When Lauren Bandari and her family moved from Chicago to San Luis Obispo several years ago, she felt inundated by the area’s over-bearing, ever-present Christianity. The people weren’t Bible-thumping kooks, necessarily. For the most part, she found that the college town community was accepting, tolerant, and respectful of her beliefs.
- CULTURAL TIES : Meet the Igbo, a long-repressed African people who are beginning to embrace a forgotten heritage. Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria documents their unique tribulations and can be seen at 11 a.m. on Jan. 13.
- PHOTOS COURTESY OF JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER SLO
- SONG OF THE JEWS : Try to imagine the music behind this merry scene. The song you’re probably hearing is “Hava Nagila,” and a witty, insightful documentary explores how it became the de facto song of the Jewish people. It can be seen Jan. 13 at 7 p.m.
But there was no doubt that the community was Christian.
“Generic American culture feels more heavy-handed here. Christmas feels louder,” Bandari said. “There was more urgency to carve out a comfortable place to celebrate my family’s heritage.”
As a Jew, Bandari could, of course, find fellowship with the worshipers at Congregation Beth David, but she felt the Jewish community didn’t really extend outside the temple. There were few secular opportunities for socializing or celebrating Jewish heritage, and Bandari wanted to change that.
“Jews don’t have to turn to organized religion to get that sense of community,” Bandari said. “There’s much more to our heritage. There’s humor; there’s food, the Yiddish language. There’s complaining.”
In 2008, she took over as executive director for the fledgling Jewish Community Center of SLO and reinvigorated it with a Holocaust remembrance program, outdoor retreats, news discussions, cooking classes, and babysitting pools with Jewish sorority sisters and retired bubbes (grandmothers). With the help of a city grant aimed at celebrating diversity, the center partnered with the SLO Museum of Art and the Palm Theatre in 2009 to introduce the SLO Jewish Film Festival. According to Bandari, the weekend of movie screenings and special receptions has grown steadily over the last three years, attracting bigger crowds and more sponsors. The format hasn’t changed, though, and still hinges on six unique films that offer diverse perspectives on what it means to be Jewish.
Bandari said films are chosen based on their quality, their message, and the availability of cast or crew to attend the festival. Each screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with film-makers or people with direct ties to the subject matter, including the Holocaust survivor who served as inspiration for the Slovakian epic Broken Promises.
“Otherwise, it’s just another movie screening,” Bandari said.
- GUT WRENCHER : Broken Promise is a brutal but stunning Slovakian film that tells the true story of a young Jew whose soccer skills and good luck enable him to survive the Holocaust. It plays at 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 13.
- WATCH, DINE, SCHMOOZE: For a complete schedule of San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival screenings, receptions, award ceremonies, and filmmaker dinners, visit jccslo.com. An all-inclusive pass can be purchased for $118, and tickets to individual films are available for $10.
New Times was able to view one of the shorter films in its entirety and snippets from the rest. They cover a wide variety of subjects, from Jews in Nigeria struggling to find their cultural identity in a region rife with religious violence to an old Los Angelian trying desperately to find a home for his vast record collection. The Holocaust is seen through the lenses of a young man who used his soccer skills to escape the nightmare and an old woman reminiscing about the culture she lost when she fled for safety in America.
On a lighter note, the director of Hava Nagila (The Movie) interviews pop icons, musicians, and historians to examine the roots of a song that’s become almost mandatory for set lists at Jewish weddings, bar mitzvahs, and parties. The song began in Ukraine as a musical prayer, but the joyous tune found its way to Jerusalem, where lyrics were added. Eventually, singer Harry Belafonte covered it and opened the floodgates for other musicians to follow suit. According to the movie, “Hava Nagila” is one of the most-covered songs in the world, producing Latin, surf, jazz, and orchestral versions.
“There’s 10 levels of prayer, and above them is music,” Chazzan Danny Maseng says in the film.
The polished documentary opened the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July and was able to parlay that positive reception into a limited theatrical release scheduled to hit big cities throughout March and April. The SLO festival couldn’t afford the rights to such a successful film, but the producers agreed to cut Bandari a deal. Director Roberta Grossman will attend the festival, share insights, and answer questions after the screening.
The Lifetime Achievement award will go to Richard Benjamin, a prolific actor and director who first starred in Goodbye, Columbus, which will play on the opening night of the festival. He also appeared in Catch-22 and directed The Money Pit. A reception for Benjamin will be held Jan. 12 at the SLO Museum of Art, featuring locally crafted Jewish cuisine and music performed by students from the Atascadero Arts Academy.
By showcasing unique personalities, the films dismiss common Jewish stereotypes, but they also highlight a struggle common to all Jews: the balance between heritage and assimilation. Unlike other minorities, Jews can’t be pinpointed by skin color. They’ve been persecuted, dispersed throughout the world, and only regained a homeland in the last century. In most countries, Jewish traditions alienate practitioners from the popular majority, but they choose to keep their cultural identity—a choice that isn’t always easy and makes for compelling stories.
Staff Writer Nick Powell spins a mean dreidel. Contact him at email@example.com.