|From left, “Little White Lie,” “Unorthodox,” “Joachim Prinz,” and “Sosua.”|
There has been a proliferation of regional and town film festivals across the country these last two decades.
Nine years ago, Teaneck joined them. Because of the town’s unique demographic makeup, its directors have tried to provide films that reflect its diversity. From the beginning, that has meant including films on Jewish subjects. The gala fund-raising event is now on a Saturday night, so that everyone in the community can participate.
Given Teaneck’s large and growing African-American and Jewish population, I found this year’s choices most appropriate. Three of the four films that tackle Jewish subjects look at the interaction of Jews and people of color and provide fascinating historical and contemporary studies. The fourth film takes a hard look at how the gap year in Israel affects young people from traditional homes.
The community of Sosua in the Dominican Republic was a town where Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II found safe haven. Dictator Rafael Trujillo allowed immigration to his country during the war, while the world, including the United States, had a closed-door policy for Jews. More than 800 refugees settled in Sosua, where they founded a unique society. Some created a Jewish community; others intermarried with locals, while most left over the next two decades as visas to the United States became available. Filmmakers Harriet Taub and Harry Kafka explored this phenomenon in their 1981 film “Sosua.” (I was so moved by that film that the next vacation my wife and I took was to the Dominican Republic, with a stay and exploration in Sosua.) Now, Peter Miller and Renee Silverman, who will be at the screening, tell the story of how Jewish and Dominican teenagers in Washington Heights, under the direction of the highly talented Liz Swados, put on a musical production about the Dominican rescue. Teaching at Yeshiva University, I was always caught by the special connection that my students had with the local Dominican community. It is no coincidence that I would always find YU students participating in the Dominican Day parade.
All too often we forget the unique relationship that Jews and African-Americans have enjoyed in this country, and the Jewish community’s strong participation in the civil rights movement. Some point to Jews’ social consciousness as a reason for this deep involvement, but there was also a clear understanding that our place in American society would not be secure and firmly rooted until all minorities enjoyed equal rights. We can point to several people who worked hard to make it happen. There were the Freedom Riders, the three young men – Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman – who gave their lives for this cause, and the rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz who marched and spoke articulately for the cause. The remarkable story of the Berlin rabbi who was expelled from his native Germany by Hitler and wound up becoming the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark is the subject of “Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent.” Filmmakers Rachel Fisher and Rachel Pasternak do a superb job in telling the story of the dynamic Prinz, who came to this country in the mid-1930s and from his first moment here called for freedom and human rights, first for Germany’s Jews, then for America’s African-Americans. Prinz worked tirelessly to speak to power and to demand that all Americans receive what our Constitution guaranteed. As president of American Jewish Congress, he provided a Jewish voice at the 1963 March on Washington, and throughout his life he stood by Martin Luther King and other black leaders in seeking justice. I am honored to be moderating a post-screening discussion with the producer, Rabbi Prinz’s daughter Deborah, and the directors.
Most historians and sociologists note a break between black and Jewish civil rights activists as Jews were disinvited from the movement in the late 1960s. Jews and African-Americans increasingly sought out their own identities over the next decades. In “Little White Lie,” Lacey Schwartz tells her story as a woman growing up in a middle-class home in Woodstock, N.Y., with loving parents and a strong sense of Jewish identity. Over the course of her nicely developed self-portrait, we learn that her story is not ordinary. Her relationship with Jews and blacks will be deeply impacted by stunning discoveries she makes when she leaves home for college. There, she will come into contact with a world she had not known and her universe will be changed as she delves into a family lie. Schwartz, who will be present at the screening, shows an incredible amount of courage in putting out a stunning and beautifully crafted biopic. She will join Rabbi Steven Sirbu and Sandi Klein at the screening.
A generation ago, when I went off to Israel for a year before attending college, it was considered unique, even unwise. Now, many young people find this year away as an opportunity for growth, study, and exploration. For a traditional young person, a year spent in Israel has become almost inevitable. But for Anna Wexler, it was a decision she chose not to make as she struggled with her “frumkeyt,” her commitment to a modern Orthodox Jewish life. Together with Nadja Oertelt in “Unorthodox,” she uses cinema to explore what kind of transformation happens when three teenagers go off to Israel, in an attempt to better understand how young people’s lives change as a result of the experience. One of the more compelling stories is that of Tsipi, who underwent a variety of changes during her turbulent year abroad. Tsipi grew up in Teaneck, and will join the filmmakers for a post-screening discussion with Rabbi Larry Zierler.
The Teaneck International Film Festival’s theme is Activism: Making Change. It will showcase 24 films in three different venues. Kudos to executive director Jeremy Lentz, the organizers, the committed committee members and the Puffin Foundation for bringing this special event to the community. The festival will take place from November 7 to 9; the Jewish films are scheduled for Sunday. “Unorthodox” will screen at noon, at the Teaneck Cinemas; “Sosua” at 2:30 at the Puffin Cultural Center; “Little White Lie” at 4:05 (sic) at Temple Emeth, and “Joachim Prinz” at 6:30, also at Temple Emeth. For more schedules and other information, go to www.teaneckfilmfestival.org. You can buy tickets at the Teaneck General Store.