This year’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, running May 1-8, features more than a dozen feature films and a number of shorts, all touching on major topics in Jewish contemporary life; many focus on self-preservation and conflict, but there’s also lighter fare mixed into the programming.
One whimsical entry, “Cupcakes,” is a musical comedy about a group of young Tel Aviv neighbors who compose a song that goes viral and lands them on a Eurovision-like television contest. In the romantic comedy “One Small Hitch,” a young woman agrees to fake an engagement with her old friend to please his dying father, but the charade leads to some genuine feelings.
A standout is “The Life of the Jews in Palestine: 1913.” The festival will screen historical footage of Jewish immigrants building settlements in Ottoman Palestine, as it was then called, on the eve of World War I, 35 years before the founding of the State of Israel. The footage disappeared for 80 years, and this will be the first time the newly restored digital copy will be seen outside of Israel.
While all the selections this year are fascinating, here are three highlights:
“The Sturgeon Queens”
Even if you don’t go meshugge for the taste of smoked salmon, you’ll still get a kick out of this one-hour documentary that follows four generations of the Russ family and their iconic Russ & Daughters lox and herring market on New York’s Lower East Side.
Director Julie Cohen discovered the shop while producing a PBS documentary in 2007 called “The Jews of New York” and interviewed patriarch Joel Russ’ daughters, Hattie Russ Gold and Anne Russ Federman. They’re now 101 and 93, respectively, and retired in Florida, yet their enthusiasm for the store and its history radiates. That original interview is paired with cameos by longtime clientele and by celebrity customers, including actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, chef Mario Batali and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The film also marks the centennial of the store’s opening in 1914, and looks to the future as the new owners, the great-grandchildren of the founder, plan to open a Russ & Daughters cafe, organize a “Herring Pairing” and other events, and create buzz-worthy delicacies like the “Super Heeb,” the store’s most popular sandwich. Cohen says the name raises fewer eyebrows among film audiences than what goes on the sandwich: wasabi flying-fish roe. “When they see the green wasabi caviar, there’s a gasp,” she said with a laugh. “People seem very concerned about the very nontraditional idea of putting wasabi on a sandwich with cream cheese and white fish.”
But those tensions pale in comparison with the difficult decisions made by Joel Russ in the 1910s and ’20s, when he chose to keep the store open on Shabbat and to serve nonkosher fish. Other tensions arose in the 1970s, when Latinos began working behind the counter. Some customers left in protest, but Herman Vargas, now the store’s general manager, recalls winning them over by greeting them in Yiddish. Now, Cohen says, Vargas “speaks better Yiddish than most members of the Russ family.” And his skill at turning a hunk of salmon into perfect, paper-thin slices has even earned him the nickname “The Artistic Slicer.”
In the film’s credits, Cohen includes photographs of the film crew’s ancestors and the years in which they first immigrated to America, be it from Italy, Pakistan or pre-Israel Palestine. “The Russ family story is echoed by generations of so many Jewish families who came from Europe to the Lower East Side and pretty much everywhere else,” Cohen said. “Their family story — moving from poverty to education and success, and also the tensions between tradition and assimilation — it’s a story that a lot of Jewish-Americans and other groups of immigrants can relate to.”
May 3, Laemmle Town Center, May 4, Laemmle Music Hall
“Operation Sunflower” is a fictional movie that feels like it could be fact, so much so that the end credits feature one of the actors addressing the audience directly: “The story you just saw has no basis in reality.” Yet, there are historical truths to back up the plot. In the 1950s, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was terrified of his neighbors developing the same nuclear capabilities as the United States, Great Britain and Russia. He worked secretly with the French to build a nuclear reactor and create a stockpile in Dimona, even as U.S. President John F. Kennedy warned him of the dangers of a worldwide arms race and threatened to cut off aid to the fledgling nation.
In this quasi-re-enactment, Ben-Gurion sends the head of the Mossad to recruit nuclear physicist Pinhas Feierberg and his team of doctoral students for a top-secret mission to Paris to develop the bomb, referred to as “the insurance policy for Israel’s continued existence.”
The characters grapple with the moral dilemma of whether building a weapon of mass death is truly the ultimate deterrent, while the fresh memory of the Holocaust hovers over them. As Feierberg decides whether to take on the mission, he’s told, “Whatever you decide, you’ll be sorry you didn’t choose the opposite. If you refuse, Auschwitz will pursue you to the grave. And if you do build the bomb, Hiroshima-Nagasaki will haunt your worst nightmares.” Director Avraham Kushnir is careful to highlight the gravity of the decision facing these scientists, though ultimately the courses they take stem from more selfish reasons.
Kushnir acknowledges that he was constrained by the sketchy history of how Israel actually developed its nuclear arsenal. “I read everything available to me, which is very little,” Kushnir said. “All government papers dealing with the subject are covered with black ink. I have interviewed people who were involved in the project. However, most of the material is highly classified.” Secrecy shrouds Israel’s nuclear project, as Israel today refuses to admit that it even possesses such weapons, or to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Ultimately, though, the exact details are less important than the fact that Israel, a country with scarce resources and surrounded by unfriendly neighbors, somehow managed to develop a nuclear option. The film responds to the moral crisis with glimpses of a panicked, present-day Israel under threat of aerial bombardment. “We have Iran almost on our doorstep developing nuclear weapons, and Hamas in Gaza who constantly threatens to ‘throw us into the sea,’ ” Kushner said. “And we live in a turbulent neighborhood where [Bashar] Assad is bombing his own citizens.”
May 5, Laemmle Music Hall, May 6, Laemmle Town Center
Another movie that feels like a re-enactment of history, “God’s Slave” takes us inside an Islamic jihadist cell as it plans the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The film has its West Coast premiere shortly before the 20-year anniversary of the attack, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds. Actual footage of burned-out cars, Israeli flags on fire and masked gunmen waving rocket-propelled grenade launchers lends a sense of reality to the fictional story.
The film is set up as a cat-and-mouse game between Ahmed and David, a young Islamic radical and an Israeli intelligence officer, who cross paths several times. Ahmed’s parents are killed early in the film, and he’s plucked from his home in Lebanon and raised to be a suicide bomber, all the while masquerading as an emergency-room physician, with a wife and children. But when he’s finally called to fulfill his destined role, he must choose whether to give up the life he’s built for himself.
Joel Novoa, a Venezuelan filmmaker, makes his feature-length debut with “God’s Slave.” The film has attracted some controversy for its moral ambiguity and a sometimes-compassionate portrayal of the young men who sacrifice their lives to kill others. As one would-be bomber confesses feelings of doubt and regret to another, he is told, “You have to be strong. This life is just a transition.”
In the end, it’s a story about the dangers of extremism, in which the value of individual lives can be discarded in the name of a greater purpose. As the title suggests, religion can enslave as easily as it can liberate.
May 7, Laemmle Town Center