Given the rainbow muddle that is Jewish identity today—from born-again to secular and all the way to couldn’t-care-less—what does a Jewish film festival mean? A very big tent is what, to judge by some of the movies previewed in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
For starters, there’s not a Jew to be found in Young Freud in Gaza, one of the 18th annual showcase’s most arresting entries. Yet Jewish (and, more pointedly, Israeli) identity hovers painfully in the shadows of Swedish filmmakers PeÅ Holmquist and Suzanne Khardalian’s fair-minded, intimately probing documentary about a field psychologist serving the besieged West Bank city’s Jabaliya refugee camp. By no means do all the cases shouldered by the 28-year-old Ayed—among them an anorexic teenager and an unhappy woman mired in polygamy and poverty—lead directly back to the Palestine-Israel conflict. But there’s no question that the very definition of psychotherapy means something different under occupation. The movie’s title unwittingly misleads, since there’s no place for psychoanalysis in the essentially palliative care (which, for lack of support and resources, boils down to empathic listening and relaxation techniques) dispensed by Ayed, an educated freethinker who’s hampered at every turn by regular strikes from Israeli forces, internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah, and Hamas’s reflexive Islamic rejection of all things secular and scientific.
If Young Freud in Gaza‘s presence on the festival’s program reflects a clear, long-standing Jewish conviction that our ethical responsibilities reach beyond our own spiritual welfare, the question of what it means to be Jewish grows murkier in those films with a Jewish focus. I’ve loved every movie made by Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman, up to and including his latest, Empty Nest, but despite a trip to Israel, this breezier-than-usual comedy about a couple whose grown children have flown the coop is curiously empty of the secular Jewish inquiry in Burman’s other films. And I’m not sure on what grounds visual artist Gay Block’s Camp Girls belongs here, other than by cultural default: Its group of extremely-put-together young matrons recall their time at a high-end summer camp mostly attended by Jewish girls, yet wholly without Jewish content beyond the perfunctory lighting of Shabbat candles. Block’s photos are nice and the women are bright and appealing, but the doc lacks an organizing idea about the way the camp shaped their lives.
Then again, maybe cultural default is the question. If so, it comes with far more wigged-out élan in Susan Mogul’s Driving Men (double-billed with Camp Girls), in which the Los Angeles–based filmmaker takes on a subject that, in less candid hands, might come off hopelessly wanky—herself, in relation to the men who have influenced her unorthodox life as a woman and an artist. Though there are probably too many shots of Mogul showing off her naked breasts, more edifying are her car rides with the now-paunchy dudes as she riffs on all her life journeys, including why it took her 34 years to find a man who loves her. It’s a mystery whose answer, Mogul hints with admirable restraint, lies at least in part in the dilemmas of all Jewish women who grew up adoring and resenting their, shall we say, strong-minded fathers.
A similarly diffuse sense of identity pervades some of the festival’s dramatic features. Uncle Vanya has been shipped abroad countless times, and though the polluted beauty of Northern Israel makes a suitably lush backdrop for Weekend in Galilee, veteran Israeli director Moshé Mizrahi’s eco-reading of Chekhov, it’s the universal truths addressed by this intelligent, if formally uninspired, movie that come across more forcefully than any specifically Jewish or Israeli predicament. A German girl prepares unwillingly for her bat mitzvah in Anna Justice’s charming, if familiar, domestic comedy Max Minsky and Me, but that’s about as Jewish as this budding romance between two kids with unraveling families gets, until the girl’s mother drops a zinger by casually announcing that “the essence of Judaism isn’t God, but acting as if there were one.” I’m more or less with her there, though I wish the movie hadn’t raised the wide-open question of whether Judaism is possible without God, even in the assimilated or rapidly secularizing Jewish communities of the West.
The apocalyptic Christian conservatives in the festival’s alarmingly good closing-night documentary don’t think so. Jews and Israelis who take comfort from the unsolicited affection of evangelical Christians—a group that gives more than $75 million annually to Israel—might think again once they see Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s incendiary Waiting for Armageddon, which brings the interesting news that we Jews are loved because Israel has been chosen as the site for the upcoming end of the world. With friends like these, enemies need not apply.