The Arty Semite

Israeli Films Show Nuance at Tribeca Film Fest

By Simi Horwitz

Two films screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival show subtle and nuanced perspectives on Israeli life from a woman’s point of view.

Talya Lavie’s first feature, “Zero Motivation,” screening April 17 – 24, focuses on a unit of female Israeli soldiers at a desert-based human resource center awash in hierarchy, bureaucracy and pointless tasks. Tedium is the defining gestalt as they serve coffee, shred paper, and re-organize closets to fill time. Between chores they play computer games, sometimes with each other, often alone. The girls are isolated and, paradoxically, deeply interconnected. Friendships evolve and disintegrate in the face of betrayal, disappointment and thwarted ambition.

Despite its bleak backdrop the film’s signature is its good humor and light touch. Thanks to fine performances and, especially, Lavie’s subtle script and self-assured direction “Zero Motivation” is a fascinating look at a rarely explored subculture. This movie is both a character-driven work and a briskly paced entertainment.

The film is structured around three different girls and is divided into three sections, “The Substitute,” “The Virgin” and “The Commodore,” with one part flowing into the next and each informing the other two.

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Won Over by Ballroom Dance

By Curt Schleier

Israeli-born director Hilla Medalia didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity to direct “Dancing In Jaffa.” Her initial reaction was, “there are already so many films about Palestinian and Israeli kids being brought together.”

But then she met Pierre.

Ironically, that was my reaction, too: Did we really need another feel-good movie about Arabs and Jews when every day brought more headlines of diminishing prospects for peace?

And then I met Pierre. Cinematically.

Pierre is Pierre Dulaine, an internationally known ballroom dancer whose volunteer work bringing dance to inner city school children was the subject of a 2005 documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom.” The following year, Antonio Banderas played him in a feature film based on his life.

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Richard Shepard on His Dad and 'Dom Hemingway'

By Dorri Olds

For the comedy crime drama, “Dom Hemingway,” Jude Law transformed himself into a vulgar, violent, puffy and unhinged alcoholic fresh out of prison. The film was written and directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) and the cast includes Richard E. Grant (“Dracula”) as Dom’s pal Dickie and Oscar-nominee Demian Bichir (“A Better Life”) as Mr. Fontaine, a Russian mobster that Dom didn’t rat out. Dom feels entitled to a big reward, so after a few excursions to the English pubs to get pissed and have hedonistic times with hookers, Dom sets off to find Fontaine and get what he deserves.

The Arty Semite caught up with Shepard to talk about working with Law, his dad, and directing episodes of ‘Girls.’

Dorri Olds: Did you and Jude Law work well together?

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Read Darren Aronofsky’s 7th-Grade ‘Noah’ Poem

By Forward Staff

“Noah,” the blockbuster biblical adaptation by Darren Aronofsky, just came out in theaters on March 28, but the story has been on the director’s mind for a long time.

Aronofsky first said he was planning to make a “Noah” movie in 2007. When it didn’t happen right away, he wrote a graphic novel instead with co-screenwriter Ari Handel. But he’s been interested in the biblical tale of the flood since at least 7th grade.

According to Variety, Aronofsky wrote a poem in 7th grade about the story of the flood, with the encouragement of his teacher, Vera Fried, at Mark Twain I.S. 239 in Coney Island. The poem was entered in a student writing contest, and won. Thirty-three years later Aronofsky decided to repay the favor by tracking down Fried in Delray Beach, Florida, and offering her a bit part in the movie. Fried told Variety that “They wouldn’t give him my phone number at the school. His grandma went to a Hadassah meeting in Brooklyn, stood up and said, ‘Does anyone know Vera Fried?’”

Read Aronofsky’s poem after the jump.

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Filmmaker Made Public Humiliation His Muse

By Curt Schleier

Independent filmmakers can face many discouraging obstacles on the road from concept to screen. But Seth Fisher found a way to make sure he would not abandon his first full length feature along the way: his fear of public humiliation.

“As soon as I started writing ‘Blumenthal’ I started a blog called watchmemakeamovie.com,” he said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “Every day I’d post what I did that day. I figured if I was going to announce to the world that I was going to make this movie, I would have to see it through to the end. It would be embarrassing if I stopped.”

That was back in November of 2010. Now, more than three years later, “Blumenthal” opens in New York on March 28. with more cities added in the coming weeks. The movie, already a Jewish film festival darling, is about the family of successful playwright Harold Blumenthal, who dies while laughing at one of his own jokes.

His survivors are a younger and jealous brother, Saul (Mark Blum), Saul’s wife Cheryl (Laila Robins) and his son Ethan (writer/director Fisher). As Saul grapples with his angst, Cheryl deals with aging and Ethan with trying to find the perfect woman.

Fisher spoke to the Forward about where the film came from, why the characters were Jewish, and what Tom Stoppard told him about Jewish characters.

Curt Schleier: I found the film very enjoyable, but I wasn’t entirely sure what you wanted to say. Can you explain?

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Uncovering the Remains of Treblinka

By Curt Schleier

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls is a British forensic archeologist. Much of her work is with police departments, often literally digging up missing persons — so she’s used to uncovering remains.

Still, what she discovered during her research at the Treblinka death camp was so emotionally wrenching, it forced her to tears. A riveting account of her work there, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” airs March 29 at 8 pm on the Smithsonian Channel.

Treblinka was actually two camps. Treblinka 1 was supposedly a labor camp. Treblinka 2 was almost certainly the most efficient murder operation in the history of mankind. About 900,000 people fell victim there in a little more than a year. Camp commanders bragged about their efficiency.

But, facing an oncoming Soviet army, the Germans destroyed the buildings, dug up mass graves and burned the bodies, forced local people to spread the ash and planted trees to cover over what had been the camp.

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Growing Up in a Former Synagogue Sanctuary

By Renee Ghert-Zand

For the many people walking through New York’s Lower East Side on any given day, 70 Hester Street is just one of many historic buildings. But for 37-year-old filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski, this former synagogue is home. He grew up in the loft space on the upper two floors, which his artist parents, Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, used as their studio for 45 years until they were evicted in 2012.

With a sense that 70 Hester Street would likely the suffer the fate of so many other buildings in the old neighbourhood and be torn down to make way for a new, sleek condominium or commercial space, Nozkowski started filming his childhood home in June 2012. His premonition turned out to be correct. Not long after, his parents received notice that the building was being sold and that they, as rental tenants, would have to move out.

“I went in to overdrive when we got the eviction notice,” Nozkowski told the Forward. “I started editing as I was still filming, and finished the film toward the end of 2013.” Fortunately, he completed the documentary in time to submit it for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which accepted it for its City Limits: New York Shorts program. In its world premiere, “70 Hester Street” will be screened five times between April 17 and 27.

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Some Jews Are Funnier Than Others

By Curt Schleier

A popular form of entertainment is watching comics analyzing comedy — a subject that doesn’t easily lend itself to analysis. Simply: What’s funny is what makes the lady in the third row laugh. You cannot tell her she’s wrong; if she doesn’t laugh it isn’t funny, she does and it is. End of story.

Still, shows like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” David Steinberg’s “Inside Comedy” on Showtime and the DVD “When Comedy Went To School” (about the Catskills) are all the rage.

I suspect the DVD release of Alan Zweig’s documentary, “When Jews Were Funny” will swiftly put an end to that. Zweig interviews about 25 comics of various ages and levels of success: Howie Mandel, Shecky Greene and the late David Brenner, among others in the top tier, and numerous others I’d never heard of before.

Part of the documentary’s problem is visual. Even under the best of circumstances, a film made up almost entirely of talking heads lacks tempo. It simply moves from one face to another, in this case with each face saying almost the same thing we’ve heard over and over again: Comedy comes from suffering and who has suffered more than Jews?

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Charlotte Gainsbourg on Playing a 'Nymphomaniac'

By Dorri Olds

Charlotte Gainsbourg, 43, is the star of director Lars von Trier’s much-anticipated film, “Nymphomaniac.” She plays Joe, a sex addict, and the film covers 20 years of her unusual life. The Danish director is known for his penchant to shock audiences, but this film is not as sexy as you might guess, nor is sex the main story. Rather, it is a sad tale of a woman bent on self-destruction.

The film boasts an all-star cast including Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Stellan Skarsgård, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe. The director’s cut is five and a half hours. For theatrical release, the film was edited down to four hours and split into two volumes. Both are deeply disturbing, yet fascinating. It’s a film unlike any you’ve seen before.

In addition to acting, Gainsbourg is a singer and the daughter of English actress Jane Birkin and French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. She is married to the Israeli actor, writer and director Yvan Attal and they have three children together. Her entre into singing was at 12 years old when she sang a duet with her father called “Lemon Incest” — with lyrics that are just as worrisome as the title implies. When she reached adulthood, Gainsbourg released three successful albums and she has appeared in films every year since 1984.

The Forward caught up with Gainsbourg to discuss her upcoming film.

Dorri Olds: What was the most challenging aspect of playing Joe?

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Suit Against 'McMansion' Director Thrown Out

By Curt Schleier

Lauren Greenfield received a best director nod at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.” Now, two years later, she has another victory to her credit, which may ultimately prove more important to her career.

An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance ruled that her movie about David and Jackie Siegel was not defamatory. This seems to end Siegel’s effort to punish Greenfield for her film, which centered in large measure on the family’s profligate ways — building a 90,000 square-foot mansion (to replace the 26,000 square-foot home they lived in); spending $1 million a year on clothing, and having a household staff of 19.

It also covered the rise and fall of Westgate Resorts, Siegel’s timeshare empire that funded these extravagances — at least until the 2008 credit crunch.

Siegel charged the film defamed him and his company. His claims were dismissed by a federal court judge, which is how the case ended up in arbitration.

“Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false,” the arbitrator, Roy Rifkin, ruled.

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Filming His Refusenik Father's Doppelganger

By Curt Schleier

Writer/director Arie Posin is standing in the lobby of the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, not far from the red carpet and a dozen or so photographers. Everyone is waiting for Annette Bening and Ed Harris. The two star in Posin’s “The Face of Love” and have come to New York for a post-screening Q&A with media, friends, family and anyone else who can score a ticket.

“The Face of Love” is the kind of small, independent film that, in the face of competition from Superman and Batman, frequently escapes media attention. But Posin doesn’t escape our fascination.

His parents were refusniks lucky enough to get out of Russia and make it to Israel, where Posin was born. Then there was his uncle, Leon Lerman, the famed Russian Yiddish poet. Moreover, his grandmother is seven generations removed from the Baal Shem Tov. On top of all that, the idea for his movie came from his own mother.

“A few years after my father passed away my mother was at a crosswalk outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when she looked up and saw a man who looked very much like him. She told me: ‘A very funny thing happened to me today. I saw a man walking toward me who was a perfect double for your father.’ I asked her, ‘What did you do?’ She said, ‘I just stopped in the middle of the road. He had a big smile on his face as he walked toward me and it just felt so nice.’”

That encounter became the basis for Posin’s film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles March 7 and opens in additional cities in the coming weeks.

Posin spoke to the Forward about how that incident sparked his imagination, his family history and, most important, his mother’s reaction to the film.

Curt Schleier: What was your reaction when your mother told you that story?

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Apartheid's Overlooked Sins — Through a Jewish Lens

By Anna Goldenberg

In the late 1980s, South Africa experienced a period of violence leading up to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and to the abolishment of the apartheid government.

Sara Blecher, granddaughter of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, was in the midst of it, working as a journalist. She later realized that the complex intra-black conflicts, which the white government fomented, were still often neglected in the country’s narrative of its history. This inspired her to direct and produce her first feature film, “Otelo Burning,” which had its digital release January 14. The script is based on an amalgamation of true stories about this time, recorded during workshops with inhabitants of the township Lamontville near Durban, where the story is set.

It starts off like a feel-good coming-of-age story set against the startling beauty of the South African coast: Otelo and New Year are two teenagers growing up in the township in the late 1980s. When they meet Mandla, who is an experienced bodysurfer, they are introduced to this new sport, an activity practiced predominantly by white people.

The boys escape from the erupting violence between the two rivaling black parties in the township, the ANC and Inkatha, by going to the beach and improving on their surfing — until events take a tragic turn.

Blecher, 46, grew up in Johannesburg. She attended high school and college in New York City and returned to her home country afterward. In March she will start shooting her second feature, “Andani and the Mechanic,” the story of a young female entrepreneur dealing with the death of her father and with unspoken love.

Blecher spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about what stories dealing with the Holocaust have in common with those about apartheid.

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Palestine's Tragic Oscar Hopeful Tests Identity

By Dan Williams

(Reuters) — The complexities and contradictions of the Middle East conflict come into play in both the real-life production story and fictional plot of “Omar,” Palestine’s contender for a best foreign language film Oscar.

The movie’s director and lead actors are Israeli Arabs who identify as Palestinian. And while it depicts lovers literally walled-off by Israel’s West Bank barrier, and a hero brutalized by Israeli secret police, the $2 million drama was filmed mostly in Nazareth, northern Israel, without hindrance.

“Whatever we wanted, we could shoot. And this is a great attitude. I think they (Israeli authorities) were smart to do that, because every journalist will ask me, ‘How was your shoot?’ and I have no stories to tell,” writer-director Hany Abu-Assad said in a telephone interview.

Such a conciliatory spirit is absent from “Omar,” however — as elusive as actual Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which world powers hope will emerge from peace talks with Israel.

The film looks at the grind of life under Israeli military occupation: A young Palestinian lethally lashes out at the army and is punished with pressure to spy on his own side or end up in prison with no prospects of marrying the woman he loves.

Betrayal, and the mistaken perception of betrayal, follow, with bleak and bloody consequences — a plot which Abu-Assad says was inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello.”

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'Gimme Shelter' and the Face of Homelessness

By Dorri Olds

On January 21, at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, the Forward caught up with Ronald Krauss, writer and director of “Gimme Shelter,” which opened in theaters January 24. The movie stars Vanessa Hudgens as Apple Bailey, a desperate pregnant teenager who runs away from a cruel drug-addicted mother (Rosario Dawson). Apple tries to connect to her wealthy dad (Brendan Fraser), but things keep looking bleaker until she meets Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). He introduces her to Kathy DiFiore (Ann Dowd), who runs a shelter.

Dorri Olds

Krauss, 43, has been writing, producing and directing movies since his first short film in 1988, “Puppies for Sale,” which starred Jack Lemmon. The seed for “Gimme Shelter” came when Krauss’s previous movie, “Amexica,” a drama about human trafficking, was screened at the United Nations. There he was introduced to Kathy DiFiore, a woman being honored at the U.N. for her 30-plus years of work with homeless teenage mothers. Krauss arranged to visit one of her shelters and thought he’d found the perfect subject for a documentary. He stayed a year and recorded 200 hours of interviews. “The shelter began to seem like holy ground,” said Krauss, “and the research launched my screenplay.”

Dorri Olds: What inspired the main character, Apple?

Ron Krauss: Exactly four years ago today, I saw a young girl standing outside the shelter. She had no jacket and it was freezing. I brought her inside. Her name was Darlisha Dozier and when I told her there was a bed she hugged me so hard it sent a jolt to my heart.

How did you choose Vanessa Hudgens for Apple?

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Aaron Swartz Story Comes to Sundance

By Piya Sinha-Roy

(Reuters) — A year after Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, a new documentary brings to light the young computer prodigy’s earnest battle to bring online freedom of access to information for everyone.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday and director Brian Knappenberger was joined by Swartz’s father Robert and two brothers, Noah and Ben, all of whom received a standing ovation.

“It’s unbelievably hard for us, but Aaron is dead, there’s nothing we can do about that,” Swartz’s father told the audience, saying he hoped the film would raise awareness of Aaron’s activism and encourage others to fight on his behalf.

Swartz died aged 26 in his Brooklyn, New York apartment on January 11, 2013, after facing felony charges brought by a federal grand jury that included theft, wire fraud and computer fraud.

The federal indictment said Swartz, a fellow at Harvard University, had downloaded millions of articles and journals from digital archive JSTOR through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology servers. Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted.

In the film, which is a contender in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition, Knappenberger focuses on Swartz’s intellect and growing political ambitions, with interviews that shed insight into his personality from Swartz’s family, friends and colleagues.

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Guru of the Sexual Revolution

By Allen Ellenzweig

In “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich,” shown recently at the New York Jewish Film Festival, Austrian writer and director Antonin Svoboda presents us with a sobering but odd theatrical feature about the controversial analyst and sex philosopher Wilhelm Reich.

Reich, a Jewish refugee from Nazism who came to the United States in 1939, had worked with Freud in the 1920s and was a respected professional with a Marxist bent and a progressive attitude toward such fraught issues as adolescent sexuality, birth control, abortion, and women’s economic independence.

Svoboda’s film concentrates on the latter years of Reich’s life in the United States, in the mid-1950s, when his increasingly iconoclastic methods and theories — especially his belief in an unscientifically defined “cosmic energy” which he called “orgone” and his promotion of “orgone boxes” in which his patients sat alone for presumed health benefits — led to investigations by journalists and agents of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Yet what the film presents, in the person of actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, who has aged into a stout bear of a man with wispy blond hair and jowls, is a man committed to eccentric theories he knows make him both target and taboo.

At the same time, holed up with a devoted second wife who works by his side in a remote wooded retreat, and with a staff of young lab enthusiasts and acolytes, we see a figure of considerable personal charm and warmth. Reich seeks to help a local farmer suffering drought conditions with an invention to harness the weather, at the same time intruding into the man’s life by helping his wife overcome misdiagnosed infertility. Reich tenderly ministers to own adolescent son who sees his father as a hero; he welcomes the return of the adult daughter from his first marriage whose accent and manners set her slightly apart. In the fullness of her father’s embrace, despite years of estrangement, she becomes a colleague and his closest supporter.

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Zach Braff and 'Alaskan Mohel Chic'

By Jana Banin

Getty Images

(JTA) — “Wish I Was Here,” Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-funded film, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday night. Fans eagerly awaiting the “Garden State” follow up—especially the 46,520 who helped pay for it to be made—will be glad to know it was warmly received. The screening ended with a standing ovation, certain critics had nice things to say, and most importantly, the movie was ultimately bought by Focus Features.

Also notable: It sounds pretty Jew-y. In “Wish I Was Here,” Braff makes his directorial debut and stars as Aiden Bloom, a struggling actor living in suburban LA with his wife (Kate Hudson) and their two kids. Aiden is forced to pull the children from Jewish day school after his dad, played Mandy Patinkin, announces he is suffering from cancer and will no longer be able to pay tuition. Unwilling to send them to the local public school, Aiden decides to home school. This new role leads Aiden on a spiritual journey, complete with a visit to a rabbi.

Braff, who wrote the script with his brother Adam, explains that the pair drew inspiration from their childhood. “It was kind of a combination of both of our lives,” he said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “We did have a very strong conservative/Orthodox upbringing … Themes are in there around our shared experiences but it’s mostly fiction.”

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For Some Characters, Communism Is Never Over

By Allen Ellenzweig

A tale of adult children discovering the romantic mysteries of their parents’ past hardly presents new thematic territory. These discoveries are made after death thanks to the documentary evidence a parent leaves behind: letters, photographs, school reports, and war-related transcripts. Don’t a son and daughter in a sleepy farming community discover their mother’s hot and heavy affair with a passing photographer in “Bridges of Madison County”?

But this snooping around into the past has the benefit of additional historical weight in the hands of Diane Kurys, whose “For a Woman,” a fictionalized family memoir screening January 19 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, traces her Ukrainian Jewish parents’ early marriage after the war as they establish themselves as new French citizens in the city of Lyon. The narrative conceit of the film has two daughters in 1980 rummaging through their recently deceased mother’s effects, the younger one — a stand-in for Kurys — taking on the task of resolving the enigma of their parents’ long-ago divorce.

Suddenly, it is 1947. Michel and Léna set up house in the apartment above the tailoring shop Michel establishes, when the sudden reappearance of Jean, the younger brother Michel has been separated from since the boy’s youth, sets in motion a personal drama with political dimensions.

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Jew and Cardinal Both

By Allen Ellenzweig

Made as a film for the French-German television network, Arté, “The Jewish Cardinal,” screening January 20 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, nevertheless has the scope and sobriety of a feature film.

Without much of the bloat of the standard biopic, its focus is the period of French prelate Jean-Marie Aron Lustiger’s elevation through Church ranks, from being named Archbishop of Orléans in 1979, to his elevation as Archbishop of Paris in 1981 and Cardinal in 1983, all under the guidance of the new Polish Pope, Jean Paul II. But the screenplay, co-written by director Ilan Duran Cohen and Chantal Derudder, has more than career chronology on its mind.

Lustiger was born a French Jew of Polish immigrant stock, willingly converted to Christianity in the shelter of a Christian family during the war, and was quoted at the time of his elevation to Archbishop: “I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”

Duran Cohen and Derudder attempt the difficult task of presenting both the emotional toll his conversion had on his family — for this rely on several familial scenes and flashbacks — and the philosophical conundrum of maintaining a dual identity as Christian and Jew, relying here on several encounters with members of the Church hierarchy and the French Jewish community.

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Triumph and Tragedy of First Woman Rabbi

By Allen Ellenzweig

Diana Groó’s “poetic documentary” “Regina,” screening January 15 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, is constructed out of meager visual evidence. There is, after all, only one surviving photo of her subject, the Berlin-born Regina Jonas (1902-1944), who became the first ordained female rabbi. But if necessity is the mother of invention, then Groó’s method is to create a lyrical meditation on a life whose contours were barely known or remembered until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. The subsequent reunification of Germany allowed a rush of researchers and scholars to fill in important historical lacunae from musty archives.

Although Groó’s documentary does not detail the manner of recovery of this extraordinary female figure in modern Jewish history, a 2004 article in Haaretz credits the archival work of Dr. Katharina von Kellenbach, “a researcher and lecturer in the department of philosophy and theology at … a small Christian college” who discovered in a “remote archive in East Berlin” an envelope containing a teaching certificate awarded to Jonas from the prestigious Berlin institute that “trained teachers of Judaic studies and Liberal rabbis.” Given to Jonas in 1930, it only certified that she could teach Judaic studies and Hebrew in the city’s Jewish community schools. Eventually, Von Kellenbach would also discover documents in the archive of the Theresienstadt ghetto that would enlarge and deepen the picture.

With merely the one formal portrait of Jonas in rabbinical robes, Groó nevertheless fashions a visual meditation on Jonas’s life and times. She uses old film footage panned over at hauntingly slow speeds. We see as in a dream the lively street life of the Berlin metropolis complemented by stills and clips of Berlin’s Jewish ghetto, its Jewish community schools and institutions, and Weimar-era nightlife.

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