By Charles Bernsen
Lacey Schwartz had suspected for some time that her dark skin was not, as her Jewish parents told her, a genetic inheritance from her swarthy Sicilian grandfather. When she became a bat mitzvah at her upstate New York synagogue, a woman had remarked that it was nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in the congregation.
But it was not until after her freshman year at Georgetown University, where she was contacted by the black student association based on her application photo, that she confronted her mother and learned the truth: Her father was an African American man with whom her mother had had an extramarital affair.
Schwartz, now 37, tells the story of her emergence from what she calls “the racial closet” in the autobiographical documentary Little White Lie. It is one of 15 films that will be screened this month at four venues during the 14th annual Nashville Jewish Film Festival. Schwartz, the film’s producer and co-director, will be in Nashville for a question-and-answer session following the screening of Little White Lie at 7p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 12 at the Belcourt Theatre.
The Harvard Law School graduate-turned-independent film producer said she originally had set out to make a film about black Jews in America. But she soon realized not only that she was still coming to terms with her dual identity as Jew and African American but also that she was still dealing with her family’s reluctance to acknowledge or even talk about the secret they had held for so long.
“So the film became a more personal story about what I was experiencing – my own journey,” she said. “It’s a story about the power of truth and the process of dealing with it.”
Her parents, Robert and Peggy Schwartz, who divorced while she was still in high school, both participated in the making of Little White Lie, which records the emotional and sometimes awkward moments as family members discuss what had long been taboo.
“I owed it to my daughter to no longer be deceptive about what my life was like,” Peggy Schwartz said of her participation in the film, which is slated to air next year on PBS. “She needed to go on her path, and she invited me to go on mine. I’m very grateful for that.”
While Schwartz has embraced her black identity, it has not been at the expense of the strong Jewish cultural identity she developed during her formative years. In addition to winning grants from major Jewish funders — the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the Jewish federations of New York and San Francisco, and the Righteous Persons Foundation, among them — Schwartz’s film has also received long-term support from Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life.
Schwartz, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and twin 1-year-old sons, serves as the group’s national outreach director and its New York regional director. She said she hopes the film will catalyze discussion around not only around race but also the consequences of keeping family secrets. •
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this story.