Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Holocaust, Israel and Jewish Performance

Just returning to Louisville from LA, I was looking at the films being shown at the Louisville Jewish Film Festival. At least four out of the thirteen (b-mitzvah theme here?) were based on the Holocaust or grappling with memories of Nazi cruelty. One was about Jews in America entitled Yankles - about a "Bad News Bears" style chasidic baseball team and the other eight were either from Israel or about Israel. On the face of it, the festival seems to say that Jewish film is mostly about the Holocaust and the rebirth of Judaism in the State of Israel. That means that the one film representing the approximately 5 million Jews in America relegates Jewish culture to kitschy schmaltz, which is putting it mildly.

So maybe these are the only films the festival leaders could find? But I know that isn't true. I have seen really good and interesting films with Jewish content from America and other countries with really interesting themes and cinematography over the last year. An example is "Crime After Crime"  I was pleased to meet the filmmaker Yoav Potash and Joshua Safran, a Jewish lawyer in the film who's Jewishness is very much a motif in the film. It documents how Safran, with his partner Nadia Costa, defends African-American woman Deborah Peagler seeking parole from an unjust sentence. The film had funding from the Foundation for Jewish Culture and has been a Sundance Selection.

Or what about a film about 20-somethings like "Four Weddings and a Felony." Though not an acclaimed film it still is a good film showing the trials and tribs of young Jews today.

Or if you really like Yiddish, the REAL Yiddish, what about "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" by Joseph Dorman,
which puts to lie about how happy-go-lucky Tevye and his band of merry Jews were. As Hillel Halkin says in the film, "Sholem Aleichem never uses humor to escape what's terrible. He uses humor to enable you to understand that there is a perspective from which the most terrible thing is funny, too." It also features the 100 years old Bel Kaufman, author of Up the Down Staircase and the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem.

There are many more but I guess the point I want to make is that Jewish films abound and the choices go  in many different directions, not just with the Holocaust and Israel. On another level I wonder about the choices and ask what are they saying about what the film fest selectors want to portray as Jewish culture and concerns. Why is there the focus on the Holocaust and Israel? Is this the primary way the presenters want Jews to be defined? Is this the way they define themselves? Is the implicit statement that being a Jew today in America is to primarily show how suffering and catastrophe resulted in the establishment of an Israel which now can boast a thriving film industry with talented filmmakers? 

I have seen many good Israeli films and bad ones, too. I was just at a private screening by the Tel Aviv University Film Department with films by students and graduates. But they aren't the sum total of the Jewish experience of America or in the world. We must go beyond the ghetto. We must see the Jewish-World experience in all of its colors, dimensions, and transculturalism. There are new definitions and cultural expressions of Jewishness today. Let's move into the 21st C.

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