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Annual Jewish Film Festival, Following New Wave of Anti-Semitism, Offers Hope and Inspiration

Early last month, four people were killed at a Jewish food store next to a synagogue in Jersey City, N.J. (two blocks from the building in which I work). A few days later, a man wielding a machete stabbed and badly injured five Jews praying in the home of a Rabbi in Monsey, New York, about 40 miles from New York City. Since then, several swastikas have been painted on buildings in various cities. These incidents are all part of a growing wave of anti-Semitism  in America. The anti-Semitic crimes in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles were the highest in 18 years in 2019. The hate crimes in Los Angeles, a category expanded by police to include swastikas an any religious property, doubled in 2019 over the previous year.  New York City counted 229 anti-Semitic crimes in the past year, a new record, and up significantly from last year.  The Anti-Defamation League said 2019 showed the third highest anti-Semitic crime total in the entire history of the organization.

On Wednesday, the 29th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, a two week (January 15-28) cinematic celebration of Jewish life, kicks off at Lincoln Center’s Water Reade Theater, in New York, and serves as hope and inspiration to not just Jews, but everybody.

Given the attacks on Jews all over the country, the Jewish Film Festival, one of the oldest in the United States, could not have come at a better time.

Aviva Weintraub, the executive director of the festival that is sponsored by the New York Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, said what has been happening against Jews in the nation over the last two months is “horrifying.” She said the goal of the festival each year is to “bring Jews together with each other and others” and said she is hopeful that will happen again this year. 


Discrimination and persecution, of course, are no strangers to Jews and the selectins of films from the festival reflects that.

The film festival starts with the upbeat Aulcie, a sports film about how basketball star Aulcie Perry was spotted playing basketball on a New York City playground tournament by a scout for the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team from Israel in 1976. He was signed and, despite personal problems, helped the Maccabi team win two separate European championships. He later converted to Judaism and became an Israeli citizen

The centerpiece of the film festival is the screening of the award winnings 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, director Vittorio De Sica’s movie about the struggles of the Jews in the World War II era in Italy, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. That Holocaust era film is joined by a new documentary, Four Winters: A Story of Jewish Partisan Resistance and Bravery in WW II, that tells the story of Jewish resistance to the Nazis throughout World War II in different countries.

“We chose The Garden of the Finzi-Continis because of its anniversary, but also because it is such as great film about the struggle of the Jews against the Nazis and because it is a beautiful and moving story,” said Ms. Weintraub. The film won 26 international awards in 1970, plus the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

Executive director Weintraub is equally proud of Four Winters. “The strength of the film is not just its story, but the inspiring story of each of the men and women, seniors now, who survived the Holocaust and, in the movie, describe what happened. It Is stirring,” said Ms. Weintraub. “You cannot see that documentary and not be moved by it.”

She said Four Winters is a factual and inspirational story of years of resistance against the Nazi regime. “It’s amazing to realize that the Jews and others resisted for that long,” she said.

The festival has always been popular. Weintraub chuckles when she thinks back on different years of the Festival. “We have hordes of people who literally camp out at Lincoln Center to catch as many films in the festival as they can,” she said. “It’s not surprising for someone to see several films. Many people come to Lincoln Center on their way home from work, or between shopping trips on weekends,” she said.

She and two others spend about a year winnowing down the films to 31 or 32 for each festival. “We look for films that represent history, politics and Jewish life. Each year the mix of movies is different, “ she added.

Some movies in this year’s festival represent the Holocaust. There is Birch Tree Meadow, a 2003 film that tells the story of a concentration camp survivor who returns to the camp years later to confront memory and the descendant of a Nazi guard. 

An Irrepressible Woman is the story of 1940s French Prime Minister Leon Blum, imprisoned at Buchenwald, and his love, Jeanne Reichenbach, who fell in love with him as a teenager, and risks her life to find him again.

There are cultural tales. The 1919 silent film Broken Barriers was the first film to tell some of the old Sholom Aleichem stories, that much later became world famous play and move Fiddler on the Roof.

Incitement is the complicated story of the lead up to the highly publicized assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. It tracks not only the murder, but the politics in the nation at the time.

God of the Piano is the story of a woman who is forced to meet high expectations by her father as a pianist. When she grows up, she places those same high expectation of her son but he is deaf. The story is the larger family conflict. 

The festival closes on a high note with the unification film Crescendo, the true story of how music conductor Eduard Sporck took over a joint Israeli-Palestinian youth orchestra.  At first, he saw his job as the man to get all of the musicians to produce beautiful music, but he soon realized the harder job,  and the more rewarding job, was to get the children from the two opposing political sides to forget personal differences and to work together as a smoothly running musical group.