From automats to Anatevka
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From automats to Anatevka

JCC Rockland International Film Festival opens

Scenes from the meta movie “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.”
Scenes from the meta movie “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.”

Arthur Krim, then the head of United Artists film studio, had a question for director Norman Jewison:

“What would you say if I told you we want you to direct “Fiddler on the Roof”?

Jewison’s response: “What would you say if I told you I was a goy?”

That news failed to unsettle the studio executive, who replied: “What would you say if I told you it didn’t matter? We don’t want a Second Avenue Yiddish production. We want a film for everybody.”

And that marks the genesis of one of the most popular musical film adaptations of what is arguably the most popular Broadway musicals ever.

It is also one of many fascinating tidbits in “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” which area residents will be able to screen as part of the 19th annual JCC Rockland International Film Festival. In fact, it will be available on April 7; that’s three weeks before its theatrical debut in New York.

The festival, which runs from March 27 through May 3 (with a Passover break) features 13 films of Jewish interest.

According to Rachel Appell, the JCC’s special projects coordinator, this year’s events mark the festival’s return to live theater, at least in part, after a two-year pandemic-related pause. While all the movies will be available online, the last four productions — “Our Sons,” “Valiant Hearts,” “Plan A,” and the closing night film, “The Levys of Monticello” —also will be shown at the Regal Nanuet.

As usual, the festival offers a wide range of genres; films range from serious documentaries to light-hearted fare. The opening night presentation, “A Tree of Life,” obviously is on the serious side. It is about the horrendous antisemitic rampage at the Pittsburgh synagogue complex in 2018. Eleven congregants, ranging in age from 54 to 97, were murdered. Director Trish Adlesic talks to the survivors and family members of the victims in this moving documentary, which brings into focus how our very social fabric is deteriorating. A prerecorded Zoom interview with the filmmaker follows the screening.

On a lighter note, the chances are that anyone who grew up in the metropolitan area and is of a certain age (and willing to admit it) has been to an automat. (On a personal note, that was my family’s Big Meal Out, every Saturday, at the Horn & Hardardt on 181st Street in Washington Heights. You know, next to Wertheimers’s Department Store.)

The film, appropriately titled “The Automat,” received ecstatic reviews when it was released last fall, during the pandemic, when most folks rarely ventured to the cinema. It features interviews with New Yorkers who deposited their nickels to open up the windows to sandwiches and desserts. Among them is Mel Brooks, who was so excited about remembering the automat that he wrote and performed a song for the film.

“Dough” is listed as the senior film, perhaps because it is the oldest. Originally released in 2015, it has aged well. Or, since it largely takes place in a bakery, can I say that “Dough” has risen to the occasion. Nat Dyson (Jonathan Price) reluctantly hires a Muslim teen to work in his kosher bakery. There are two things he doesn’t realize at first: that the teen has a side business selling weed, and why his business suddenly picked up (after the teen accidentally drops some product in the dough).

But back to “Fiddler”. I will watch anything Fiddler-related, unless it features Harvey Fierstein as Tevye. Jewison (“Heat of the Night,” “Moonstruck”) was a perfect choice as director. He says he’s been the subject of antisemitic abuse from people who assumed he was Jewish, so he understood the film. Also, he had musical experience in television, where he directed both Harry Belafonte and Judy Garland.

When word got out about the film, everyone wanted to play Tevye, he said, including Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra. Jewison nixed the obvious choice, Zero Mostel, who originated the role on Broadway. He felt, correctly, that Mostel’s performance featured too much schtick. Mostel thought he was bigger than the play and was “not what Sholem Aleichem had in mind.” He found his Tevye in Topol, the Israeli actor who was playing that role in the London production.

The film includes interviews with John Williams, the film’s musical director; Sheldon Harnick, the score’s lyricist; the actresses cast to play Tevye’s daughters; members of the crew and noted film critic Kenneth Turan.

The film ends on two interesting notes. Jewison somehow — perhaps during the filming — became infused with Jewish spirit. He remarried Lynn St. David and arranged for a rabbi to perform the ceremony under a chuppah.

Perhaps it was a conversation he’d had years earlier, after screening “Fiddler” for David Ben Gurion. He asked the prime minister who he thought could be considered to be Jewish. Ben Gurion replied: “Anyone who is crazy enough to want to be Jewish is Jewish.”

Ticket prices are $12 for virtual screenings, $14 for in-person tickets, and $100 for a full subscription. There’s more information and a link to order tickets at jccrockland.eventive.org

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