The 22nd Annual New York Jewish Film Festival
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The 22nd Annual New York Jewish Film Festival

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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“Let’s Dance” looks at the changing face of Israel.

There is little doubt, at least in my mind, that some of the best and brightest are filmmakers. They struggle with the issues of today and record them in their documentaries or tackle them through their stories. Each year, the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, introduces us to new Jewish films, offering an opportunity to not only enjoy and be entertained but to grapple with several of the important issues facing Jews today.

This year, we have the opportunity to look at many of the great Jewish personalities of our time, delve into the changing character of Israeli society, wrestle with issues facing Jews in Argentina and France, continue our ongoing engagement with the Holocaust, and examine Jewish culture here and in Israel. Sprinkled among 45 fine short and feature-length films from nine countries are several nuggets not to be missed.

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Bob Dylan with Jerome Felder, AKA Doc Pomus.

If you love music, there is plenty to find this year. The opening night movie is “AKA Doc Pomus,” a film by Peter Miller, Will Hechter, and Sharyn Felder, which tells the remarkable story of Jerome Felder (brother of attorney Raoul), who contracted polio at 6 and found his path through music, heavily influenced by the African-American rhythm and blues he heard on the radio. He emerged as Doc Pomus, a blues singer, but when producers discovered that this incredible writer-singer was not black, but rather a paralyzed Jewish kid from Brooklyn, he had to focus on his writing, eventually turning out some of the great songs of rock and roll. The filmmakers do a fine job telling the story of how Pomus overcame adversity to become one of American music’s greats.

Another story of a Brooklyn boy who rose to the top is Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen’s “Joe Papp in Five Acts.” It is just as much a story of one man’s triumph over bureaucracy to bring theater to the masses as it is a modern day tale of an American Jew who hid his Jewish background only to embrace it late in life. Papp brought us Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theater, refusing to hear no. In the course of an incredibly productive life, he chose to be married to his work, neglecting those around him whom he loved. The filmmakers tackle all aspects of his complex personality, bringing in many of the fine actors whom he introduced to the theater; they unabashedly throw kisses his way while telling deep truths about all five “acts” of Joe Papp. For me, the most enlightening aspect of the film was how Papp, born Papirofsky, came back to his Jewish roots and reconnected with his mother, who spoke with an accent and whom he shunned most of his life. Papp, along with creating incredible productions of Shakespeare, brought us “Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” and the Yiddish theater production, “Songs of Paradise,” which unfortunately the filmmakers failed to mention.

One film that is sure to be a hit on the theatrical film circuit this year is “Hava Nagila (The Movie).” For more on that movie, go to page 31.

Gabriel Bibliowicz’ “Let’s Dance” provides an unusual window into the changing face of Israel. It is not only a compelling look at the changing character of dance in Israel, it is an observation on Israeli life and culture. Various authorities provide insight into how the hora began as a representation of the pioneering spirit, an expression of the relationship of the halutzim with the land, not only building it but being built up by it. Each held each other up as they danced the hora, as one people in sync in its goals and ideals.

As Bibliowicz uses dance to study Israel, in “The Iron Lady and the Photo House” Tamar Tal uses the photograph and the story of the photo house of Rudi Weissenstein to explore an Israel in transformation. Weissenstein documented in photography Israel’s foundational moments and it is left to his widow and grandson to preserve the past while moving into the future. Both of these Israeli film studies are pearls of the festival.

Dina Zvi-Riklis is one of my favorite Israeli filmmakers, and “The Fifth Heaven,” like her other films, takes a look at the “other” in Israeli society. Iraq-born Zvi-Riklis, who came to Israel as a child, experienced what it is to be an outsider. She dealt with this in her brilliant 2006 film, “Three Mothers,” and here she presents the story of 13-year-old Maya, who is placed in an orphanage by a father whose wife deserted them and who finds himself incapable of caring for the child. Riklis, married to film director Eran Riklis, now an “insider” and one half of Israeli cinema’s “power couple,” continues to ask tough questions.

The three other narrative feature entries this year from Israel are Idan Hubel’s “The Cutoff Man,” Beni Torati’s “Ballad of the Weeping Spring,” and Nadav Lapid’s “The Policeman.” The highly talented Moshe Ivgy is superb as Gaby the cutoff man, whose job is to cut off water to customers unable to pay in a tough economy. Watching Torati’s “Ballad” is like watching a spaghetti western from the 1960s, just plain fun, with kitsch at every corner. Instead of Clint Eastwood we have Uri Gavrieli, and his search for the perfect musical group is an excuse to perform amazing eastern music. Lapid’s “The Policeman,” which was screened last year at the New York Film Festival, looks at male machismo, societal inequality, and the role of protest in Israeli society. It features command performances by Yiftach Klein and Yaara Pelzig in a difficult and piercing portrait of an Israel in need of fixing.

Some of the best Jewish filmmaking today deals with the Shoah, and “Numbered” and “The Trial of Adolf Eichmann” are just excellent. Michael Prazan is skillful in presenting us with the complete story of the Eichmann trial – the questions of legality, the logistics of the kidnapping, the international repercussions, and what Ben Gurion hoped to accomplish by bringing this trial to Israel. Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai craft a sensitive film in “Numbered,” a look at how survivors reflect, with a combination of humiliation and cachet, on the numbers they carry on their arms. This is a beautiful and insightful visual portrait.

Tickets go fast, so don’t waste any time going to one of the great film events that New York has to offer. For more information and tickets, go to: www.FilmLinc.com or call (212) 875-5601.

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