The Whole Schmear
Austin Jewish Film Festival
Texas has been host to Jewish communities since the 1840s, and Jewish settlers arrived as early as the 1400s. Over the past few years, Austin's Jewish community has grown as the overall population of the city has increased. The Dell Jewish Community Center, which opened in 2000, offers a number of classes and events for the general public. They have a performing arts series, art classes, a camp, and a school of dance where they teach tap, ballet, and hip-hop for kids. But the surest sign a community has truly arrived? A film festival, of course. Hence this year's inaugural Austin Jewish Film Festival, an event organized by the Jewish Community Association of Austin, Congregation Agudas Achim's AgudasArts, and the Jewish Cinema South.
The co-chairs of the festival, Susan Broockman and David Goldblatt, along with the JCAA's Director of Cultural Arts Elisabeth Flesher, thought about hosting a Jewish film festival a few years ago, but it wasn't until they came across the Goldring Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life and Jewish Cinema South that the ball actually got rolling. The organization helps put together and coordinate Jewish film festivals throughout the American South by providing a framework by which to run the festivals, as well as access to films and filmmakers. "I called them up and said we were interested in starting a Jewish Film Festival, and they said come on down and we'll see what we can do," Goldblatt says. "All the cities pick their own films, but the costs are shared as filmmakers go from city to city."
The festival directors took great care in choosing subject matters that would appeal to a general audience, a tough task considering they had only five feature film slots to reflect the whole of the Jewish Southern experience. Broockman points out that, "It was hard for us to select only this few number, but we had to. It would be nice if [the festival] can grow so we can have a wider variety." Flesher adds that, though the selection is small, "the festival was designed to appeal to the Jewish community and to the film community at large."
Two of the most notable films are documentaries whose subjects are Jewish but have a relationship with the American South. Joel Katz's Strange Fruit delves into the history of Abel Meeropol's song of the same title. With its haunting lyrics about the lynching of African-Americans in the South, the song touched on important issues just as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. The film examines the history of the song, its author, and black/Jewish relations during that tumultuous time.
Katz first learned of the story of the song from a letter to the editor in The New York Times Book Review: "In a review of Billie Holiday's biography, neither the biography or the review made clear who wrote the song. [Holiday's rendition put the song on the charts]. Meeropol's sons wrote a letter to the editor about the inaccuracies." This letter piqued Katz's interest, and he started researching the history of the author. Katz points out that Meeropol "was an aware, compassionate leftist human being and a member of the Communist party. The anti-lynching campaign was one of the cause célèbres at that time. He was concerned about injustice and was moved to write the song." From a filmmaking standpoint, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is how, by examining the song, Katz was led to so many other stories, including the history of the sons who wrote the letter to The New York Times. As young boys, they were adopted by the Meeropols; their birth parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. "I was aware of most of the history at some level. I knew something about the Rosenbergs and something about the history of lynching," Katz continues."The more I researched and learned, the more I realized how little I knew."
Katz wasn't the only one who learned as he went while making his film. The documentary Shalom Y'all follows the story of director Brian Bain as he takes a road trip across the American South in search of the definitive Southern Jew. Born and raised in New Orleans, Bain was inspired to take the journey after learning about his grandfather's travels through the South as a hat salesman. But Bain never found the typical Southern Jew he was looking for. "When we set out on the journey, I had this notion that there was a Southern Jew. What we discovered was that there's no such thing. Depending on whether you grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, or Memphis, Tennessee, or in any of the small towns in between, it's a very individual experience."
What Bain did discover was that there are a number of small towns where the Jewish communities are dying out -- towns where synagogues have been turned into hardware stores or where there are only five remaining elderly Jewish people left as the younger generations have moved to the cities. But Bain is quick to say that Jewish kids weren't the only ones leaving. "What I ended up discovering ultimately was that it wasn't just the Jewish experience. That's really the small-town experience. Kids across the board are realizing, 'Okay, the small town isn't working for me; I really want to go away.' So when I thought Judaism was in the wane in the South, it certainly is in these small towns, but only because percentage-wise there are fewer Jews. When they leave, it is devastating to the community."
The common perception of the South rarely, if ever, includes the Jewish experience. This mythology can leave one feeling like there is a clash between being a Southerner and being Jewish, or part of any other ethnic group. Bain points out that "the film is really resonating with all cultures. We had Italians, Greeks, and Lebanese coming up to us from small towns, and they're all able to relate to the experience. And they're all Southern. They speak with a drawl, and they appreciate the aspects of Southern life that are the stereotypical ones. Yet they also have their own culture that is really important to them." Bain himself is a good example of how two cultures can exist simultaneously inside of one person: "I wholeheartedly care about being a Southerner and the lifestyle and everything it means as far as food, environment, and pace of life. And I also feel the same way about Judaism."
Like the South, Texas has a strong mythological presence in America's history. Making up only 1% of the Texas population, the Jewish community has rarely found itself in the state's history books. Cathy Schechter, co-author of Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews: A Photographic History, says that though the Jewish experience here is clearly overshadowed by the Texas experience, the population has remained steady over time.
"In Texas, Galveston was the only Southern port that had a concentrated and deliberate movement of Jewish immigrants that came through," Schechter explains. "So to varying degrees in a Texas city, depending on how active Jewish members of the community were in the building of that community, that is the extent to which people may even know what a Jew is." Schechter points out the Jewish community has always adapted well to the environment. "What makes Judaism so dogged in its survival is the extent to which it can adapt to its surroundings and still keep its core nature." She stresses that "it's also important not to confuse cultural adaptation with religious adaptation." Whether that means davening in cowboy boots or putting salsa on your matzoh, the Texas Jewish experience is one of continued evolution and lasting fortitude. And now there's a film festival to prove it.
Filmmakers Joel Katz and Brian Bain will be in attendance at the festival. The Austin Jewish Film Festival is sponsored by The Austin Chronicle, The Alamo Drafthouse, Texas Hillel, The Austin Film Society, Pepsi, and Staybridge Suites.
AJFF Schedule Festival passes are available for $30. Tickets for individual screenings are $7. Tickets may be purchased over the phone at 735-8040, at the JCAA box office (7300 Hart), or at the Alamo Drafthouse box office one half-hour prior to the screening. Tickets are also available online at www.drafthouse.com. All screenings take place at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado), with the exception of Strange Fruit, which will screen at the Alamo Drafthouse North (2700 W. Anderson Lane).
Monday, Oct. 21, 6:30pm
Shalom Y'all with "A Bridge of Books"
Wednesday, Oct. 23, 6:30pm
Time of Favor
Thursday, Oct. 24, 6:30pm
Divided We Fall
Sunday, Oct. 27, 12:30pm
Monday, Oct. 28, 6:30pm
Strange Fruit with "The House I Live In"