Tuscaloosa inaugurates Jewish Cultural Festival

By Lee J. Green
Deep South Jewish Voice

What started as a Jewish Film Festival in Tuscaloosa has blossomed into a multi-focused, expanded Jewish Cultural Festival with a food festival, Klezmer entertainment, films and a several-month Jewish literary session series all rolled into one.

The Arts and Humanities Council of Tuscaloosa County and Tuscaloosa’s Temple Emanu-El will present the Jewish Cultural Festival Feb. 23 through May 15 at the University of Alabama and the Bama Theatre.

The festival consists of a Jewish Food Festival with a performance by the renowned Klezmer band The Vulgar Bulgars, who entertained at the Levite Jewish Community Center Food Festival in Birmingham three years ago; the 6th annual Jewish Film Festival, and “Let’s Talk About It: Jewish Literature” — a book discussion series at the University’s Gorgas Library.

Festival passes for the Food Festival and Film Festival are available for $30 through www.tuscarts.org, and tickets will be sold individually for the films. The book discussion series is free and one event will be hosted each month through May, starting Jan. 24 with “A Contract with God: And Other Tenement Stories” by Will Eisner.

“We are so pleased to be able to do something that is entertaining, informative and multi-faceted,” said Rebecca Rothman, an Arts Council board member who is also an involved member of the Tuscaloosa Jewish community.

“University of Alabama President Dr. Robert Witt has done so much to encourage the growth in Jewish student enrollment and to enhance participation as well as the culture at the University and in the area,” said Rothman. “The film festival has been successful and well-attended for five years. We feel that this expanded festival and the related events will be well supported.”

The festival opens with the Jewish Food Festival and music presented by the Vulgar Bulgars at 6 p.m. on Feb. 23. From bagels to hummus, the festival will provide a large selection of traditional fare along with some staples from the modern Jewish table.

Hailing from central Virginia, the Vulgar Bulgars are young musicians who play soulful Klezmer music. The group includes Ben Grondahl on clarinet; Kassia Arbabi on violin; Ezra Freeman playing bass guitar, and percussionist Madog Frick.

They perform a mostly instrumental combination of time-honored Klezmer classics mixed with special modern compositions. Klezmer music has been an important influence on the development of jazz as well as on classic composers such as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.

The opening night film will be the drama “Black Book,” starting at 7:30 p.m. Film Festival screenings continue Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. with the 2006 documentary “The Rape of Europa,” which highlighted Jewish Cinema South in recent months.

Following the film, Daniel Belasco will lead an informative session. Belasco is the Henry J. Leir Assistant Curator of The Jewish Museum in New York. He manages the contemporary Judaica program at the museum and organizes contemporary art exhibitions.

Later that night, the short documentary “California Shmeer” will be screened at 7 p.m., followed by “The Bubble.”

The film festival wraps the night of Feb. 25 with the short comedy “Naturalized” followed by the feature-length romantic comedy “Arranged.”

The theme of the Jewish literature series discussions being led by Dr. Steven Jacobs will be “Modern Marvels: Jewish Adventures in the Graphic Novel.” All sessions will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Gorgas Library on the University’s campus.

Jacobs is the Aaron Aronov Chair of Judaic Studies in the University of Alabama’s Department of Religious Studies, in addition to serving as rabbi for Temple Emanu-El.

On Feb. 21, “The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman will be discussed. On March 27, it’s “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories” by Ben Katchor.

Discussions on April 17 will center upon Harvey Pekar’s “The Quitter” and the final event in the literary series will be May 15 featuring “The Rabbi’s Cat” by Joann Sfar.

Tuscaloosa’s inaugural Jewish Film Festival took place in 2003. “We’re grateful that the community and the University have been very supportive of this and we’ve pulled from some great resources to offer a special experience,” said Rothman.