A Film Festival’s Growing Reach


Note: This is the first of three articles on this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.

As the New York Jewish Film Festival nears the quarter-century mark with its 24th annual edition opening on Wednesday, Jan. 14, the surprise isn’t the event’s longevity. Backed by two formidable New York institutions, The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and located in an urban center that includes a goodly percentage of the world’s Jews, the failure of such a program would be more of a shock.

But, as this year’s round-up proves, the reach of the festival beyond that community, as indicated by the number of films that will receive theatrical releases after the event, has become significant.

That shift is based, to some extent, on the proliferation of cinemas hungry for product, but the sheer quality of the films on offer in this year’s festival suggests that industry pressures aren’t the only reason for the NYJFF’s growing reach. Add to that the growing audience interest in non-fiction cinema, always a strength of the festival, and the consistently high quality and marketing profile of recent Israeli films, and you have a recipe for ongoing success.

Consider the case of Roberta Grossman’s “Above and Beyond,” a skillful examination of the birth of the Israeli Air Force. The darker realities of the Shoah and its aftermath are at the film’s center, a brisk recounting of the pivotal role of Jewish volunteers (mostly but not exclusively American) in the creation of the air force. Nearly 70 years after the founding of the Jewish state, it is almost too easy to forget that the original aerial component of Israel’s military consisted of less than a half-dozen rickety fighter planes and a handful of second-hand transports, flown by a band of young, carousing WWII vets. Grossman managed to interview many of the surviving fliers, and a colorful and candid group they are. George Lichter, a hard-nosed Brooklyn boy, speaks bluntly for all of them when he says, “I knew I was risking my citizenship and jail time [by breaking the American arms embargo]. I didn’t give a s***.”

The true story manages to offer the cloak-and-dagger elements of the weapons smuggling trade, the Boys’ Own adventure of high-altitude combat and the machinations of international politics. Add to that mix a healthy dose of testosterone and schoolboy high-jinks and you have a recipe for a Hollywood adventure film. Indeed, actor Paul Reubens, whose father Martin Rubenfeld flew for Israel during the War of Independence, characterizes his dad as “a swaggering Indiana Jones” character.

But the stakes were ominously higher than in a Spielberg-Lucas comic thriller. As Grossman’s witnesses remind us repeatedly, the life-or-death nature of the struggle for Palestine/Israel was not a joke, not a boyish tale of derring-do. The heroism and death of Modi Alon, the first commander of Israel’s first fighter squadron, is a story and theme that anchors the middle of the film soberly. Grossman’s use of several historians — most notably Benny Morris — helps put events into a larger historical context. But the real center of the film is the group of American fliers whose Jewish identities were profoundly shaped by the experience of helping make the dream of a modern Jewish state a reality. The film opens theatrically later this month.

On a lighter note, there is Eric Greenberg Anjou’s “Deli Man,” a sprightly look at the sagging fortunes of the most important contribution of American Jews to the nation’s cuisine. As the film notes, at the peak of the Jewish immigrant influx early in the 20th century, New York City had approximately 1,500 Jewish delicatessens; today there are about 150 in the whole of North America. Blending a whirlwind tour of many of those eateries, some astute historical observers and the saga of Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston (as seen through the eyes of its co-owner, a third-generation deli man and graduate of the Cordon Bleu school), the film is a gleeful celebration of the shifting demographics and foodways of a particular slice of Ashkenazi culture. The shifts are primarily due, of course, to assimilation and the push for healthier eating. (Make that slice lean, please, with a garlic pickle.) Like “Above and Beyond” “Deli Man” opens theatrically in a few weeks.

The festival’s opening night film, “The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” directed by Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser, is a similarly humorous documentary with an underlying, serious theme. As recounted in its brief 76-minute running time, the film is the story of a brilliant young Yiddish writer who left Warsaw for New York in 1935, a step ahead of the gathering storms of war and persecution, and found that he wanted English-language translators to expand his readership beyond the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward. Singer’s first prominent translator was a young Saul Bellow, but gradually the writer replaced his male translators with attractive young women. Apparently, Singer was as sexually voracious as he was literarily prolific, and he acquired a veritable harem of female writers-translators-muses.

In fact, the film leaves the question of his carnal relations with these younger colleagues rather ambiguous. As Jane Hadda, Singer’s biographer and an astute judge of his behavior, notes in the film, every one of the women seems to think that she was the only one at whom he ever made a pass. What emerges from the film is a portrait of an unlikely Lothario, less than an ideal husband and partner, a sparkling writer with a strong line of barely suppressed erotic tensions, a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize but a profoundly irresponsible family man. Despite its brevity, “Muses” rambles a bit, and its ramshackle structure undercuts some of its insights, but Singer himself is always amusing; and the cacophony of would-be heiresses to his legacy is amusing in a catty way.

The 24th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, produced by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, runs from Jan. 14-29; screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, both located on W. 65th Street in Lincoln Center. For more information, go to www.filmlinc.com.