The Jewish Film Week at Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema in Birmingham will spotlight a diverse array of 11 movies, from new documentaries and narratives to a classic by the Coen Brothers.
Sidewalk recently celebrated its 25th anniversary as one of the nation’s premier film festivals. The Jewish Film Week is a recent addition to the schedule.
Jewish Film Week programmer Dan Siegel said he and his team focused on films that “provide some important perspectives… and look at the intersectionality of our community with other communities, such as LGBTQ+.”
One of the documentaries that highlights the Jewish and African-American communities’ quest to work together is “Rabbi on the Block.”
Tamar Manasseh, a charismatic rabbi and community activist from the south side of Chicago, sees herself as a bridge between the African American and Jewish communities. An anti-violence activist, she was previously featured in a documentary, “They Ain’t Ready for Me.” The more recent work, which focuses on her spiritual journey, debuted at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July.
Her mother “reverted” to Judaism, and Manasseh grew up attending a Jewish day school, taking the bus from Chicago’s South Side to an affluent neighborhood where the school was located. After her daughter’s bat mitzvah, she enrolled in the International Israelite rabbinical school, studying with Rabbi Capers Funnye, but after several years of the institution refusing to ordain a woman despite her service to the community, Funnye took it upon himself to ordain her in 2021.
According to j., the Jewish news of Northern California, the film does not delve into Hebrew Israelism, which is often seen as outside of mainstream Judaism. While there are some radical Hebrew Israelite movements hostile to white Jews, many Hebrew Israelism congregations want to be part of the broader Jewish world, and Manasseh sees reluctance as white Ashkenazi gatekeeping.
In the film, she says “I’d like for American Judaism to be based on good deeds and good works, and not what you look like.”
Another film highlighting Black-Jewish relations is the 2015 documentary “Rosenwald,” which begins in Alabama. It chronicles how a Jewish philanthropist in Chicago, Julius Rosenwald, partnered with educator Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in a project that wound up building around 5,300 schools for Black students throughout the South. The project started in 1912 with six schools in Alabama, and went into the 1930s.
Rosenwald, who became president of Sears, put up seed money to build these schools using standardized designs Every Rosenwald school was built with matching funds from the local community, and black communities rallied to raise the funds needed to become part of the project. In many cases, the white community also chipped in.
With desegregation in the 1960s, most of the buildings fell into disuse.
The first part of the film was about Rosenwald’s background and his parents’ Jewish immigrant experience, and how he was influenced by growing up across the street from President Abraham Lincoln’s home.
The second part of the film details Rosenwald’s relationship with Washington and construction of the schools, while the third part is about the Rosenwald Fund Fellowship program.
Rosenwald awarded fellowship grants to a who’s who of African-American intellectuals and artists, including Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, the father and uncle of civil rights leader Julian Bond, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage along with Woody Guthrie.
Just a handful of Rosenwald School buildings still exist, and there are efforts to restore many that have been identified. The Alabama Archives recently opened an exhibit about Rosenwald Schools, and in November the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in New Orleans will host a similar exhibit.
Another Southern Jewish film is “The Levys of Monticello.” Siegel said they looked for some films and perspectives that “most people probably weren’t aware of,” such as the Monticello film and a comedy about Klezmer music.
When President Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, he left a mountain of debt. His prized home, Monticello, had to be sold. Uriah Levy, dismayed at what had become of the home, bought it to preserve it for the nation. He embarked on a restoration, attracting tourists. He died in 1862, leaving the property to the United States as a school for orphans of naval officers. The Civil War complicated matters, and after the war and a lengthy legal battle, Levy’s nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, wound up as owner. In 1923, the newly-founded Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the property.
Uriah Levy was a fifth-generation American and a Naval hero. Despite everything, the Levys had to deal with antisemitism and being considered “outsiders” throughout their time owning Monticello.
“The Klezmer Project” is a “playful but poignant” full-length debut from Argentinian writer-directors Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann. Koch, a wedding videographer in Buenos Aires who is alienated from his Jewish heritage, falls for Schachmann, a member of a klezmer band, and tries to impress her by claiming that he is working on a documentary about klezmer. She takes him seriously, and they embark on an odyssey through Eastern Europe to chronicle the traditional Yiddish folk music, scripted sequences interweaving with footage of actual performers and ethnomusicologists discussing the art form. What emerges is a history lesson but also a personal journey of sorts for Koch and Schachmann, grandchildren of Jewish immigrants who discover an emotional connection to their cultural roots along the way.
A narrative comedy “The Road to Eilat,” also listed as “35 Downhill,” also brings in some levity. It’s about an older man who makes a drunken bet with his son, with whom he had a difficult relationship, that he can drive a tractor all the way from northern Israel to Eilat in less than a week. The movie won the prize for the “Best Israeli Film” at the 2022 Jerusalem Film Festival.
“Most of the Israel films are on the lighter side… while reinforcing how much Israel is on our hearts and minds,” said Siegel.
Siegel said the majority of the selections for Jewish Film Week came out within the past couple of years, but one feature will be the 2009 Coen brothers film, “A Serious Man.” Considered one of their best films, the black comedy is set in 1967, with a Jewish man from Minnesota finding that his life is crumbling personally and professionally, leading him to question his faith as he continues to sink.
One of the films is familiar to those who attended Sidewalk in August. “Nathan-ism,” which was sold out at Sidewalk, is the story of Nathan Hilu, a self-taught artist who was assigned to guard top Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials. Through his art, he recounts his encounters with Nazi leaders, but questions arise as to how much he actually witnessed, and how much he convinced himself that he witnessed instead of reading about it later.
Another glimpse of post-Holocaust quests for justice comes with “June Zero,” about the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. Based on true accounts, the film about Eichmann’s last days comes from three very different perspectives — a Jewish Moroccan prison guard tasked with protecting Eichmann, an Israeli police investigator for the prosecution who is a Holocaust survivor, and a precocious 13-year-old Libyan immigrant.
The comic drama “My Neighbor Adolf” is set in 1960 in Colombia, as a grumpy Holocaust survivor, Marek Polsky, is convinced that his new neighbor is actually Adolf Hitler, because right after Eichmann was captured in Argentina, a mysterious old German man moved in next door to him. Nobody believes Polsky, so he works to become closer to the neighbor, to gather evidence.
Another Holocaust-themed film is “Lost Transport,” based on a true story. In the spring of 1945, a Nazi train with hundreds of Jewish prisoners from Bergen-Belsen was abandoned near a small German village that had been taken over by the Red Army. In an atmosphere of deep distrust, an unexpected friendship develops between a Soviet soldier, Vera, a distrustful German village girl, Winnie, and a courageous Dutch Jew, Simone, as they are forced by circumstance to help each other tend to the sick. The film had its regional debut in January at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
“My Father’s Secrets” is an animated film based on the graphic novel “Second Generation” by Israeli illustrator Michel Kichka. Set in Belgium in the 1960s, it focuses on two brothers who struggle with their father’s reluctance to discuss his time at Auschwitz. When he focuses inward on a personal journey, their imaginations run wild, causing family friction.
Individual tickets are available here. There are also four ticket packages, good for any film, for $36, and eight ticket packages for $68. Sponsorships are also available.
Sidewalk’s Networking Night is Nov. 16 at 5 p.m., followed by Monthly Movie Trivia at 8 p.m.
2 p.m. “Rosenwald”
4:30 p.m. “My Father’s Secrets”
7 p.m. “June Zero”
3 p.m. “Lost Transport”
6:30 p.m. “Nathan-Ism”
3 p.m. “The Levys of Monticello”
6:30 p.m. “The Klezmer Project”
4 p.m. “The Klezmer Project”
7 p.m. “35 Downhill”
1:30 p.m. “Lost Transport”
4:15 p.m. “Rabbi on the Block”
7 p.m. “A Serious Man”
2 p.m. “My Neighbor Adolf”
4:30 p.m. “Rabbi on the Block”
7 p.m. “June Zero”
2 p.m. “My Father’s Secrets”
4:30 p.m. “My Neighbor Adolf”
6:30 p.m. “The Levys of Monticello”
2 p.m. “A Serious Man”
With reports by Lee J. Green