Jewish Film Festivals

Jewish film festivals are wildly popular--and for some moviegoers, are a major expression of their Judaism.

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Excerpted with permission of the author from Hadassah Magazine.

"The Jewish film festival is my favorite Jewish holiday," wrote a respondent on an audience questionnaire at a recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.


With festivals drawing nonaffiliated Jews as well as regular synagogue-goers, that's not a surprising sentiment. And with the burgeoning number of festivals, it's a holiday millions are observing.

Big Cities, Small Cities

If you live in California, you don't have to go farther than the beautiful single-screen Castro Theatre during festival weeks to get first-hand evidence of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's popularity: The line includes old and young, gay and straight, observant and nonobservant as well as non-Jewish. It's where you meet your old friends and exchange opinions about last night's show. People tend to go to more than one film and stay for the post-film question and answer session with the filmmaker--Jews, after all, are verbal people.

Many screenings in the 1,400-seat Castro Theatre and in other venues sell out each year. "I had no doubt that there was going to be an audience," reminisces festival founder and former director Deborah Kaufman about the event's early days. "I did not know how big an audience it was going to be."

movie theaterJewish film festivals, many only a few years old, are held not only in such obvious places as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco--at 23 years, the oldest and still the biggest--but also in Omaha, Fresno, and northeast Pennsylvania. And that's just in the United States where, according to a 2002 study by the Jewish Outreach Institute, there are some 60 Jewish film festivals. Another half dozen are held in Canada and some two dozen in foreign cities, including Brighton, England; São Paolo, Brazil; La Paz, Bolivia; and Hong Kong.

"It is a remarkable network that has developed--big, small, and medium-sized festivals--all over the place," says filmmaker Bonnie Burt. "They are cropping up like little mushrooms." Her recent documentaries A Home on the Range, about early 20th-century Jewish chicken farmers in Petaluma, Calif., and Song of a Jewish Cowboy, about a contemporary Jewish cowboy living in California, have been festival hits.

Film Festivals Abound

The growth of Jewish film festivals coincides with the popularity of film festivals in general. The San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, hosts at least three international festivals, not to mention special-themed events--Asian-American, gay and lesbian, Latino, Arab, silent, and many others. Since the decline in import and even production of foreign films festivals have helped fill audiences' desire for something other than standard Hollywood fare. Jewish festivals, mostly concentrating on independent films, both features and documentaries, and mostly in foreign languages, fit snugly into this pattern.

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Renata Polt is a film critic and freelance writer. She is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.