From Borscht Belt to Berlin at the New York Jewish Film Festival

The scope of this year's New York Jewish Film Festival is as broad as the organizers' view of what constitutes Jewish cinema.

Last December, the online magazine Tablet ranked what it called the "100 Greatest Jewish Films." If the heading was not sufficiently pretentious, the surprising choice of "E.T." in first place raised quite a few eyebrows. Jody Rosen, a journalist at Tablet who helped consolidate the final list, explained that Steven Spielberg's successful film is actually about an alien of short stature, who like the Jewish immigrants finds himself "isolated and desperate in a new land" and struggles to find a refuge from sadistic scientists who want to experiment on him - just like the Nazis.

Here are Rosen's exact words: "E.T. is a minority story, an immigrant's tale. E.T. is the ultimate greenhorn - an anxious, bewildered creature, adrift in a strange land."

When Aviva Weintraub, Associate Curator and Director of the New York Jewish Film Festival, is asked about this choice, she finds it hard not to laugh. "I agree that the term 'Jewish film' is confusing and fluid," she says in an interview prior to the festival opening today. "The selection committee is striving to find works that deal with Jewish subject matter and Jewish identity, as vague as these concepts may sound."

An eclectic menu

The difficulty of determining the "Jewishness" of films is reflected in the eclectic nature of this year's festival, which runs until January 26 at New York's Jewish Museum. It includes 35 feature films, documentaries and shorts, among them three Israeli feature films: "Restoration," by Joseph Madmony, "The Flood" by Guy Nattiv, and "My Australia" by Ami Drozd. There will also be special screenings, such as the New York debut of "Shoah: The Unseen Interviews," a documentary that includes archival material that was not included in Claude Lanzmann's monumental work, as well as a rare screening of a silent film from 1922 called "Breaking Home Ties," which will be shown for the first time to an American audience, accompanied by live music (the film had its Israeli debut at the Jerusalem International Film Festival last summer ).

Also on the festival menu are biographies of Jewish intellectuals such as architect Erich Mendelssohn, comics artist Joann Sfar (the creator of the popular American comic book "The Rabbi's Cat" ), and tenor Joseph Schmidt.

Weintraub, who works in the Jewish Museum and has been involved in organizing the festival for the past two decades, says: "There is definitely a need for a Jewish film festival. For one reason, many of the films do not go on to have theatrical distribution or release, and so we offer a unique opportunity to see them on the big screen. Another reason is that a festival is different from just going to see a film: It is an opportunity for the audience and the creators to come together, so the whole is more than the sum of its parts."

How would you describe the festival's target audience?

"The target audience is everybody and anybody, and not only the American Jewish community."

East European origins

The Jewish Film Festival was established in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Weintraub says that the original idea of initiating cooperation between New York's Jewish Museum and the veteran and highly regarded cultural institution called the Film Society of Lincoln Center, was based on a huge supply of Jewish films that became available after the fall of the Communist regimes and the opening of the archives in many countries. Accordingly, in its first years the festival focused on films that arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.

Today, on the other hand, the festival has turned into something far broader and more varied. Over 250 works are submitted each year to the five-member selection committee which includes Weintraub and the director of the Lincoln Center programs and the New York Film Festival, Richard Pena. "Our work is becoming more and more challenging because the supply is simply huge." says Weintraub."We try to narrow down the list, and in the end we choose films that in our opinion manage to present subjects that have not yet been discussed or to shed new light on familiar subjects."

This year's pickings include three feature films and many documentaries by Israeli artists.

Do you consider every film made in Israel a "Jewish film"?

"It's an interesting question that comes up frequently in our discussions. A film does not necessarily have to include a scene which deals directly with Judaism or Jewish life. More accurate criteria would be 'Israeliness,' which is a difficult concept in itself."

Salute toYoni Netanyahu

One of the prominent screenings at the festival is the world debut of a new film about Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was killed in the course of the operation to release the hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. The film, which is called "Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story," tells the story of the outstanding officer through Netanyahu's personal diaries and letters that he wrote to his family and friends while he was studying at Harvard University, as well as a series of interviews with family, friends and girlfriends. The creators, Ari Daniel Pinchot and Jonathan Gruber, present a patriotic and cliche-ridden biography that turns the young Netanyahu into the perfect embodiment of an "officer and a gentleman," and ignores any alternative version that is liable to cast a shadow on the myth of the sabra (native-born Israeli ) perpetuated in their film.

Along with the salute to Yoni Netanyahu, the festival will also screen films that provide a more complex look at the Israeli reality, including "A Bottle in the Gaza Sea," a French feature about a girl who lives in Jerusalem and makes contact with a young Palestinian from Gaza.

Weintraub dismisses the suggestion that there is an attempt to maintain a political balance in deciding which film to screen.

"The selection criteria are artistic and not political. There is no deliberate attempt to create a balance between different political stands. The festival's program offers a balance between documentary and features, young and experienced filmmakers and works from different countries, as well as films which express diverse political points of view," she says.

And you have no opposition to the patriotic spirit emanating from the film about Netanyahu, which does not provide a historical context for the Entebbe operation?

"I thought it had a lot of historical context," she responds. "The strength of the film is the material, i.e. Yoni's diaries and his poems. I do not agree that it lacks a historical context."

Have you ever been subject to political pressures to include or disqualify certain films?

"No, I have no experience with such pressures."

The total avoidance of any political stance and the blend of light and entertaining films alongside gloomy dramas may explain the festival's popularity. And popular it is. Despite the dizzying number of film festivals in the Big Apple, tickets for many of the screenings at the Jewish Film Festival were snapped up even before the opening. And even if it is hard to find experimental or trailblazing cinema here, the dozens of films to be screened at the festival sketch a fascinating portrait of Jewish identity in the 21st century - one that is both local and global, both nostalgic and in denial of the past, and mainly one that is full of internal contradictions. Just like a film that's worth watching.

Best picks of the festival

"Breaking Home Ties" - The American debut of a restored copy of a 1922 silent film that tells the story, full of vicissitudes, of a Jewish refugee who flees from pre-revolutionary Russia to America. In addition to the lovely black-and-white photography, the screening will be accompanied by live music composed by pianist Donald Sosin.

"Deaf Jam" - A fascinating documentary about American Sign Language (ASL ) and the ability to create "spoken-word poetry" through a combination of signs, physical gestures and facial expressions. In addition to a rare glimpse at the marginal culture of deaf teenagers, the film succeeds in being both moving and surprising thanks to its main protagonists: a deaf girl who emigrated from Israel to New York at the age of 7 and writes poems together with a Palestinian student.

"Dressing America" - A documentary about the crucial contribution of Jewish immigrants to the American fashion scene in the 1950s and 1960s. The film focuses on the "golden age" of the clothing and fabric stores in the area known as Manhattan's garment district, and the massive presence of Jewish designers who wanted to challenge the hegemony of European fashion, especially that of the French designers.

"Lea and Darija" - A drama based on the true story of the wunderkind Lea Deutsch, who was known as the "Croatian Shirley Temple." At the age of 13 Deutsch, who was Jewish, had already starred in musicals and plays in the Croatian theater, and her parents believed that her fame and success would protect the family from anti-Semitic persecution. The film recreates the unsuccessful attempts of the family to flee from Zagreb, and the strong friendship between Lea and another wunderkind, the German girl Darija Gasteiger, who was her co-star.

"Incessant Visions" - A documentary about Erich Mendelssohn, one of the most important and successful architects in pre-World War II Berlin. Through interviews with his wife, Louise, and Mendelssohn's many letters, the film is able to sketch the life of the Jewish exile who fled from the Nazi terror in the hope of using his architectural talents in Palestine.

"Shoah: The Unseen Interviews" - A rare opportunity to see three interviews that were not included in the final version of "Shoah," the monumental work by Claude Lanzmann. Avraham Bomba describes how he worked as a barber in Treblinka; Peter Berson tells about his personal struggle to publicize and expose the crimes of the Nazis; and Ruth Elias tells how she managed to survive the war.

"Daas" - The American debut of a period drama that tells the story of Jacob Frank, who was known as a "false messiah" in 18th-century Poland, and as one of the successors of Shabtai Zvi. The film was made in Poland and focuses on a Viennese attorney who considers Frank a threat to the Austro-Hungarian empire and wants to interrogate him.

"Joann Sfar Draws From Memory" - The world debut screening of Sam Bell's documentary about French Jewish comics artist Joann Sfar, who became famous thanks to "The Rabbi's Cat" series and the biographical film directed by Serge Gainsbourg. The film returns to his childhood neighborhood and the places that shaped Sfar's unique sense of humor, whose varied sources of inspiration include the Bible and Chagall's paintings.

"White: A Memoir in Color" - Documentary director Joel Katz asks about the significance of his white skin in 21st-century America. In order to answer this complex question he goes back to the family history of his father, a white professor who chose to teach in a university where most of the students are Afro-Americans.

"Welcome to Kutsher's" - The documentary film that will close the festival recreates the "golden age" of the strip of hotels in the Catskill Mountains in New York State, which starting in the mid-20th century became a main focus of attraction for Jewish families. This is an amusing portrait of the rise and fall of the Jewish hotels in New York's "Borscht Belt," named after the traditional Jewish dish served to the masses of hotel guests in the 1950s and 1960s. Dozens of Hollywood celebrities, such as Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal, began their careers in the entertainment clubs that were part of the "all-inclusive" vacation in the hotels that used to serve kosher food during the day, and to hold "dirty dancing"-style parties at night.