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No yarmulke? No problem

The inaugural San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival welcomes everyone

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KING OF THE JEWS? :  Ben Bliss’ short film Jewsus explores the difficulties of a Jewish teenager accidentally endowed with the powers of Christ. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN BLISS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN BLISS
  • KING OF THE JEWS? : Ben Bliss’ short film Jewsus explores the difficulties of a Jewish teenager accidentally endowed with the powers of Christ.

The other night at dinner, I realized I was endowed with the powers of Jesus Christ. The problem with that is, I’m a Jew.

Actually that didn’t happen to me; it’s the premise of Ben Bliss’ short film Jewsus, one of several selections of the inaugural San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival.

“It’s funny; it’s kind of a Jewish Look Who’s Coming to Dinner,” said Lauren Bandari, executive director of the Jewish Community Center and one of the festival’s chief organizers.

Bliss’ film, in which a Jewish teenager runs into trouble with his parents after accidentally gaining Christlike abilities (and right when he’s angling for permission to attend the winter prom with his Protestant girlfriend!) will appeal to Jews and Gentiles alike.

“We all have to deal with figuring out how our parents are going to react to something,” Bandari said. “We’re trying to inch out of our own boxes that we either grew up in or we created for ourselves.”

Organizers emphasized that the festival, held at the Palm Theatre, isn’t a religious event, but a cultural happening to which all members of the community are invited.

Official selections include the documentary film Yiddish Theater: A Love Story, about a Yiddish woman named Zypora Spaisman who fights to keep the oldest running Yiddish theater in America alive. The film, in which Spaisman’s theater is given just a week to raise enough funds to keep its show from going under, also offers an intriguing look into the lives of the last remaining stars of the Yiddish stage. Like most of the films shown at the festival, Yiddish Theater will be followed by a Q&A session with its director, Dan Katzir.

About Face: The Story of the Jewish Refugee Soldiers of World War II is likely one of the festival’s more somber selections. It’s the previously untold story of thousands of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi oppression in Germany and Austria, only to return to fight against their home countries as members of American and Allied Armed Forces. (Director Steve Karras will be present to answer questions following the screening.)

Over the past two years, under Bandari’s direction, the JCC has made a point of sharing Jewish culture with the local non-Jewish community. Bandari and former JCC president Jody Belsher noted the enormous draw of other JCC events, such as speeches made by Holocaust survivors (“People were pouring out of the doors,” Belsher said). After attending several Jewish film festivals in other cities, the organization decided San Luis Obispo was ready for its own.

Festivities begin on Saturday with a filmmaker’s dinner at Mee Heng Low Noodle House, next door to the Palm Theatre. The festival will present writer, film producer, and Chapman University professor Alexandra Rose with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the motion picture industry.

UNION! :  Sally Field is Norma Rae, a Southern textile worker who struggles to overcome deplorable working conditions and unionize her factory, in director Martin Ritt’s film of the same name. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLOJFF
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SLOJFF
  • UNION! : Sally Field is Norma Rae, a Southern textile worker who struggles to overcome deplorable working conditions and unionize her factory, in director Martin Ritt’s film of the same name.

Rose, a converted Jew, produced the 1979 film Norma Rae, winner of a Golden Globe for Best Picture. Directed by Martin Ritt, the film is based on the true story of a female textile worker in the American South who struggled to overcome discrimination in the workplace and unionize her factory. Sally Field, in the title role, won an Oscar for her performance.

Norma Rae is, appropriately, the first in the festival’s movie lineup. However, aside from its Jewish producer, the film has no strong Jewish ties.

“It’s hard to say what defines a Jewish film,” Rose said. “There are films made by Jewish filmmakers that represent a facet of Jewish culture, or Jewish language, or Jewish history, perhaps.”

Several Coen brothers films, Bandari, pointed out, are full of Jewish references.

“Their film [A Serious Man] is completely a Jewish film that could be shown at any Jewish film festival,” she said by way of example.

(And let’s not overlook John Goodman insisting, “I won’t roll on Shabbos!” in The Big Lebowski.)

The festival aims to present a non-European perspective of Jewish culture, screening films such as This Song is Old, about one man’s search for a tribe of Indian Jews. Live and Become tells the story of Sirak Sehbat, who, adopted by an Ethiopian Jewish tribe, was brought to Israel during “Operation Solomon,” a 1991 Israeli military operation in which 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in three days.

“It really delves more into racial issues than anything religious,” said Bandari.

Sehbat himself will speak at the festival, kicking off the JCC’s planned series of engaging Jewish guest speakers.

Belsher and Bandari estimated that only one percent of SLO County is Jewish. But between the conservative Temple Ner Shalom, the more progressive Congregation Beth David, and the unaffiliated local Jewish population, there’s a lot of diversity in that one percent.

- CULTURE FIX:  The inaugural San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival takes place Jan. 22 and 23 at the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo. For tickets or for more information, visit jccslo.org. -
  • CULTURE FIX: The inaugural San Luis Obispo Jewish Film Festival takes place Jan. 22 and 23 at the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo. For tickets or for more information, visit jccslo.org.

“We may pray differently,” Belsher said.

“Or not pray at all,” Bandari interjected. “But culturally, we’re the same.”

The film festival, then, is a way to unite a small yet diverse demographic. And the other 99 percent of the town is invited to the party, too.

May Arts Editor Anna Weltner offer you some wine? Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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