conditions. The film makes the point Woodstock emerged as a tangible manifestation of the ’60s counterculture ideals of peace, love and selfless cooperation.

Still, I wish that Goodman had mentioned the word “Jewish” just once. Four guys, all Jewish, came together to create the festival and all are interviewed: ARTIE KORNFELD, now 76, MICHAEL LANG, now 74, JOEL ROSENMAN, now 77, and JOHN ROBERTS, who died in 2001, at age 56. It’s clear to me, after speaking to Kornfeld in 2009 (and other things), that being a mensch guided them as much as any hippie ethos. As depicted in the film, they made nothing from the festival and Roberts, who was the main “money man,” dug deep into his own pocket to make sure there was adequate food, water and bathrooms for a crowd much larger than expected.

 The film chronicles how the festival lost its original venue when the town of Wallkill, N.Y., pushed by anti-“dirty hippie” citizens, made any large gathering illegal. Only a month before the concert date, the festival was saved when Lang and Kornfeld rented the dairy farm of MAX YASGUR (1919-1973).

 The farm was located in western Sullivan County, in the Catskill mountains (about 150 miles from New York City). The eastern part of the county was the site of the famous Borscht Belt hotels. By 1920, over 500 Jewish-owned dairy farms were in eastern Sullivan County. These farmers sometimes took in Jewish summer lodgers and some eventually turned their farms into hotel resorts. Western Sullivan County was mostly non-Jewish and not “Jewish friendly.” The late SAM YASGUR, Max’s son, told me his father coped with the unfriendly atmosphere by being a “better farmer than his neighbors.”

 Max Yasgur prevented another “Wallkill” by appearing at his town’s zoning board. Sam Yasgur told me in 2009 that his father, a conservative Republican, lectured the board on freedom, and how freedom included hippies, and that hippies had a right to be in town. Max ended with what Sam Yasgur called his knock-out punch, “Facing the [board] directly with something that had long rankled him about them, Max said: ‘What are you planning to do next? Are you going to try to throw me out of town because I am a Jew?’”  The board backed off.

 Goodman does give Max Yasgur more than a mere mention. Still, I wish he had used the story above, or even just said he was Jewish. Max was the patron saint of Woodstock and he refused to cash-in on his fame. Also, the documentary only provides a few snippet views of musical performances. One band that does appear is Country Joe and the Fish. COUNTRY JOE McDONALD, now 77, and BARRY “The Fish” MELTON, now 72, are both sons of Jewish mothers and they both identify as Jewish.

  At the movies

Opening Aug. 16 is “The Informer,” which stars JOEL KINNAMAN, 39, as a former special ops soldier caught-up in a convoluted stateside mess that starts with him protecting his wife. He eventually has to take on the mob, the NYPD and the FBI. Kinnaman was born and raised in Sweden, the son of a non-Jewish American father and a Swedish Jewish mother (her family moved to Sweden from the Ukraine in 1850).

Opening the same day is “Good Boys,” a teen comedy that opens with 12-year-old Max (Jacob Tremblay) trying to learn how to kiss and, egged on by his buddies, using his father’s drone to spy on neighbors. The drone crashes and the boys skip school hoping to find someway to replace it. They embark on an odyssey that involves a lot of weird stuff. MOLLY GORDON, 23, has a large supporting role. Kiev-born comedy writer GENE STUPNITSKY, 42, makes his debut as a director with this film. He and his writing partner, LEE EISENBERG, 42, wrote the film’s screenplay and many episodes of “The Office,” the hit TV show.