Shabbat Surfing: The Greatest Jewish Films

The Washington Jewish Film Festival has me in a cinema state of mind, and apparently I’m not the only one.

-With Oscar season upon us, Tablet Magazine has put out a list of the 100 Greatest Jewish Films. It’s a great read, and there’s a lot there that may surprise you, including the #1 pick–E.T.!

-The folks at Tablet are not the only ones with an opinion on this one. Moment Magazine‘s 2009 list gave the gold medal to Annie Hall (#4 on Tablet’s list).

-Kosher Comedy Community made their own list of 25 Essential Jewish Movies.  I’m truly shocked that such a hip, snarky site went for Fiddler on the Roof as their #1 pick (though I still go teary for Sunrise, Sunset).

-In a related list, The Algemeiner offers us The Top Ten Great Jewish Male Film Actors (Living). Daniel Radcliffe, really?

-Jewish United Fund put together a list just for tweens. In it, they include Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Don’t let your ten-year-old watch this movie unless you want them to spend several years in therapy.

-Think you’re an expert on Jewish film? Go take’s Jewish Film Quiz (I got 7/10).

What would your top five Jewish films be? Post them in the comments!

Shabbat Shalom!

Film Trailer: The Rescuers

From the desk of Susan Barocas, Director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival

We’ve been working ‘round the clock on the great programming for this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival. I’m so excited that Opening Night is only a few days away! One of the programs I’m thinking about a lot is THE RESCUERS on Saturday Dec. 3 at 6:15 screening here at the DCJCC. We are looking forward to having with us Stephanie Nyombayire, an extraordinary young anti-genocide activist from Rwanda. The film follows her and historian Sir Martin Gilbert as they explore some of the extraordinary acts of goodness that occurred in the face of the Nazi Death camps, and what can be done to deter future genocides. The film is so inspiring, and is an excellent introduction to this difficult subject for young people (11 and up). I highly recommend it!  Here’s the trailer:

Film Trailer: Maya

Don’t miss this exciting DC premiere tomorrow, followed by a party on the steps!

Women Rock Film Program

Women have been rockin’ the J’s film program lately!  First, Ruth Bader Ginsburg came to visit a couple of weeks ago.  It’s not every day that we have a Supreme Court justice here, on stage, for any reason.  Justice Ginsberg – most gracious, thoughtful and displaying a keen sense of humor – was part of a panel talking about Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, another award-winning film by our very own star filmmaker, Aviva Kempner.  The Justice appears in the film and came to share with the sold-out audience her thoughts and memories of the Goldbergs on radio and tv.  She recalled her own family and childhood growing up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.  The event was a special program and party to celebrate the DVD release of Aviva’s film, which is about yet another groundbreaking woman, Gertrude Berg.

One young woman in the audience, Robin Janofsky, was inspired after the Q&A to confess that she had “a life-changing moment” right in our theater!   Robin asked the Justice what advice she would give to young women today.  “Have confidence in yourself…work hard to make your dream come true,” Justice Ginsburg answered.  “There has not been a better time in history for young women than now.”

From the audience, CBS News reporter Dan Raviv asked if a program like the Goldbergs on radio and tv contributed to acceptance of Jews in the US.  Justice Ginsburg explained that she views the program as part of the universality of the immigrant experience.  “Italian and Irish families could also related as could all families coming to a new world…hoping their children could achieve and not lose their own identities.”

And we’re not done yet.  This week mother-and-business-woman-turned-filmmaker Vicki Abeles brought the DC premiere of her new film Race to Nowhere to our WJFF Year-Round screen.  The film is a powerful and provocative exploration of our pressure-cooker educational system and its too often destructive effect on children and families.

The discussion with Vicki after the film was serious, heartfelt and enlightening.  Parents asked how they can help their kids, even those as young as pre-school.  Speaking from the audience were principals of two alternative DC schools as well as teachers from DC, VA and MD – sharing their reactions to the film and their own experiences as educators.  Some had questions and some wanted to support Vicki’s call for grass-roots action to make changes in the US educational system.  One teacher, for example, expressed the desire to show the film to the as yet un-named new superintendent of the Montgomery County schools in the hope of helping the county schools move away from the emphasis on testing.  For those of you who missed it, Vicki and the film will be at the Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema again on Monday, October 4.

On last thing…if you want to see a lovely film, head to Nora’s Will which is going into an extended run at the Avalon.  The WJFF sponsored its screening at Filmfest DC last April.  The film won 7 Mexican Academy Awards including Best Picture, and now Michael O’Sullivan in the Washington Post called it “sweet, surprising and satisfying.”

Now it’s time for me to get back to planning the 21st Washington Jewish Film Festival.  Just wait until you hear what’s coming this December 2012!!  More news soon.  In the meantime, tickets are on sale for our next film program on October 18 – Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared plus one episode of this incredible author’s groundbreaking Israeli tv series, Arab Labor.

Susan Barocas, WJFF Director

Understanding the Misunderstandings of Ajami at the Washington Jewish Film Festival

Last night was one of those nights that remind me of how much I love the Washington Jewish Film Festival. The sold-out screening of the Israeli submission for the foreign language Academy Award, Ajami was the kind of event that kept our lobby full long after the lights came-up.

I am not going to lie: some people hated the film. To them the overlapping story-lines were unclear, the themes overly-grim, the 120 minute runtime unjustified and the ending un-redemptive.

Others were just as equally energized and blown-away by the film and lauded its unbelievably skillful use of non-professional actors, cleverly constructed plot that rewards the careful viewer and the emotional power of the tragedies of misunderstanding that form the core of the film’s themes.

I fall into the latter rather than the former group, but I have sympathy for both takes on the film. What Ajami succeeds best at doing is in portraying the very separate and yet inextricably connected lives that Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and Israeli Jews lead in this one neighborhood in Jaffa.

As for the Rashomon-style storytelling, it ingeniously forces you to reconsider your perception of events based on the biases you bring with you to the theater. I can’t go into too much detail without depriving future viewers of the visceral satisfaction that comes from seeing characters we think we know act in surprising ways — or in ways that we expect but are then forced to reconsider. Additionally, this film accomplished what few films can, which is to say it’s ending genuinely shocked me and left me breathless.

But after a deep inhalation I had the great pleasure of talking with many people outside the theater as we re-pieced the film together, shared details some noticed but others had missed, listened to the negative reviews and countered with our own apologias for a film that had genuinely moved us. It is what great film-going is about (if it can’t always be about universally acknowledged great films).

If you were at the screening on Saturday night at the Washington DCJCC or have seen Ajami elsewhere in our Festival or other Festival screenings around the country or in Israel, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I giving the filmmakers too much credit? Was their subtlety too subtle to the point of obfuscation? Or was it, as I believe, an eloquent if challenging picture of  a community where small conflicts and misunderstandings too often have tragic consequences?

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

Actually, we do get to thank the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for a grant they made to support the Washington Jewish Film Festival. They are just one of the many organizations, embassies, foundations and individuals that provide the necessary funds and services that make the Festival possible. One of the ways we thank them is with a short trailer that plays before every Festival film. Below is this year’s edition, expertly created by the good folks at Seltzer Film and Video.

Size Matters on the Opening Night of the WJFF

From today’s Express:

THE ACTORS INA Matter of Size,” which kicks off the Washington Jewish Film Festival ( this Thursday night, wrestled with their body issues in a way they never had before: in a sumo ring. It’s the unlikely tale of four guys who realize they can finally stop fighting with their bodies and instead embrace what makes them different.

And it’s an even unlikelier movie to come out of body-conscious Israel, where the pickings are particularly slim when it comes to overweight actors. Producers were originally unconvinced that they could find men who had the, um, guts to take on the parts. “But then we came into the room in our underwear and they changed their minds,” says Dvir Benedek, who’s flying in for the WJFF screening and estimates his weight at 145 kilos (or 319 pounds). He snagged the part of Aharon, a guy worried about losing his thin wife.

You can read the rest of the article here, and come and meet Dvir in-person at the screening of A Matter of Size this Thursday night — but tickets are going quickly!

The Washington Jewish Film Festival is Happening Now (and always)

by Susan H. Barocas, Director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival

Most people don’t know this, but as one Washington Jewish Film Festival ends, preparation for the next is already happening with films in production being “tracked,” filmmakers submitting new work and lots of thinking about a place for some of the many good films we just couldn’t find room for in the Festival wrapping up.  And now, unbelievably, last year’s “next” is almost “now”!

After watching someplace around 300 features, documentaries and shorts plus scouring the Jerusalem and Berlin film festivals – I know, tough job – the program is set, catalog out there in public, new website up and running AND tickets selling.  It’s so exciting to see that after just three days, over 800 tickets have already been sold!  In fact, Festival coordinator Josh Gardner commented today that checking the ticket sales numbers is like a new drug!  He’s right.  Watching the numbers, seeing what the favorites are during one of our many checks, guessing which film will sell out first…Okay, no betting money has changed hands yet, but we each have our favorites!

I do have to say that it’s so encouraging to know that the program is being received well.  This year we are showing more films than ever before – 62 films from 20 countries including perennial favorite sources Israel, France, Germany, Argentina, the US, Switzerland, Canada…as well as some more unusual film sources such as Tunisia, Slovakia, Russia, Ireland, Denmark and Kazakhstan.

Check out our opening night film, A Matter of Size, Israel’s award-winning romantic comedy about four very overweight guys ditching their diets in favor of becoming of sumo wrestling stars.  Just click below to see the film’s trailer.  But keep in mind that this film on December 3 with a matinee on the 4th and the closing night film on December 13, The Gift to Stalin, are both selling very well.  So take a look and then get busy and buy your tickets sooner than later by going to WJFF.ORG.  Lots of info about the schedule, venues, all the films, guests, special receptions and parties plus links to buy tickets. You can even sign up online to VOLUNTEER for the Festival.  Great fun, and that’s how I got started with the WJFF way back in 1994, but that’s another story….

Engaging Israel in Our Community: The Arts Programs of the Washington DCJCC

Theater J’s participation in the upcoming J Street Conference is part of a long-established and agency-wide tradition of engaging in conversations about Israeli society through a variety of artistic media, public lectures and policy debates. It is through this legacy of programming that the Washington DCJCC has established itself as a place where conversations about Israel from multiple viewpoints can take place. Because of our expertise in this area, Theater J agreed to participate in the J Street Conference around its discussions of “Culture as a Tool for Change.”

Over the thirteen years we have been at 16th and Q we have tackled almost every hot-button issue in Israeli society either through film, theater, literature, music or visual art. In presenting David Hare’s Via Dolorosa in 2000 we partnered to create the Peace Café in order to create the safe space to discuss many of these highly volatile and deeply felt issues. We have encountered the issue of the West Bank settlements in Motti Lerner’s play, Pangs of the Messiah, and how to confront an Iran with nuclear intentions in Benedictus. We have explored the lives of Israel’s gay and lesbian community through films like Yossi & Jagger, Orthodykes, Trembling Before God and Jerusalem is Proud to Present. We have explored the issue of foreign guest workers in Israel in films like James’ Journey to Jerusalem and plays like The Accident. We have grappled with the on-the-ground reality of relations between Israelis and Palestinians in films like Lemon Tree, The Bubble and Promises. We have shown documentaries that look at the role Palestinian laborers play in the life and economy of Jewish Israel in films like Another Road Home and Nine Star Hotel. On the walls and exhibition floor of the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery in the exhibit “L(A)TITUDES” we have grappled with different artists’ interpretations of the map of Israel and Palestine – showing everything from a map comprised of oranges meant to extend the plight of settlers evacuated from Gaza to the whole of Israel, to an abstract representation of what a two-state solution transport system would look like.

In all of these endeavors we have sought partners with which to discuss the real world issues the artwork raises. We have collaborated with everyone from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Embassy of Israel, Taglit Birthright, the American Jewish Committee and the New Israel Fund, Jews United for Justice and Americans for Peace Now. Now we are partnering with J Street in a conference environment to examine what practical effects artwork and discussion of it have in-practice.  

We’re involved in J Street’s conference not because of its political agenda, but because of its spirited commitment to culture as a tool for energizing discussion and transformation in our Jewish community, and in bringing forth meaningful discourse between communities of different faiths.  The conference, entitled “Driving Change, Securing Peace” is presenting a number of highly informed, creative and committed Israeli and American-Jewish artists who represent a cutting edge, new generation of artists who, like J Street, see themselves as both pro-Israel, pro-dialogue, pro-peace, and pro-open cultural interchange.

While we do not endorse any of J Street’s specific policy positions, we do appreciate the opportunity to be included in the broader discussion they have convened.

Theater J, the professional theater of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center is participating only in the cultural track of the upcoming J Street Conference.  Theater J and the Washington DCJCC do not engage in legislative or political advocacy and our participation should not be construed as an  endorsement or sponsorship of other aspects of the conference or of J Street’s  programs and policies.

Here’s a complete list of the programs Theater J is participating in as part of the cultural offerings at the J Street Conference.

  • Sunday, October 25 at 5:15 pm : Pre-Conference Event – Arts and Activism in Troubled Times

A panel made up of artists active in Middle East issues, as well as artists involved in social causes on a local, national, and international stage. Presented by Theater J following the 3 pm matinee of Lost in Yonkers

  • Monday, October 26 at 8:00 pm:  Music – Rocking the Status Quo Party with JDub’s Soulico

Soulico, a DJ crew from Tel Aviv, is literally one of the biggest names there.  The music is a unique mix of hip-hop, Middle Eastern melodies, dancehall, and electro, in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.  Their debut album Exotic on the Speaker, is being released in October.  The group appeared at the Washington Jewish Music Festival in 2008, as have many JDub Bands throughout the years.

  • Television – John Marks and Search for Common Ground

Search for Common Ground’s founder John Marks discusses the groundbreaking soap operas that promote tolerance and reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians.  The innovative peace building organization is the second largest producer of soap operas in the world.

  • Storytelling – Noa Baum’s A Land Twice Promised

Storyteller Noa Baum, an Israeli who began a heartfelt dialogue with a Palestinian woman while living in the U.S., weaves together their memories and their mothers’ stories. She creates a moving testimony illuminating the complex and contradictory history that surround Jerusalem for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

  • Short Film – Other Israel Film Festival presents 6.5 Minutes in Tel Aviv, Shnaim, and Roads

Founded in 2007, the Other Israel Film Festival, a program of the JCC in Manhattan, fosters awareness and understanding of Israel’s Arab citizens. Two short films from the festival explore the complex and unexpected connections between Israelis and Palestinians. Join Festival Director Isaac Zablocki for a conversation about the films and the festival.

  • Documentary Film – Just Vision previews Budrus Has a Hammer (working title)

In this upcoming documentary, a Palestinian community organizer unites political factions in a Gandhian struggle to save his village. Just Vision staff Ronit Avni, Julia Bacha, and Irene Nasser present selected scenes from this timely, powerful documentary and lead a discussion with the audience.

Later this season, Theater J will present its annual Voices From A Changing A Middle East Festivalwhich will continue to give voice to a variety of Israeli, American-Jewish, and Arab and Muslim-American writers, involving collaborations between Israeli and American designers, directors and more. In addition to our mainstage production, Hadar Galron’s Mikveh, Theater J will present additional readings by contemporary Israeli playwrights including: Savyon Liebrecht’s Apples from the Desert.  Readings will take place at both Theater J and the Embassy of Israel’s Jerusalem Hall.

And in case you haven’t heard, the 20th Washington Jewish Film Festival will be presenting the best in current Israeli cinema, beginning on its Opening Night on December 3rd, with the DC Premiere of A Matter of Size.

Controversy at the Toronto Film Fest

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has been causing quite a stir, and it wasn’t just because Megan Fox was there promoting Jennifer’s Body.  The real ruckus-raiser was the fact that over 1,000 artists, authors, academicians and others including Jane Fonda and Danny Glover have signed the “Toronto Declaration” which calls for a boycott of the TIFF for hosting a program focusing on Tel Aviv.

In its inaugural year, the TIFF sidebar “City to City,” shines a spotlight on Tel Aviv and features 10 films coming out of the multi-cultural Mediterranean city.

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum or your thoughts on the Israeli government, this boycott is a misguided and dangerous effort that threatens the entire filmmaking community and, indeed, freedom of speech and artistic expression.

Israeli films and filmmakers haven’t been threatened by their participation in just the TIFF.  Earlier this summer, director Ken Loach (who has signed the Toronto boycott) almost successfully forced an Israeli film, Surrogate, to withdraw from the Edinburgh Film Festival. The film focuses on a 30-something-year-old man coming to terms with the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Mind you, the film was not boycotted because it features frank sexuality and full frontal nudity, but for the sole reason that it was produced in Israel.

Proving even further that the protest is off target, the Israeli director Shmulik Maoz whose film Lebanon will be screened at the festival (and which just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) noted that “most of the filmmakers in the City to City program are as critical of the Israeli government as anybody.”

Thankfully there are some celebrities speaking out against the protest including actors John Voight and Minnie Driver and filmmakers Ivan Reitman and David Cronenberg. As Rabbi (and sometime filmmaker) Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has pointed out, “Tel Aviv is one of the freest cities in the world –warts and all: a model city of diversity, freedom of expression and tolerance, for Arabs and Jews. It is the height of hypocrisy to signal out Tel Aviv.”

How ironic that the films being boycotted include more than 25 Arab/Palestinian actors and crew.

Unfortunately, I imagine that we can expect this type of boycott in the future which makes it imperative that each of us become an active promoter of free speech and ideas.  We cannot censor creativity nor allow the distortion of reality. One thing is for sure — if you’re looking for Israeli Cinema, both narrative and documentary and from wide-ranging points of view, look no further than the Washington Jewish Film Festival, December 3-13th.

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