Aviva Kempner has felt a strong tie to the city of Detroit throughout her life, expressing a love for baseball and diet Vernors.
Although born in Berlin, director-writer-producer Aviva Kempner has strong ties to Detroit.
Her parents, Harold Kempner and Helen Ciesla, met and fell in love in Berlin. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor from Poland, with blond hair, green eyes and false papers, who passed as a Polish Catholic in Germany. Her father was a U.S. Army officer who wrote a story about Helen and her brother surviving the war.
In 1950, they moved to Detroit where an uncle lived. Her parents divorced when she was 13, and her mother married Wayne State University history professor Milton Covensky.
“My father gave me a strong sense of Jewish identity and love of baseball, especially for Hank Greenberg,” she said. “My brother Jonathan and I heard about him every Yom Kippur, so we always thought Hank was part of Kol Nidre services.”
Kempner grew up in Detroit, attending Cass Tech High School in the mid-’60s. She received an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s in urban planning from the University of Michigan.
“While receiving my masters, I sold movie theater tickets at the Michigan Theater, so maybe that was my first experience in the business,” she jokes. “My years on the Michigan Daily developed my passion for the news and telling a good story.” She also earned a law degree at Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C., where she now lives.
“My mother, who was a great abstract expressionist painter [who had a one-woman show at the Detroit Institute of Arts], was an influence in pursuing an artistic career after I left a legal career,” she said. “And my stepfather gave me a great appreciation of history.”
In Detroit, Kempner says the family did not formally belong to a shul, but that she attended High Holiday services with her father at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.
“I fondly remember seeing Fiddler on the Roof with Pops every year in Detroit,” she said.
“We went to many activities at the Detroit Jewish Community Center, which was the centerpiece of my Jewish identity growing up. I continued that delightful childhood JCC experience by being very active with the re-establishment of the Washington, D.C., JCC and by starting the Jewish film festival in D.C. as an adult.”
Still, Detroit’s influence is inescapable.
“I always say you can take the girl out of Detroit but not Detroit out of the girl. I have kept in touch with many of my high school and college friends as well being close to my brother and Detroit cousins, who also live in Washington, D.C., area. We have had seders together for over 65 years.
“I still call soda ‘pop’ and drink Diet Vernors. I love meeting new people who are from Detroit and instantly compare notes about growing up here. And my favorite music remains Motown tunes.”
So, how do her two films about Jewish baseball heroes fit into her career goals?
“Life-size wall hangings of my three favorite Jewish baseball players — Sandy Koufax pitching to Hank Greenberg and Moe Berg as catcher — adorn the curved wall of my home’s staircase,” she said. “I was so proud of making The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg because he was a Jewish hero during times of teeming anti-Semitism in America and while the Nazis were raging in Europe.
“I jumped at businessman William Levine’s generous offer to support a Moe Berg bio film. The Spy Behind Home Plate fits perfectly into my goal to make historical documentaries about under-known Jewish heroes and my career focus on exploring courageous tales about those who fought the Nazis.”
Her nonprofit, the Ciesla Foundation, is based on those goals: to produce documentaries that investigate non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and to celebrate the untold stories of Jewish heroes.
“For decades, different writers and directors have tried to tell the story of the thrilling life of Moe Berg. I am proud to have made the first fact-based, feature-length documentary that does his life justice.”
For Aviva Kempner’s “love letter” to Detroit in the Forward, go to bit.ly/2QTC7tV.