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Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Identity is a constant negotiation — among questions of sex, faith, and geography — in Marlene Booth’s Yidl in the Middle: Growing Up Jewish in Iowa.

Yidl in the Middle is an autobiographical documentary about Booth’s experiences with growing up Jewish in what some might consider idyllic Iowa in the 1950s and 1960s. Booth’s narration moves us through the different layers of these identities and their contradictions as it moves us through the chronology of her and her family’s life.

Booth sets up her identities as a Jew and as an Iowan almost as opposites in this short 1998 documentary. She grew up in a family that kept kosher at home, but then they ate cheeseburgers at restaurants. She celebrated Hanukkah, while her non-Jewish friends celebrated Christmas.

Booth’s story is also her family’s and her community’s story, and they faced different kinds of discrimination. She mentions how her father regularly was passed over for promotion. The local country club voted to keep Jewish members out with secret ballots.

While she faced pressures outside the home, she also faced pressures within the community to think and act in certain ways. Booth’s voiceover helps bring these complicated points together without oversimplifying them.

An abundance of home movies and old photos help illustrate this story, and Booth interviews family members, friends, and classmates as well. Oddly, she also appears on camera talking to us, but fortunately, Yidl in the Middle does not feel narcissistic or overly indulgent as many autobiographical documentaries tend to do.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.