The Conspiracy

The Future of Jewish Art And The Israel Vortex

I could write a whole article just listing Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow’s achievements. Kaufman is the founder and former director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the first, largest, and possibly the most prestigious Jewish film festival in the world. She has been on the boards of the California Council for the Humanities, Amnesty International USA, the Los Angeles Festival, and the New Israel Fund. Snitow is a media giant in his own right, with a successful career as a News Director of an award winning Bay Area radio station, a stint as President of the SFJFF, and time clocked on the boards of the Film Arts Foundation, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and the California Media Collaborative. Together the dynamic duo have made several award-winning documentaries that have been featured on PBS and at the Sundance Film Festival. Now they have turned their camera around and made a film examining the realities of the American Jewish community, our identities, our representation in politics and media, and our relationship to Israel.

Yea, seriously, all that in one film. It’s enough to make your head spin but these filmmakers went at it without boundaries or filters. Private-shmivate. The couple laid their own lives bare in order to uncover the truth of the American Jewish experience, in the media and around the dinner table.

“This film was our hardest film to make. There was no script,” Kaufman told me. “We were coming out of our own Jewish identity. We were already seeped in Jewish life but we didn’t know how the film was going to end. It’s still not over, because people’s reaction to the film is part of it. It’s kind of genre bending, part personal essay, part something else. We don’t have the answers.”

The resulting product is the documentary film “Between Two Worlds”, which has already made it’s debut at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and will continue to make the rounds via the Jerusalem International Film Festival and screenings at independent film houses in both New York and their native San Francisco. They are still waiting to hear back from several other Jewish film festivals but there’s been quite a bit of red tape because of the film’s controversial perspective of the american Jewish relationship with Israel. “We didn’t get funding from Jewish organizations,” said Kaufman. “One even called our film ‘more controversial than Jenin, Jenin. We thought that was a joke, but it wasn’t.”

But Kaufman already earned her black-belt in handling Jewish community controversy from her experience with founding the SFJFF back in 1981. Back in the day the idea of a cutting edge Jewish film festival seemed pretty radical, even in San Francisco. “There were no Jewish film festivals. We got no funding. No encouragement,” said Kaufman. Lucky for us lovers of Jewish film festivals, the people at the Roxie, where “Between Two Worlds” will soon have it’s San Francisco theatrical premiere, came to the young artist’s rescue. “The Roxie was the place that said okay. The Roxie is…”

“The mothership.” Snitnow interjected. Kaufman laughed and clapped her hands. “Yes, it’s the mothership. It’s freedom, an independent spirit. The Roxie is about honoring and celebrating the imagination. They’ve done some pretty radical programming beyond just the Jewish film festival. It’s hard to imagine now but things were different in the 70’s and 80’s. And in the fight for gay freedom, the fight for human rights, it wasn’t just the Castro, the Roxie played an important role.” (Kaufman is now on the advisory board for the Roxie. But personally, I think that makes her observations even more authentic since she has been so actively involved in socially conscious film, not just among Jewish artists but in the outer world at large. This woman clearly knows what it takes to keep an arts nonprofit thriving and relevant. The Roxie has been kick’n it for over 100 years.) Kaufman told me that she’s worried about the future of Jewish film festivals and other likeminded Jewish arts organizations. “The problem is that there’s not a lot of independent film festivals,” Snitow agreed. Aka: not a lot of them that don’t have their puppet strings tied to small, exclusive groups of people with fat wallets and no tolerance for opinions other than their own. The duo thinks that film screening at independent film houses are vital to the world of Jewish film because, as Snitow said: “they are not subject to the same pressures.”

Speaking of pressure from American Jews, there’s been plenty of it in hefty helpings for these filmmakers. “It’s more of a challenge to deal with conflict within the family, so to speak, within the tribe,” said Kaufman. “There’s a lot of pressure to not air our dirty laundry. There IS a lot of anti-Semitism in the world, so it’s hard to go public. There’s such a polarization in the Jewish community that it’s going to take brave jewish film festival coordinators.” Such bravery is not always rewarded.

Case and point, their film examines “the Rachel Corrie incident” at the SFJFF. As Larry Goldbery said in The J two years ago, “you could feel the hatred in the room.

The duo believe that the sensitivity of American Jews when it comes to Israel should not hinder a Jewish organization’s ability to express a diversity of opinions and perspectives. “The Festival was doing what it’s supposed to be doing, showing cutting edge film.” Kaufman said. “They have a “Freedom of Expression Award,” that’s what it’s supposed to be about. The community is really bent out of shape about Israel. There’s a lot of silencing going on. It’s part of our culture, people watch FOX TV where people are screaming at each other and they think that’s a conversation. There’s a Jewish cultural renaissance, innovative art happening around the world, but the Jews of Israel are locked in a stasis, in politics that they can’t get out of.”

Snitow agreed. “The people that work in the American Jewish community in relationship to Israel are locked there too,” he said, not excluding themselves from this category as they have both strong family and professional ties to Israel. “They are afraid to speak about their hopes, their fears. They are afraid of losing their jobs, they are afraid of losing donors.” They are afraid of being ostracized, exiled, our ultimate, collective nightmare.

The duo did not set out to make this film about controversies or Zionism. It was initially supposed to be a feel-good about Jewish diversity. “When we started making it we were going to make a film about hybrid identity and Birthright,” Kaufman said. “But then everything got pulled into the Israel vortex, as it often does.” She made a small swooping movement with her hand. “The Israel Vortex.”

“The fear of assimilation and fear of criticism of Israel come from the same place. It comes from this idea that the Jewish community doesn’t evolve. Our understanding is that it does evolve,” said Kaufman. “We took a Talmud class while making the film. It was his suggestion.” She nudged Snitow and smirked a little. “And I’m really glad that we did,” she continued. “Throughout Jewish history there’s been fierce debate about what it means to be Jewish, about customs and traditions. This idea that we all have to be united behind the state of Israel is inhibiting. It’s not real. And it isn’t really Jewish either.”

You can check out the trailer on their website. The filmmakers told me that they had really encouraging responses from Jewish students in Toronto. I for one am very curious to see what kind of responses the film will receive across the board. Because if there’s one thing that has been true about Jews throughout history, even before film festivals and national sovereignty, it’s that for every two Jews discussing politics there has to be at least three different opinions and a plethora of exuberant hand-gestures.

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