The largest charitable gift in the history of the State of Israel was in 2016: a $500 million donation to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. President Isaac Herzog called it “unprecedented.” It seemingly came out of nowhere from Howard and Lottie Marcus, a wealthy couple that was not particularly well-known. And now, a new documentary asks, “Who are the Marcuses?” and how did they live their life under the radar?”
And why did they donate half a billion dollars to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in particular? The short answer: water.
Born in the early 1900s, both Howard and Lottie Marcus became Jewish refugees of Nazi Germany. Although they both have passed, their daughter Ellen shares details of their life. She specifies that her parents were, as interviewee Randol Schoenberg puts it, “Germans of Jewish faith, not Jews in Germany.” Her mother Lottie was beaten up every day on the way home from school. Howard was the only Jew in his elementary school. Despite being one of the smartest kids in school, his teacher would say to him, if he answered something correctly, “pretty good for a Jew boy.”
They both left Germany in the mid-1930s, which set them on a path to earn enormous wealth, along with ever-growing hearts for humanity.
When the story came to the attention of the filmmaker Matthew Mishory, he knew there was an important story to be told. And it wasn’t until he interviewed Warren Buffett, a man synonymous with wealth, that the documentary became what it is.
“What could have been a small feel-good Jewish story about an act of philanthropy turned into a story of global import and global impact,” Mishory, the film’s director, told the Journal.
Buffett ended up becoming one of the most memorable interviewees on screen. The film concludes that at its core, humans crave gratitude.
“A Polish Jew who was in the camps, she ended up in Omaha,” Warren Buffett said at the end of the film. She was a really remarkable woman. She never talked about the experiences in the camps with me, but one time she said to me, ‘I’m slow to make friends because I can’t help thinking when I’m looking at somebody, would they hide me?’ And I know people aged 70, 75, that dozens and dozens and dozens of people would hide them. And I know others that had all kinds of good luck in life and got lots of money and people hold dinners for them— and their own kids wouldn’t hide ‘em. If you reach your older years and you have lots of people who would hide, you’ve led a successful life.”
It’s a story about wealth, generosity, innovation and Israeli pragmatism. In addition to answering who the Marcuses are, the film goes through Israel’s history as a leader in alleviating water scarcity. It chronicles the issue from Theodore Hertzl’s early writings about water for the people, to the research and innovations in desalination, water generation and purification at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The documentary shows that Israel has many of the answers to most of the world’s water problems.
President Isaac Herzog appears in the film, and called the Marcus’ donation “unprecedented.”
Director Mishory is a talent behind the camera. At the time of the filming, he had been making commercials for Pfizer and Greek NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mishory grew up in Los Angeles in an Israeli family, and didn’t expect that he’d become such a force in documentary filmmaking. His 2009 film “Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman” is part of the permanent collection at the British Film Institute’s National Film Archive. He also wrote and directed the feature film, “Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.”
The story of the Marcuses appealed so much to Mishory as an Israeli-American film director because of the many layers of family ties, generosity, Israel and the future.
While “Who Are The Marcuses?” will have viewers contemplating bequeathing, water scarcity and the future, Mishory’s next documentary, “Fioretta,” chronicles Randy Schoenberg (the grandson of Austrian-American composer) and his son Joey as they travel throughout Europe to gather 500 years of their family’s history.
And with the effects of climate change becoming more and a problem for humanity, the epilogue is quite uplifting with mentions about water deals between Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. California audiences will find the message dire and relatable—we have the world’s fourth largest economy and our water scarcity issues have been ongoing for over a hundred years.
“I liked that this was a different kind of story about Israel and a story that others were unlikely to tell,” Mishory said. “I felt a real personal connection to Israel’s water story because the Israel that my grandparents lived in, having narrowly escaped the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, was a water-starved, struggling country—a country that was still rationing food, that was basically dependent on the ebbs and flows of water into the Kinneret to provide water for the entire country. The Israel of today is something that my grandparents, or indeed my father, could never have imagined in their young adulthoods. That Israel would emerge as a sort of an eco-tech giant and have developed water technologies that not only solved its own water problem, but offer hope to the region. And I would say to the world, and specifically to the western United States and California.”
The documentary is also carried along with music by the legendary David Broza. It’s enjoyable, informative and inspiring. By the end, viewers will indeed know who the Marcuses are, and some just might be inspired to emulate their story.
“Who Are The Marcuses?” is being screened on Sunday, May 21st as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. More information on the film can be found on its website: https://www.whoarethemarcuses.com