January is Jewish Film Festival time in the South

The Jewish communities of Mobile, Jackson and Baton Rouge are hosting Jewish film festivals this month, with a wide range of films and guest speakers.

In Mobile and Baton Rouge, the festivals also hold student screenings of Holocaust-themed films for school groups.

The Mobile festival runs from Jan. 11 to 22, with several screenings at the Laidlaw Center for Performing Arts at the University of South Alabama. Other screenings will be at Springhill Avenue Temple, Ahavas Chesed, the Ben May Library and the USA campus in Fairhope.

Mobile’s festival is co-sponsored by the Mobile Area Jewish Federation and the University of South Alabama.

The Baton Rouge festival takes place from Jan. 14 to 18 at the Manship Theatre. Among the special guests will be Louisiana native Susan Rosenbaum, who founded Enthusiastic Gourmet Food Tours in New York City. She will discuss “The Sturgeon Queens,” about the Lower East Side lox and herring emporium, “Russ and Daughters.”

Jackson’s festival, Jewish Cinema Mississippi, runs from Jan. 21 to 25 at the Malco Grandview Theater. A highlight will be the Mississippi debut of “Wandering Rabbi.”

Mobile goes “Above and Beyond” in Franco tribute

With this year’s 14th annual Mobile Jewish Film Festival, a new feature is being introduced. The Jan. 18 matinee, “Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force” will be the first Reita Franco Memorial Film.

The film’s producer, Nancy Spielberg — whose brother is Steven Spielberg — will introduce the film and take questions afterward.

On April 22, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans will have a screening of the film and an appearance by Spielberg at the National World War II Museum. Alan Franco, son of Reita Franco, is the New Orleans Federation’s immediate past president.

Spielberg was inspired to produce this film after reading a 2011 obituary for Al Schwimmer, who was credited with being a founder of the Israeli Air Force. She researched the story of U.S. and Canadian pilots, World War II veterans, who were inspired to fight for Israel’s independence despite the risk of losing their U.S. citizenship because of an administration embargo.

The pilots — both Jews and non-Jews — trained and coordinated in secret to stay ahead of the FBI and played a critical role in repelling five invading Arab armies in 1948 after Israel declared independence. Some of them wound up flying repurposed Nazi planes, which had been abandoned in Czechoslovakia, that they had tried to shoot down a few years earlier.

Many of the now-elderly pilots were interviewed for the film, some have died since the filming.

Organizers of the Mobile festival credit Reita Franco, who died in April, with being “almost single-handedly responsible for the financial well-being” of the festival. Every year, one film will be designated in her memory, with the tribute underwritten by the Maisel and Bronstein families.

The Mobile screening will be at Ahavas Chesed on Jan. 18 at 3 p.m.

The New Orleans event will kick off with a 5:30 p.m. reception, a 6:30 p.m. talk by Spielberg and the movie will be screened at 7 p.m. Seating is extremely limited, and reservations are required. The cost to attend is $18, $10 for students and adults under age 30.

“Wandering Rabbi” comes home to Mississippi

One of the most visible services of the Jackson-based Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life is the traveling rabbi program. Rabbis on staff travel throughout the South on weekends, serving congregations that are too small to have a resident rabbi, and many of the congregations have just a handful of members remaining.

At the Jewish Cinema Mississippi, there will be the local debut of “Wandering Rabbi,” a 14-minute documentary about Rabbi Marshal Klaven, who until last summer was the ISJL Director of Rabbinic Services. He now serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Galveston, Tex.

The film follows Klaven as he tours the South, leading Shabbat services and lifecycle events in communities with small and dwindling Jewish populations. Much of the film is set in the Mississippi Delta, and shows candid interactions between Klaven and congregants.

The film is by Jackson native Henry Wiener. After graduating from Columbia University, he worked in New York for five years before enrolling at Stanford University. His films “tell stories of people who pursue life with special passion and energy, across a spectrum of American culture.”

In June, “Wandering Rabbi” was screened as one of eight thesis films in the Masters of Fine Arts documentary film and video program at Stanford. The film won a 2013 Carole Fielding Grant from the University Film and Video Association.

“Wandering Rabbi” will be screened on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m., just before Israeli comedy “Hill Start.”

Improbable mission: Rescue 50 children

The Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival will be presenting “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus” as the student presentation on Jan. 14 and 15, while Temple Beth Or in Montgomery will have “50 Children” author Steven Pressman at a Jan. 15 presentation.

The film and book detail the story of a Jewish couple from Philadelphia, Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus, who were not particularly religious or political. Moved by reports they saw from Europe, they decided in 1939 to go to Austria and Germany to try and rescue Jewish children.

Because of anti-Semitism and isolationism in the United States, and even resistance from leaders in the Jewish community, that was no easy task. They used careful readings of immigration law and visa loopholes to bring 50 children to the United States.

After they returned to the United States, they rarely spoke about what they had done. About 10 years ago, their granddaughter gave Pressman — her husband — the unpublished memoir Eleanor Kraus had written decades earlier, leading to this film.

The documentary includes interviews with nine of the children.

The film will be screened in Baton Rouge at the BREC Independence Theater for school groups on Jan. 14 and 15 from 9 a.m. to noon.

Pressman will speak at Beth Or in Montgomery on Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. The program, sponsored by the Rothschild-Blachschleger Lecture and Culture Fund, is open to the community.

Mobile Jewish Film Festival

The Mobile Jewish Film Festival starts on Jan. 11 at 3 p.m. at Springhill Avenue Temple with “Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love.” The biographical film chronicles his personal and creative highs and lows, including winning every major artistic award by age 31 — Grammys, an Emmy, three Oscars, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize. With exclusive access to Hamlisch’s personal archival treasure trove and complete cooperation from his family, Dramatic Forces and THIRTEEN’s American Masters explored his prolific life and career. The film debuted on PBS in December 2013.

Following the screening, there will be a cheesecake dessert and Broadway sing-a-long with pianist Terry Maddox.

On Jan. 13, the festival moves to the Laidlaw Center for Performing Arts at the University of South Alabama. “Run Boy Run” at 7 p.m. is a 2013 French-German production that had its Southern debut as the opening night screening for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

Based on the bestselling Holocaust novel by Israeli author Uri Orlev, the film is the true story of Israel Friedman, who was nicknamed Srulik, the son of a baker in Poland.

In 1942, when he was eight years old, he was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto and finds himself with a group of Jewish orphans who forage at farms in the countryside. A harsh winter and loneliness drive him back to civilization.

He eventually finds a family of Polish partisans to take him in, but they figure he has a better chance of surviving as a Catholic. The wife renames him Jurek and teaches him how to pass as a Catholic, but eventually rumors spread that they are hiding a Jewish child. After a raid and the home was torched, he was on the run again.

He went from town to town, working as a farmhand. At one of the farms, he lost an arm in a wheat grinder. After Russian troops liberated the area he spent three more years in an orphanage, still passing as a Catholic.

In 1948, a Jewish agency tracked him down, and after initial denials he re-assumed his identity. He moved to Israel and made up for the education he never got as a child, becoming a math teacher.

Several years ago he told his story to Orlev, whose novel was published in 2000. The film is directed by Oscar-winner Pepe Danquart.

The film will also be screened at the USA Fairhope campus on Jan. 20 at 7 p.m. After each screening, Rabbi Steven Silberman will offer reflections on the story.

“Body and Soul: The State of the Jewish Nation” will be on Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. It documents the undeniable historical connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, at a time when Palestinian advocates are insisting there is no such history. Filmmaker Gloria Greenfield will introduce the film and take questions afterward.

On Jan. 15 at 7 p.m., “Zaytoun” portrays the improbable and remarkable friendship between Fahed, a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee, whose father has been killed and Yoni, a 30-year-old downed Israeli combat pilot. Forced into an unlikely alliance, the would-be adversaries eventually find trust and friendship as they traverse the barren beauty of war-ravaged land while dodging all forms of danger during the 1982 Lebanon War. A dessert reception will follow the screening.

The screening of “Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force” will be at 3 p.m. at Ahavas Chesed on Jan. 18.

The Mobile Public Library and Mobile Christian Jewish Dialogue co-sponsor “The Jewish Cardinal,” Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Ben May Library. The film tells the story of Jean-Marie Lustinger, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who converted to Catholicism and eventually became Archbishop of Paris, while maintaining a Jewish cultural identity. He wound up being a mediator between the communities when a group of Carmelite nuns wanted to build a convent at Auschwitz.

Holocaust scholar Jerry Darring will be the speaker.

The festival concludes at Ahavas Chesed on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. with “Aftermath.”

The 2013 Polish film is the story of brothers who are sons of a poor farmer. In the 1980s, one of them immigrated to the United States and cut off all ties with his family, returning only when his brother’s wife shows up. He discovers his brother has been ostracized from the community and threatened, and they eventually uncover a dark secret about their family and hometown.

The film won the Yad Vashem Chairman’s Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Polish nationals have accused the film of being anti-Polish propaganda, as well as a distortion of a sensitive piece of Polish history, leading the film to be banned in some Polish cinemas.

Author Roy Hoffman will lead a post-screening discussion.

The Pensacola Jewish Federation will have a group attending the Jan. 22 film in Mobile.

The festival will also screen “Blessed is the Match” as this year’s Julien E Marx Student Holocaust Film. Over 2,000 high school and middle school students from Bayside Academy, Davidson High, St. Paul’s, UMS/Wright and several Catholic middle schools will view the film, which is the story of Hannah Senesh.

Racelle Weiman, senior director for Global Education and Professional Training at the Dialogue Institute of Temple University, will be the speaker.

An educator workshop in collaboration with the Gulf Coast Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education and the University of South Alabama will also be held. Educators in attendance will receive CEU credits and are gifted a copy of the film for their classroom use. Weiman will also facilitate the workshop.

Tickets are available online or through the Mobile Area Jewish Federation. They are $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students.

Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival

The ninth annual Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival opens with “The Sturgeon Queens” on Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. The film about the Lower East Side lox and herring emporium was timed to coincide with the store’s 100th anniversary. The documentary features interviews with two of the original daughters for whom the store was named.

Guest speaker will be Louisiana native Susan Rosenbaum, who moved to New York in 1989 and conducts Enthusiastic Gourmet Food Tours.

The Jan. 15 double feature at 7 p.m. includes “The Lady in Number 6” and “Hitler’s Children.” “Number 6” is an Oscar-winning documentary about Alice Herz Sommer, a 109-year-old Holocaust survivor and the world’s oldest pianist, discussing her story on how to achieve a long and happy life.

“Hitler’s Children” is a documentary of how family members descended from high-ranking Nazi officers of Hitler’s inner circle struggle with the last names they carry, such as Goering, Himmler and Hoess.

On Jan. 14 and 15 there will be student screenings of “50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus,” at Independence Park Theater.

On Jan. 17 at 7:30 p.m., “The Wonders” is about a slacker, a private investigator and a femme fatale who join forces to rescue an abducted holy man. The film, which explores the idea of messianic cults that misuse funds finagled from followers, uses hand-drawn animation to show the protagonist’s overactive imagination with Jerusalem as a Wonderland.

The festival concludes on Jan. 18 at 1:30 p.m. with a double feature of “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story” and “Under the Same Sun.”

Steinberg directed some of the most successful situation comedies of the last 20 years, including “Seinfeld,” “Mad About You,” “Golden Girls” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The film includes backstage stories from Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Larry Charles, David Bianculli, Bob Einstein and others.

“Under the Same Sun” follows a Palestinian businessman and an Israeli businessman as they try to forge a business relationship, dealing with unique personal and political challenges in a society where there is a strong stigma about working with “the other,” from both family and community.

Tickets are $8.50, available online or at the Manship Theatre box office.

Jewish Cinema Mississippi

Jewish Cinema Mississippi begins on Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. with “Sukkot in Warsaw,” which portrays the Jewish community in Warsaw today. The children of Holocaust survivors celebrate Sukkot in the area where the Warsaw Ghetto stood, and college students in Warsaw’s Moishe House describe what it means to be Jewish in 21st century Poland.

Following the Warsaw film, “The Dove Flyer” will be screened, detailing how in 1950 and 1951, the 130,000-strong ancient Jewish community of Iraq ceased to exist, fleeing to Israel.

On Jan. 22 at 7 p.m., “Under the Same Sun,” which was also at the Baton Rouge festival, will be screened.

“Wandering Rabbi” opens the Jan. 24 festivities at 7 p.m., followed by “Hill Start,” a comic drama about a family in Jerusalem. After the mother goes into a coma following a car accident, the family tries everything possible to bring her back.

On Jan. 25 at 2 p.m., the festival’s final day opens with “Broken Branches.” The story of a 14-year-old girl who is sent from Poland to Israel just before World War II is told through the animations of her granddaughter.

The festival concludes with “The Zigzag Kid,” a family drama about Nono, who wants to be like his father, who is a police inspector, but he keeps getting into trouble. Two days before his Bar Mitzvah, he is sent to his uncle to get him back on track. On the way, he encounters a master burglar who is an old acquaintance of his father, and takes off with him.

Individual tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students. A festival pass is $35 for adults, $15 for students before Jan. 18.