Looking at present-tense movies about Jewish life

Looking at present-tense movies about Jewish life

Stuart Weinstock teaches at Ramapo — and also heads the once-again-in-person New Jersey Jewish Film Festival in West Orange

“America,” set to screen on Tuesday, March 21, at 7 p.m., is a visually sumptuous Israeli drama involving a reunion of friends cut short by tragedy that pulls them apart and together in unexpected ways. (All images courtesy New Jersey Jewish Film Festival
“America,” set to screen on Tuesday, March 21, at 7 p.m., is a visually sumptuous Israeli drama involving a reunion of friends cut short by tragedy that pulls them apart and together in unexpected ways. (All images courtesy New Jersey Jewish Film Festival

It’s been three years since the JCC MetroWest was able to offer its film festival fully, gloriously in person. Last year, it showed some movies in house, but people watched most of them at home. Covid still endangered audiences.

Covid’s not gone yet, but now, vaccines and boosters and medications later, audiences are back, ready to share the experience of being in the same room, at the same time, transfixed or engaged or possibly enraged at what’s being projected, larger than life (and twice as natural, as Lewis Carroll would have told them) in front of them.

So now, for its 23rd season, the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival is back.

Once again, it will screen films at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange, from March 12 to March 26.

This year, it has a new director, Stuart Weinstock, also of West Orange, who comes to it with a background as a teacher at Columbia and at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“I was brought in with the goal of broadening the JCC’s film program,” Mr. Weinstock said; that program includes JFilms, which began in October, although “the film festival is very much the crown jewel of the whole enterprise,” he said.

He started with a bang; the first film — and really, this is less a film than a movie, with all that term’s popcorn-eating, eyes-wide-open implications — was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “It’s one of my two favorite films,” Mr. Weinstock said. “I wanted to introduce myself to the community on that basis.

“I could have picked my favorite Israeli film instead, but the only people who would have paid attention to it would be the people who already were interested in it. I wanted to bring them in — and also to bring in people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested.”

Stuart Weinstock

(For the record, his other favorite film is “Almost Famous.”)

“We reached out to every JCC constituency,” Mr. Weinstock said. “To camp families, to families with kids. It was on a weeknight, a Thursday, and it started at 7. I pitched it as a great opportunity to see a classic film in a great theater setting.

“When I introduced it, I shared my pet theory — that the character of Indiana Jones is Jewish — but that’s not the main reason I chose it. It’s because we have a fantastic theater space.

“It’s not a synagogue, but it is a culturally Jewish space.”

That’s important. Mr. Weinstock — who is a member of a synagogue, Congregation Beth El in South Orange — believes in the importance of both synagogues and other Jewish spaces.

“At the JCC, I want to stretch boundaries,” he continued. “But my role is to build on the resurgence we’ve seen in terms of people coming back into the building; to build on the desire for in-person programming and to grow the audience for the film at the JCC.

“There are people of all ages who use the building.” Many of them see the JCC as primarily a place with a very good gym. “We want them to be part of the cultural programming here as well,” Mr. Weinstock said.

He and his wife, Aliza, who taught at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Manhattan for 15 years, and as of this year is the manager of Quest for Teaching Excellence at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, moved to West Orange in 2015. They have two young sons; one is 3 years old and the other is 6.

In “Karaoke,” set for Friday, March 24, at 11 a.m., the regret-filled life of a middle-class couple (Ophir winners Sasson Gabay and Rita Shukrun) is upended by their new neighbor, a bon vivant played by Lior Ashkenazi.

He comes to the JCC with a BA and an MFA in film, both from Columbia; after a short-lived career as a freelance filmmaker, he decided that he’d rather teach.

He’s an adjunct professor at Ramapo, where he teaches both theory and practice. One set of his classes “are film history, theory, and criticism,” he said; he teaches a class on the history of film comedy, and another on the cinema of the 1970s. He also teaches workshops in screenwriting and directing. “Those classes are small and collaborative, and I love them,” he said.

He also teaches film at Columbia. “I taught some of the same classes as at Ramapo, and also a class in auteur studies, entirely focused on Steven Spielberg’s body of work,” he said. (Remember that the film he used to introduced himself to the community was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”)

“In 2013, I started running a public film program for the Columbia Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, which is not really an academic partner with Columbia but is a hub for its faculty who teach anything related to those subjects,” he said. That led to a course for the school about Israeli cinema. “My programming there has been primarily oriented toward Israeli films, because when I started doing it, those films had a lot of international prominence,” he said.

“Columbia has a reputation for being an immensely politically active campus — I know it has other reputations as well — but I have to say that I have been there almost continuously since 2001” — when he began as a freshman at Columbia College — “and they have an enormous Jewish community and a very active Hillel. There is so much Jewish history taught there; there is so much to learn about Judaism at Columbia.

“It is not a hostile environment for Jews. Everybody has an affinity group, sort of like their tribe, on campus. I like to reassure people that Jewish students aren’t up against anything, and I have never had any kind of controversy teaching a class on Israeli cinema. There’s never been any pushback.

“It’s perceived as being a battleground campus. It just isn’t.”

Among Mr. Weinstock’s reasons for deciding to head a film festival is to be able to use his knowledge about film to help other people learn about more of them, see more of them, and understand more about what they see, he said. And among his reasons to head a Jewish film festival is to let more people know about the fantastic films coming from Israel.

The suspenseful comedy “My Neighbor Adolf,” to play on Sunday, March 26, at 4 p.m., is set in Colombia in 1960, where an embittered survivor is convinced that his new neighbor is Adolf Hitler.

Yes, there will be many Israeli films in the festival.

“I see most of the Israeli films that come out every year,” Mr. Weinstock said. Because many of them are streamed, people who know about them can see them. “Some of my friends watch them,” he said. “But nobody else watches them.” There are fewer art houses than there used to be, and covid has wreaked absolute havoc on people’s movie-going habits anyway.

“It was like a pebble in my shoe, that no one was seeing these films,” Mr. Weinstock said.

The JCC’s film festival is Jewish, not only Israeli, and he plans to screen many movies, not all of them from Israel, he continued. “But part of the reason to prioritize Israeli films is because they make present-tense movies about Jewish life.”

It’s not a political impulse, he stressed. “I started at Columbia feeling that advocacy is everywhere. If you want hasbara” — a pro-Israel explanation of everything that Israel does or says or seems to be doing or saying — “you can get it from student groups on campus. They didn’t need me for it. So from Day One, my position was that I advocate for films and filmmakers.

“I have shown films that go to these issues, and I have sought to get speakers who can speak to them — we don’t ignore it — but that is not my priority. Every year there are dozens of really great Israeli films that are about people, not about issues. I am more interested in those films.”

Israeli cinema has changed over time, he said. “In the early aughts, there was a bumper crop of Israeli films getting a lot of attention. They were all war films. But that is not all that Israeli cinema has to offer. I have made it my priority to push past that to show a more representative sample of what Israeli audiences are seeing.

“And I have absolutely carried that focus over to the JCC.”

The festival will open on Sunday, March 12, at 3 p.m., before the Oscars, with “Only in Theaters,” a movie about the Laemmle family. There is a red carpet involved….

What about Jewish films from other places?

“There are a lot of Jewish people writing and directing and acting in American films, but it’s not necessarily about Jewish people,” Mr. Weinstock said. “The assimilationist impulse that has been a guiding part of American cinema persists till this day. American Jews who make films about Jewish themes and Jewish life are few and far between.”

He also will show European films, but there’s that same problem with looking only backward. “Most of those films are period pieces about the Holocaust,” he said. That’s important, of course, but “if we are showing films about Jewish life, they need to be present tense, and those films primarily are coming from Israel.

“Israeli films get into the depth and breadth of the people who live in Israel,” he continued. “We get films about just about every ethnic group who lives there, although it would be cool if we had more films about the Druse. There are just a few of those.”

It’s too early for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to make it into film, Mr. Weinstock said, but “we have programmed a film at the festival that does speak directly to the invasion. It’s called ‘Shttl’” — the title’s lack of vowels is no accident — “and it’s a black-and-white film, done in a single take, shot in Ukraine before the war, about a guy returning to his shtetl on the eve of the Nazi invasion in 1942.

“The film was shot on a rebuilt shtetl — it’s phenomenally intricate — and they were going to keep it standing, but now, with the war, who knows?”

The production was done jointly with French and Ukrainian companies, and “the actors speak hybrid Yiddish, from everywhere.” And this is where all sorts of partnerships prove to be useful. “We are a community sponsor of the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival,” Jacob Labenz, the director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College, said; this cross-fertilization happened because Mr. Weinstock is an adjunct professor at Ramapo.

“I will be offering to take the students of my ‘Holocaust and Media’ class to a screening of ‘Shttl,’” Dr. Labenz continued. “The course is centered on film, which is the impetus for a film viewing. I am interested in this particular film because the Gross Center ran two programs on Ukraine last semester, and I believe students are deeply interested in the history of that land and its current crisis.”

“The Way to Happiness,” showing on Monday, March 20, at 11 a.m., is a sensitive drama about a child Holocaust survivor finding new love and coming to terms with his past.

The festival also will include a documentary called “Tree of Life,” about the massacre in Pittsburgh in which a far-right murderer killed 11 Jews at shul in 2018. The JCC’s Gaelen Gallery is hosting a show called “From Darkness to Light,” with mosaics about the shootings, and “the goal is to help give context and frame the tribute,” Mr. Weinstock said. “We have a great collaboration with the gallery director, Lisa Suss.”

He also will screen Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.” After the film, Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber, who grew up in Englewood, will talk about his new book, “Disobedient Jew,” about Mr. Brooks. “Mel Brooks used to sign letters as ‘Your Obedient Jew,’” Mr. Weinstock explained.

After many of the films are screened, people involved with making it — “a filmmaker, maybe from Israel, maybe from Europe, can be there — and we can run a Zoom Q&A inside the theater. So the audience can watch the movie, and then have some sort of instant gratification with the Q&A.”

The festival will open on March 12 with a documentary, “Only in Theaters,” about the Laemmle family. “Of course, there was Carl Laemmle” — one of the early Hollywood pioneers, a creator of Universal Pictures — “but there were also his cousins, who opened a theater chain that pretty much became the keeper of foreign and art-house film culture in L.A. for generations. Besides being a look at a Jewish family, it’s also a love letter to in-person cinema, and what we get from watching movies together in the room.

“It frames the festival experience for us.”

Mr. Weinstock also managed to turn what could have been a big problem for the festival into a draw for it. “We set the festival date almost 10 months ago — and then the Academy Awards announced that it would be on Sunday, March 12.

“If you were going to make a Venn diagram of people who would watch the awards and come to the festival, it would be a circle. So we decided to run the film at 3, to give people a chance for dinner and their own Oscar plans later.”

But he didn’t stop there. “We will have a red carpet. Black tie isn’t required — but it’s welcome. It would be more fun if people do it. I hope everyone does.

“Four Winters: A Story of Jewish Partisan Resistance & Bravery in WWII,” on Thursday, March 23, at 7 p.m., documents the feats of Jewish fighters through testimonial interviews and gripping archival footage.

“So we will have a pre-Oscars party, with a film that is all about the joy we can get by gathering in a room and watching films together.”

Caren and Herbert Ford live in Verona now, but they lived in Livingston in 2000, when “our older son, Joshua, worked for the Jewish Film Center at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C.; later, he became its director,” Ms. Ford said. (After 20 years at the D.C. JCC, he’s now at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland.)

“That was one of the biggest Jewish film festivals; at the time, there weren’t so many of them. So Herb decided that we should bring the film festival to MetroWest, so he approached the JCC and the Laurie Foundation, which gave us the seed money for three years to get it going.

“That’s how it all started.”

The idea was to get people to see Jewish films. “At that time there weren’t a lot of art theaters and there wasn’t streaming yet. It was to expose people to things they might not otherwise see, and to have discussions about it.”

There was another reason behind the festival, too. “It’s the community,” Ms. Ford said. “It’s about seeing a film together. It’s great watching something at home, but it’s a totally different experience in a theater, with other people.

“And that’s even more so when you have an actor or a director or a subject expert talk to you to help you. People look forward to that every year. It has become a central part of the festival, and it’s neat for us to watch it grow.

“People look forward to it every year, and they are really excited about coming back in person.”

She’s excited about Mr. Weinstock’s new role heading the festival. “He has so many contacts!” she said. “He has access to so many people we would have trouble getting to!” And that’s on top of his academic knowledge of film. “He is a real asset,” she said. Until now, the film festival has been led “by social workers, not film people. They have all done amazing jobs, but this kind of professionalism adds a whole new level to the festival.”

To learn more about the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival — including a listing of films, times, and speakers — google New Jersey Jewish Film Festival.

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