This Year’s Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival Offers a Splice of Life

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This year’s PJFF lineup has a variety of themes, such as Jewish identity, heritage and famous Jewish icons, each bringing forth a specific Jewish sensibility, whether directly or indirectly expressed in the film.

Apartheid, vaudeville and cartoons — oh my! What do these three themes have in common? The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. 
 
PJFF celebrates its 35th anniversary with 21 films that range in storytelling from narratives, documentaries, docudramas and short films. Olivia Antsis, director of the PJFF, said the festival is all about perpetuating Jewish culture, values and history through film, which it does by bringing the best independent films to Philadelphia.
 
“It’s really become a part of the Jewish community,” she said. “People also like to see their own experiences on screen. No matter what kind of film festival you attend, to see the human condition brought to life with the characters or subjects on screen really gives you insight to your own experience and it helps you navigate your own life.”
 
This year’s lineup has a variety of themes, such as Jewish identity, heritage and famous Jewish icons, each bringing forth a specific Jewish sensibility, whether directly or indirectly expressed in the film.
 
Antsis loved watching this year’s crop of films because she learned so much from them, regardless of how directly or indirectly each one approached Jewish themes. “I don’t feel that every film needs to be brimming with Jewish content in order to be enjoyable,” she said.
 
The films will be shown at various times and days at different locations throughout the city from Nov. 7 to 21.
 
The two-week festival opens on Nov. 7 with Dough, the story of a Jewish baker desperate to save his family business. The baker is played by Jonathan Pryce, known for his roles in Game of Thrones and Pirates of the Caribbean. The director of the film, John Goldschmidt, and actor Jerome Holder will also be at the premiere.
 
In fact, Antsis said, there will be special guest speakers at each screening to discuss the film or meet with fans, including filmmakers, actors, screenwriters, authors, historians, film critics, cartoonists, recording artists and humanitarians.
 
“There’s always something that we add to make the experience of our audience members richer and sort of open up these new worlds based on the subject matter of these films.”
 
The festival will close with Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa, which will be shown at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts with special guest Albie Sachs. 
Although most documentaries associated with the apartheid focus on Nelson Mandela, this documentary tells Sachs’ life story, in which he worked to help South Africans suffering from harsh racial laws. 
Sachs endured imprisonment and a near-death experience, losing his arm in a car bombing. Desmond Tutu and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also speak in the documentary. But of all the documentaries, Very Semi-Serious is expected to be more humorous than serious. The film shows the ins and outs of The New Yorker’s cartoon department, run by editor Bob Mankoff.
 
Roz Chast, a longtime New Yorker cartoonist, was featured in the film as well. She will be speaking after the film in a Q&A fashion and will also sign copies of her book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
 
Chast said she knows a lot of funny cartoonists, but they’re not necessarily as funny as Mankoff himself. “I’ve known Bob a long time, and he’s probably the funniest person — in-person — that I know,” adding that he makes people feel funnier when they’re around him.
 
New Yorker cartoons are known for their humor. Chast said she gets her inspiration from a phrase that pops into her head, something somebody says, something in a dream or really anything that seems funny to her.
 
“Cartoons either make the strange familiar or the familiar strange,” Mankoff said in the film.
 
According to the self-deprecating Chast, a career in art was really her only choice. “I couldn’t do anything else, really. I knew I would be doing something in art — it was the only thing I ever could do and liked to do, and then it sort of narrowed its way down to cartoons.”
 
Other notable films include East Jerusalem / West Jerusalem; The Outrageous Sophie Tucker; and Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem, each of which incorporates the power of music into their stories.
 
Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem explores the works of Sholom Aleichem through his own performances. Bikel, who passed away in July, is known for playing Tevye in Tevye the Milkman and Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,000 times on stage.
 
Marsha Lebby, co-writer and co-producer of the film, said the film is part performance and part dual biography. Bikel acts and sings the works of Aleichem and also stories from his own autobiography, but other commentators share their experiences and knowledge of the history of Aleichem and Bikel.
 
“I don’t know of another film that really takes this structure,” Lebby said.
 
The film pays homage to Aleichem, whom Bikel felt very close to as an artist. Bikel’s cultural roots were very closely grounded in Aleichem’s work.
 
“You’re seeing Theodore Bikel in the larger context of the Yiddish world, that he was a product of it, and that he as a performer was so rooted; that was so important to his life and career,” she said. “He was an artist to his core. So if he’s a performing artist, you want to see him perform.”
 
Lebby said another dimension of the film is a sort of memoir of Bikel. His performances touched audiences over his career, especially his role as Tevye. Tevye, like Yiddish culture itself, is a cultural touchstone worth preserving, Lebby said.
 
“You have to fight to preserve the language, and some people might say, ‘Why does it matter if Yiddish survives or doesn’t survive?’ I feel the same way about it as I feel about elephants. You might say, ‘Why does it matter if elephants die out and we never have any more elephants? Do I really encounter elephants in my everyday life?’ No. But it matters that we have something that is that rich and that wonderful and that specific. It matters.”
 
“Yiddish culture will never be what it was,” she added. “It’s a world that once existed, that does not exist anymore, that will never exist again. And it was wonderful.”
 
Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737
 

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