The 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival
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The 23rd 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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“Rue Mandar” shows siblings confronting family issues.

If it’s January, then it must be the New York Jewish Film Festival.

Since 1991, when a partnership was forged between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, New Yorkers have been able to see new and exciting films from across the globe that tackle stories of Jewish interest. Under the skilled direction of Aviva Weintraub, the festival has chosen a cross-section of films, most of which will be screened for the first time in the area.

When the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews was released a few months ago, many rabbis and communal leaders were distraught at the findings, noting among other things that religion played a far less important role in the identity of American Jews. The good news, however, was that 94 percent of American Jews say that they are proud to be Jewish, and that has translated into a growing comfort on their part with their Jewish identity. In the world of cinema, filmmakers, who only two generations ago rarely expressed themselves Jewishly, now increasingly explore Jewish life through their work, and we see more fine films that tackle important Jewish issues. With more and better movies, Jewish film festivals continue to grow and expand.

Now, the Jewish institutional world finally is recognizing that these festivals can be a vibrant force in building Jewish community, particularly for the 62 percent of U.S. Jews that Pew found to identify their Judaism as “mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.” Today, there are more than 100 Jewish film festivals in North America, including an outstanding Israel film festival in our own community.

Now through January 23, 49 features and shorts from 10 countries are being screened at the Film Society’s Walter Reade and Elinor Bunim Munroe theaters at Lincoln Center.

After the United States and Israel, the country with the most films in the festival is France, represented by four narrative works and one documentary. To this day, France still struggles with its World War II past. Diane Kurys’s “For a Woman” begins with the unsettling discovery of letters and photos a daughter finds upon her mother’s death. Who was the mysterious uncle in the photo? What happened during the war that affected her parents’ relationship? In “Rue Mandar,” Idit Cebula provides an interesting portrait of three siblings, forced to confront a variety of family issues when they come together for their mother’s funeral.

Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski’s “Friends from France,” which opens the festival, brings us back to the 1970s, when courageous emissaries from the west smuggled Judaica to refuseniks in the Soviet Union and brought Soviet Jewish diaries and stories out with them, often at great peril. The film conjures up memories of the Soviet Jewry movement, the protests, and the people who traveled to the USSR to bring in Yiddishkayt.

Ilan Duran Cohen’s “The Jewish Cardinal” provides a fascinating study of Jean-Marie Aaron Lustiger, a French Jew, a child during the war, who converted to Catholicism and eventually became a cardinal and advisor to Pope John Paul II. I found this film most compelling. There is a particularly compelling segment set in 1983, when Lustiger, struggling with his belief system, goes to Auschwitz, the camp where his mother was murdered. This religious man, brilliantly played by Laurent Lucas, acknowledges that when he is there he could recite neither the Kaddish nor the Lord’s Prayer. Some might be troubled by a film about a convert, but Cohen does a remarkable job in giving us a feel for how Lustiger struggled with his dual identity, and the important role he would play in forcing the Polish Catholic church to acknowledge the Holocaust. Marcel Ophuls’s new film, “Un Voyageur (Ain’t Misbehavin’),” provides his own take on his father Max’s place in cinema history, as well as his own. Ophuls is one of my favorite documentarians, the filmmaker I credit for turning France upside down with his accusatory 1969 “The Sorrow and the Pity.” That film forced the French people to examine their wartime collaboration with the Nazis. What a treat it is to see more of this incredibly talented, opinionated, and likable artist.

For those of you with a special love for music, there is Maurice Linnane’s “Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle,” which provides some insights into the talented vocalist, along with some fine music. Ayal Goldberg’s “Rita Jahan Foruz,” about the popular Iranian-born Israeli singer, gives us an interesting perspective on how music can touch a broad swath of cultures and has the capacity for transcending borders. Award-winning Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox has provided discerning studies of Tel Aviv young people in such films as “Florentine” and “The Bubble.” In “Cupcakes,” set in the 1970s, he gives us a story of a group of friends who come together to write a song in order to cheer up one of their buddies. What this perceptive writer/director really does is provide an analysis of Israeli youth today.

There are many other films worth seeing; many of them documentaries. Diana Groo’s “Regina” does a terrific job in bringing to life the story of Regina Jonas, who was ordained as a rabbi in Berlin in 1935. Nili Tal studies the travails of Ukrainian women who married Israeli men in her “Ukrainian Brides: 13 Years Later.” Dan Shadur goes back to the time of the Shah, when Israel and Israelis had a special connection with Iran, in “Before the Revolution.”

Alan Zweig’s “When Jews Were Funny” explores the place of Jewish comedians in the 1960s and 70s. Zweig asks some of the greats, including Jack Carter and Shecky Green, what it was like to be a Jewish comedian. Almost all of the older comics answer that they are not Jewish comedians, but rather American comedians who are Jewish. The dialogue with generations of comedians provides a fascinating take on Jewish comedy in America.

Michal Aviad tells the stories of several of the woman pioneers who made aliyah 100 years ago; she introduces unbelievable footage and adds narration. What we glean from the pioneers’ writing was the hope that they might find equality as women in Israel. That has not quite been realized.

One of this year’s curiosities is the fact that the films submitted by both Israel and Palestine for Best Foreign Language Oscar dealt with Palestinian informants. Yuval Adler’s “Bethlehem,” which won six Ophirs (Israel’s Academy Award) did not make it to the list of nine semi-finalists for the coveted award; Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar” did. Fortunately for us, “Bethlehem” will have a sneak preview at the festival.

This year’s festival will offer a variety of “beyond the screen” programs. Master Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, whose work is highly respected – though I’m not a big fan – and is a wonderful teacher, will present a master class on Sunday, January 19. His new film, “Ana Arabia,” will be screened in the festival. A new festival concept, “Guest Selects,” allows an acclaimed filmmaker who has had an affect on world cinema to select his or her favorites. This year, it brings us two wonderful choices. Wim Winders chose German director Pepe Danquart’s “Run Boy Run,” adapted from Uri Orlev’s novel, about a boy who escapes the Warsaw Ghetto into the woods. The new film, which was much loved at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, will be joined by Israeli Nir Bergman’s “Broken Wings” (2004), a personal favorite of mine, about a family struggling to cope with the emotional wreckage in their lives. There will also be screenings of films by Otto Preminger, a symposium on identity-driven film festivals, and an homage to graphic designer and title artist Saul Bass.

As usual, there is a great deal being offered. Take advantage of it! Act quickly; tickets quickly get “khapped up.” So see a movie and join a growing community of people who love Jewish movies. For more information and tickets, go to www.FilmLinc.com or call (212) 875-5601.

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