JxJ Film Festival: Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, Fiddler on The Roof, and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving. -IMDB synopsis

In the early 20th century, Jews and Orthodox Christians live in the little village of Anatevka in the pre-revolutionary Russia (when Czars ruled). The poor milkman Reb Tevye has been married for 25 yrs to Golde and they have five daughters . When the local matchmaker, Yente, arranges the match between his eldest daughter Tzeitel and the old widowed butcher Lazar Wolf, Tevye agrees to the wedding. However, Tzeitel is in love with the poor tailor Motel Kamzoil; they “gave each other a pledge” to someday get married. After seeing the couple so happy, Tevye begins to rethink some of the traditions he assumed would continue…

This was my favorite film (of the six that I saw) of this year’s festival; it’s a funny, educational, and touching doc (featuring Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, veteran actor Austin Pendelton, cultural critic Fran Lebowitz, and many others influenced by the beloved and timeless musical). The theater was full (or nearly full) during the two showings. Did you know that several of the team who came up with the lyrics, music, dances, etc. are still alive?

We get to hear from theater greats like Harold Prince (producer), Sheldon Harnick (songwriter), and Calvin Trillin (writer). Several discuss the innovation, as well as the emotional/verbal abuse, of Jerome Robbins (the very talented choreographer). Robbins was a “conflicted Jew” and controversial figure because he revealed names to the HUAC. It turns out that he was a closeted gay man seeking to protect his privacy.

A youthful Norman Jewison (who directed the very popular 1971 movie) is seen directing a scene featuring Tevye (Chaim Topol, an actor from Israel who worked mainly on the London stage). Did you know that Jewison (who worked on many socially-conscious films) isn’t Jewish? Though Tevye is the center of the story, dreaming of being a rich man, talking to God, and trying to be the breadwinner, his three (independent-minded) daughters propel the story forward.

Stage/film actresses from different generations talk re: portraying Tevye’s practical wife (Golda), eldest daughter (Tzeitel), witty middle daughter (Hodel), and the gentle/shy one (Chava). Each daughter has (what we call these days) a love marriage. It was shocking to the family when Chava ran off to marry a Russian (not Jewish) boy; this action had more serious consequences in that time period and community.

The (timeless) themes of Fiddler on the Roof have made the play popular worldwide; we get to see clips from a professional performance in Japan and one from school kids in Brooklyn and Thailand. Non-Jewish creative types, including Gurinder Chada (best known for the British indie hit Bend it Like Beckham), talk about how the tale has influenced their works. Miranda even used the song “To Life” in his wedding reception; he, his father-in-law, and members of the wedding party surprised his wife! The doc wraps up w/ how the plight of (modern) refugees is not unlike Tevye’s family.

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JxJ Film Festival: Seder-Masochism

Loosely following a traditional Passover Seder, events from the Book of Exodus are retold by Moses, Aharon, the Angel of Death, Jesus, and the director’s own father. But there’s another side to this story: that of the Goddesses, humanity’s earliest deities. “Seder-Masochism” resurrects the Great Mother in a tragic struggle against the forces of patriarchy. -IMDB synopsis

…filled with tap-dancing Moses, the ten plagues, the visage of God (speaking in the voice of her late father), and swaying, cartwheeling, singing and spiraling Goddesses. Set to popular blues, rock, soul and spirituals, this film is an emotional, searing indictment of violence… -Excerpt from IMDB review

Wow, the world (esp. of creative ppl, or those who follow their work) is SO small! I met this filmmaker, Nina Paley, in NYC at a small Meetup event for the (now archived) blog, Sepia Mutiny. I followed several of that blog’s contributors; she was friends w/ members of this group (consisting of South Asians from around the US and world). Paley’s first animated film was Sita Sings the Blues; it focused partly on her relationship w/ her former husband (who transferred to India for his job) and also on the trials faced by the goddess Sita in the Hindu religion. This film is more closer to home for Paley (a secular Jewish woman); it’s about the Seder meal story, as well as her relationship w/ her (recently deceased) father.

The animation here is much more sophisticated; I’m not sure how to describe this type of graphic art. In the dialogues, there are humorous moments, along w/ very touching ones (giving us a glimpse into the dynamics of the filmmaker’s family). Paley’s father plays the Voice of God; he had an ambivalent relationship to his religion, though was proud to be of Jewish heritage. This film also has a big musical component; I think 3 of the songs she chose were new to me. These songs include spirituals, which are most often attributed to African-Americans. Since Paley believes in “free use,” you can download and view it yourself! Follow this link: https://sedermasochism.com/

JxJ Film Festival: Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal

This is a funny, charming, and quite educational documentary created by (and starring) two pals since high school of Ashkenazi heritage, Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman. They are (obviously) foodies who grew up in the ‘burbs of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Eli and Jamie are both self-described “liberal Jews” and part of a comedy troupe (YidLife Crisis); they perform in Yiddish. Some of you (theater fans) may know re: the Yiddish-language theaters of NYC; these also existed in post-WWII Montreal. I noticed that this film drew in more of a younger audience (20s-30s) than some of the other films in the festival.

Eli and Jamie (who have great chemistry and joke around often) are joined on their journey by a young historian (Zev Moses) from the Museum of Jewish Culture. They start by going to a family-owned bagel restaurant (Fairmount) that has been around for 100 yrs. It’s in a neighborhood that was the center of Jewish life in the 1910s-1960s. The Russian Jews arrived first (pre-WWII); they got the sense that “something bad could happen” if they didn’t emigrate. The current owner explains that the first bagels were shaped like horseshoes, then they became a full circle (representing the circle of life). Bagels were all the same (made w/ sesame seed on top), until one day, a customer recommended poppy seeds.

For a “light lunch,” they head to a small lunch restaurant (Wolensky’s) that still looks like it did in the 1940s. It’s a family business that serves simple sandwiches w/ bologna and salami. Many factories (w/ many newly arrived immigrant workers) were situated in this area, so places to grab a quick lunch were in demand. Next, they head to another restaurant for huge corned beef sandwiches! They talk to historians along the way, including non-Jews and a young Hasidic woman. In Montreal, Jews historically faced many hardships, including not speaking English (or French), being discriminated against (even in college admissions and while working as doctors), and being excluded from certain neighborhoods and professions.

For dinner (and dessert), Eli and Jamie head to the ‘burbs to have dinner w/ a large family of Sephardic Jews and some of their close friends. We get to know a bit about the Sephardic heritage; these individuals have parents who came from Morocco and Iraq. In the ’60s and ’70s, Sephardic and Askenazi Jews weren’t always on friendly terms; the earlier arrivals looked down on the newer ones at times. The food at this gathering looks amazing! There is a dish w/ stewed tomatoes (along w/ several other stews), couscous w/ different roasted vegetables, and desserts (some of which are also eaten by Muslims during Ramadan). Check out this site to learn more re: this film: https://www.yidlifecrisis.com/chewdaism-watch

Chewdaism will continue to play at film festivals, and the filmmakers have partnered with the tourist board Tourisme Montréal, which will use it to lure visitors to the city. They’re hoping for a TV release, possibly on PBS, down the line. Jewish Journal (April 24, 2019)

JxJ Film Festival: Working Woman

This is a timely movie (w/ high production values) from Israel; it is in Hebrew, English, and French (w/ subtitles). The protagonist, Orna, is a 30ish wife/mother of 3 in Jerusalem who wants to help her family get ahead. Her husband, a chef, opened his own restaurant a few months ago; unfortunately, customers are few and far between. There is also bureaucracy holding up a license he needs. We learn that Orna just quit her job at a childcare center (where her mother has been working for 20+ years) to pursue a job in real estate. The hours aren’t regular (9AM-5PM), but she has the potential to make more money and learn new skills from her boss, a successful/well-connected older man- Benny.

Orna quickly takes to her role as Benny’s personal assistant; she is a fast learner and very dedicated. Benny comments on Orna’s hair and clothes (which he thinks are too conservative); she thinks nothing much of it, and goes shopping to fit into her new work environment. Her husband has to take on more domestic responsibilities, such as bathing and feeding the kids. After a few months, while working late, Benny suddenly kisses Orna; she is SO shocked that she freezes (doing nothing). He apologizes right away, then gives her more high-profile work. In few more months, Orna is promoted by Benny to sales, where she continues to shine (selling several units of a luxury condo building). In pursuit of some wealthy older clients (who live in Paris), Benny plans a trip to the city… w/ Orna.

[1] The movie is very well directed and the actors have all done a great job! I just hope that in the real world women will voice whatever happens to them (even if it is a very small deal) to their loved ones.

[2] Director Aviad is right on here, presenting a realistic look at a plausable situation.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This is a slice-of-life film where we follow the POV of the protagonist (Orna). She is warm when interacting w/ her family, but composed and all-business in her attitude at work (which is male-dominated). In truth, Orna could be you (or a gal pal or female relative); in the #MeToo era, stories like this need to be told. Benny, who comes off as highly confident and somewhat gruff, yet also helpful to Orna (and her husband), is the predatory antagonist. Orna (like many women) never saw him as a threat, though there are warning signs throughout the story. If you’re in the DC metro area, check out this site for more info: https://www.jxjdc.org/films/ (I volunteer at this event).

Magic Town (1947) starring James Stewart & Jane Wyman

Very Frank Capra-like (not surprisingly since screenwriter Robert Riskin collaborated with Capra numerous times)…

If you liked James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Philadelphia Story,” this one’s for you.

This is one of those “just sit back and enjoy” pictures that isn’t particularly deep, but that is charming and great fun to watch.

…this film has lots of treasures in the performances, dialogue, physical comedy and rich diversity home spun Americana characters. I recommend this to all fans of the Capra-Riskin genre.

This movie is classic Jimmy Stewart. He is terrific, showing his ability to seamlessly mix comedy with drama.

Interestingly, the town people… were asked whether they thought a woman could function satisfactorily as president. 79% responded “yes.” This was considered an outrageous result.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

In this William Wyler directed film, Jimmy Stewart plays Lawrence “Rip” Smith, an NYC opinion pollster in search of a small town whose opinions reflect those of the U.S. as a whole. When he finds out that Grandview is such a place, he seizes his opportunity to make money (since his office is failing), and heads off to this town. Rip interrupts a conference held by the mayor and convinces him and his committee not to change the town. He’s smooth-talker putting on a facade; he appears boyish, drawling, folksy, and idealistic- the usual Stewart character.

Rip (along w/ Donald Meek and Ned Sparks- veteran character actors) poses as an insurance agent. He even starts coaching the basketball team at the H.S. where his old war buddy teaches. Rip also takes an interest in the newspaper editor, Mary Peterman (Jane Wyman), who is standoffish at first. After her father died, she wanted to keep his legacy going by building a new high school and civic center (yet was rebuffed by the town council).

In one funny scene in a classroom, Rip loudly recites Charge of the Light Brigade while Mary (more subdued) recites Hiawatha. An elderly janitor sees them and begins quoting Romeo’s balcony scene from Shakespeare. Gary Fishgall, who wrote a biography of Stewart, pointed out that the actor decided to use exaggerated facial expressions and pieces of slapstick (I liked when he tripped going up some stairs while saying “I can be tough.”) One viewer commented that Stewart might’ve been influenced by the Three Stooges; he says “Wise guy, huh?” and “What kind of a lamebrain do you think I am?”

Some of Riskin’s films were playing at AFI in April, but I discovered this film on YouTube. I thought Stewart and Wyman had very sweet and playful chemistry; they made a cute couple. Though Stewart’s character isn’t always 100% honest, you can’t help but like him (b/c he’s a decent man at heart).

Here is the full movie: