Journeys undertaken for the purpose of survival, spiritual enlightenment, or a better bra fit form the core of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival. As always, the return trip home is the toughest one of all. Twenty-nine films explore the Jewish experience in far-flung locations from Argentina to Ireland, as well as on the Lower East Side and in Harlem (in The Commandment Keepers, a documentary work in progress about a congregation of Ethiopian Jews founded in 1919).
Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust, a moving film by documentarians Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky (opening next month), starts with a question that Daum, an Orthodox Jew from Borough Park and the child of survivors, has long pondered: How did some Jews who experienced the Holocaust maintain their faith in God? Daum’s two sons, both full-time Yeshiva students in Jerusalem, call him “a doubter and a seeker,” but he’s troubled by their sense of religious certainty, and by an Orthodox world that he finds increasingly hostile to outsiders. The answer, he decides, lies in a family trip to Poland, where his sons may meet the Christian farmers who saved the life of their maternal grandfather during World War II. What follows is that rarest of travel films, one that makes the gradual voyage of a soul toward enlightenment palpable.
The working-class Jews returning to Paris in French director Michel Deville’s Almost Peaceful have all lost their faith (though they probably never believed in much besides the Communist Party). This sensitive adaptation of Robert Bober’s luminous autobiographical novel, Quoi de Neuf sur la Guerre? (1993), is set in a garment district atelier during the summer of 1946. It’s the off-season; the ladies’ tailors, mechanics, and seamstresses (a few with numbers tattooed on their arms) have time for reflection. Somebody tells a Jewish joke about Auschwitz, in Yiddish; back from the camps, Charles (Denis Podalydès) rents a hotel room across the street from his old apartment, where he waits in vain for his wife and child. Still, the desire to live wins out, even among those with the greatest losses. Deville preserves Bober’s intimate tone and rueful touch, alongside bitter glimpses of post-war French bureaucracy. (Screening with Almost Peaceful is the short, A Good Uplift, an engaging documentary by the sisters Eve and Faye Lederman, and Cheryl Furjanic, about an Orchard Street bra shop run by a 74-year-old Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor, who dispenses much wisdom along with undergarments.)
“I would have liked to be Jewish,” says the gorgeous heroine of Samy and I. “They’re so funny.” Director Eduardo Milewicz’s contribution to the Argentine new wave finds the embodiment of his country’s angst in a nebbishy 39-year-old TV scriptwriter. Samy Goldstein (Ricardo Darín) has a Lacanian psychobabbler girlfriend and a Jewish mother of the neurotic variety; he yearns to be the next Borges, but no one believes in him until he meets Mary (Angie Cepeda), a mysterious Colombian. “Anxious, depressive, paranoid, but it might work,” she muses; soon she’s putting unshaven Samy before the camera as the star of his own program. A couple of cheap plot twists can’t mar the pleasure of this hilarious (if lightweight) social satire.
While violence in the Middle East continues apace, and anti-Semitism rises in Europe, it turns out that it’s a good year for comedy. With James’ Journey to Jerusalem (opening in March), Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz offers a rare perspective on his native land, as seen through the eyes of a young Zulu Christian (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) who arrives in the Holy Land on a pilgrimage from his African village. Promptly incarcerated as an illegal immigrant, he’s “liberated” by a shady businessman (Salim Daw) and sent to clean the houses of the bourgeoisie. Soon his longing for divine revelation is replaced by a desire for consumer goods glimpsed at the local mall. Alexandrowicz’s marvelously wry film is at once an affectionate and biting portrait of a Zionist dream gone wildly astray.
Even The Dybbuk, that classic Yiddish tragedy, gets a happy ending. A Vilna Legend—a 1924 Yiddish silent, filmed mostly on location in Vilna, and framed by a narration shot with sound in 1933—stars the great Russian Jewish player Ida Kaminska in an adaptation of Peretz Hirschbein’s play about the vow two friends make to marry their children, and the obstacles fate throws in the path of its completion. From the prophet Elijah to a Yiddish Folies Bergère, there’s something in it to please everyone.