A Celebration of Heritage: The Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival Returns

The 26th Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival kicked off this Tuesday, Oct. 5, and films are running through Nov. 2. An entirely virtual event this year, the community of Sonoma County can view this meticulously selected body of films at their leisure, in the comfort of their own homes. I spoke with Irène Hodes, the festival director and director of cultural events with the Jewish Community Center, about the festival and the Jewish Community Center itself. Prior to our conversation I knew nothing about the JCC, and I was thrilled to be informed about a neighboring cultural community. Irène had ample information to share.

The Jewish Film Festival is significant for a bevvy of reasons, but three particularly stand out: The first is that these films are not the Hollywood big-budget Jewish films we might initially think of—A Serious Man by Joel and Ethan Coen, or Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience, for example. These are smaller budget, independent films that might not meet production without the efforts of the JCC. These films are honest, evocative and taught with content—they bring the passion and realness that independent films so often provide. And each one is selected with the utmost care and consideration. The film committee—who only hire a new member once a year—spend months watching, reviewing, rating and selecting each film, and considering each one individually and how they fit together as a whole. Each festival seeks to convey the most pertinent story. The committee asks themselves, “What does the community need to see?” and then constructs their selection accordingly. The search is for a combination of contemporary and antique; for new Jewish perspectives and experiences along with the fortification and revitalization of old stories that may lie dormant.

It is this intentional curation that leads to the second admirable quality of the JCC Film Festival. In learning about the careful curation of each event, I inquired about how the JCC works with their history in Germany during World War II. I shared with Irène my experiences living in Berlin in 2008 and the day I spent at Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. I offered my perspective on the horrors committed there and upon the Jewish people, noting that perhaps the festival didn’t overly emphasize the tragedy and instead chose to also amplify and celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of Jewish culture. Irène’s response was striking. 

“The Holocaust being what it is, we also have to be committed to education around genocide, and the tragedies still going on today,” she said. “This isn’t a direct or pedagogical style of education, but we want to educate ourselves and the community around us about our heritage and culture. It brings us together, but it also connects us with the wider world. We’re a minority, but we’re strong. We’re proud. And we’re so glad to be here.”

The JCC and the Jewish Film Festival committee see it as their responsibility to continue educating themselves and the community at large, not only about World War II, but about the nature of genocide and cultural hatred, which continue today. An excellent example of this is found in The Tiger Within, a 2020 film selected by this year’s festival committee. Written by Gina Wendkos and directed by Rafal Zielinski, this is actor Ed Asner’s last film before his death in August of this year. The Tiger Within follows the story of an aging Holocaust survivor (Asner) who befriends a homeless girl with Neo-Nazi beliefs (played by Margot Josefsohn). The film addresses contemporary questions of humanity, forgiveness and human understanding. Irène and the JCC are acutely aware of the division and cultural hatred sweeping this country, and continue to use the history and circumstances of Jewish culture to raise awareness and promote intercultural connection.

To this end, it isn’t just education about humanitarian crises that the Film Festival diligently addresses; it also selects films which educate the viewer on the rich history and culture of the Jewish people. This year’s festival features Commandment 613, a 23-minute short film following the work of American Rabbi Kevin Hale, the son of refugees from Nazi Germany. Rabbi Hale has dedicated his life to the final commandment in the Torah, commandment 613: write the scroll for yourself. Hale is a sofer, or scribe possessing an incredibly detailed and specialized skill set, and Commandment 613 specifically follows his work on the restoration of the scrolls saved from Czechoslovakia during the Shoah—the Jewish word for the Holocaust. Thursday Oct. 14, at 6pm, there will be a virtual Q & A with Rabbi Hale himself, as well as the filmmakers Miriam Lewin and Randi Secchini. All Jewish Film Festival passholders and ticket holders are invited to attend. In addition, three of the orphaned Czech scrolls can be found in Sonoma County, at the Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa—Shomrei Torah means the guardians of the Torah in Hebrew—B’nai Israel in Petaluma and Ner Shalom in Cotati, should festival attendees want to view these exceptional pieces of history.

The Jewish Film Festival is an opportunity for all of us to learn about history, culture, religion and our neighbors. As a young girl, I grew up with a Jewish friend whose family sometimes invited me over for Shabbat, the Friday night meal. We’d eat challah bread—which my friend’s mother made from scratch—and drink grape juice, instead of wine. I felt curiosity, a sense of mystery and a great deal of love at these dinners, as I watched a family practice ancient cultural traditions with deep connection, and was myself invited to observe and participate in the warmth and openness. I always felt grateful to be included, and speaking with Irène at once reminded me of those cherished memories and startled me into realizing my own ignorance of the JCC and this festival. The festival is only a few years younger than I am, yet this is my first year learning of it.

I will certainly be participating in various film viewings and Q & As, and I hope to see you there. We all benefit from learning about each other, and, however much we may rail against it, together we’re one community. Let’s celebrate it! Happy viewing.
For more information about the Jewish Film Festival’s films, events and tickets, visit www.jccsoco.org. Another film festival, dedicated to Israeli film, takes place in the spring. It may be in-person, though going forward all festivals will also be available online.

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