Inaugural Hamilton Jewish Film Fest Goes Virtual

Aug. 25, 2020 – By RUTH SCHWEITZER

The inaugural edition of the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival (HJFF), originally scheduled for March, was almost a casualty of the COVID pandemic.

That is until Wendy Schneider, editor of the Hamilton Jewish News, watched movies online during the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in June.

“I found the experience to be very positive,” Schneider said. As a result, she and Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, agreed to produce a virtual festival locally.

The HJFF, presented by the Hamilton Jewish Federation and the Westdale Theatre, a Hamilton cultural hub, runs from Aug. 29 to Sept. 3. The fledgling festival will screen three movies: two feature films, The Other Story (2018) and Leona (2018), and a documentary, Picture of His Life (2019).

In The Other Story, directed and co-written by Israeli Avi Nesher, the newly religiously observant Anat (Joy Rieger) wakes up in the women’s dormitory of a yeshiva she attends. She’s about to marry another baal teshuvah (newly observant) Israeli rock star, played by Israeli singer-songwriter Nathan Goshen.

A scene from the film The Other Story

Anat’s secular mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), is furious about her daughter’s decision to choose a religious path. In another storyline, one of several in this complex movie, Sari, a young woman who has rejected her religious upbringing, meets up with Anat.

Nesher won the Israel Film Critics Association’s 2018 Best Director award for the movie.

In her review of The Other Story, Nell Minow wrote at RogerEbert.com that “Nesher skillfully balances a lot of characters and storylines, each illustrating a different kind of Israeli and a different connection to Jewish life, culture and practice, but he never lets any of them become symbolic rather than real.”

Leona, directed and co-written by Mexican director Isaac Cherem, is the story of a young woman, Ariela (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), a member of Mexico’s Syrian Jewish community, who has a love affair with a non-Jew. Once Ariela’s mother finds out about the relationship, she enlists various members of the community who try to persuade Ariela to end the affair. Leonora took the Excellence in Film Award at the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival.

A scene from the movie Leona

Cherem is part of Mexico’s Syrian-Jewish community. His great-grandparents were immigrants from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus.

“I think the Mexican culture is particularly strong, the same way as the Syrian-Jewish culture,” Cherem told the Jerusalem Post. “And that might be one of the reasons why it’s been so difficult for both to coexist and integrate with one another.”

Picture of His Life, co-directed by Jonatan Nir and Dani Menkin, is about the world-renowned underwater wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum. For his photo shoots, Nachoum has swam with crocodiles, killer whales, anacondas and great white sharks, but the polar bear always eluded him. This award-winning film follows Nachoum in the Canadian Arctic as he prepares for his ultimate challenge: to photograph a polar bear underwater while he’s swimming alongside it.

A poster from the documentary Picture of His Life

One-hour Zoom Q&As with filmmakers, moderated by Fred Fuchs, follow the screenings. Fuchs is the former president of American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s film production company. After moving to Canada in 2001, Fuchs worked at CBC, where he was involved with the production of the TV shows The Tudors, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Heartland.

Fuchs said Q&As add a lot of extra value when, after the film, the audience can speak to the filmmaker.

Now retired and living in Hamilton, he’s chair of a charitable organization that purchased and restored the city’s 1935 heritage Westdale Theatre.

While Fuchs wishes the HJFF could be held at the Westdale, he realizes a virtual festival has some advantages.

“I look at it positively because maybe we could have had 200-250 people at the theatre,” he said. “Here there’s an opportunity for many more people to participate and people who don’t live in Hamilton.” 

For more information about the festival, visit hamiltonjewishfederation.ticketspice.com/film-festival

Post-COVID, Jews Must Rely on Building Skills, Weiss Says

July 28, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

HAMILTON – Jewish communities know how to build, and that’s a skill journalist and author Bari Weiss says will be critical in shaping a post-COVID reality.

In presentations to Jewish Federation campaign launches in Hamilton and Montreal last week, the former New York Times editor and op-ed writer said there’s almost no chance of a return to “normal” when the current pandemic dies out. For the Jewish world, that’s going to challenge some long-held beliefs.

Bari Weiss

“We are part of a people that knows how to build,” she told her Zoom audience in Hamilton. “We are a people who have renewed and rebuilt out of the embers more than any other people in history.”

Building that new world, she told her audiences, will require hard decisions about what is essential in Jewish communities.

“We must decide what will be essential for healthy Jewish communities,” she said. “Is it money for schools, for community hunger, for camps?

“Fancy galas, as fun as they are, don’t make the list because they don’t secure the future of a healthy Jewish community,” she added.

Weiss surprised the world July 14 when she suddenly resigned from the New York Times, citing persistent harassment and antisemitism from colleagues.

In her resignation letter, posted online at https://www.bariweiss.com/resignation-letter, she wrote “lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.

“My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views.”

Much of that harassment, she wrote, was antisemitic, something she said can be combatted not by becoming more insular, but by reconnecting with what it is to be Jewish.

Weiss has studied anti-Semitism closely. She won the 2019 Jewish Book of the Year prize for her volume How to Fight Anti-Semitism.

“The true response to antisemitism is to affirm our Judaism, it’s about digging deeper into our Jewish identity,” she added.

“Some communities have lost sight of what being Jewish is all about,” Weiss said. “Blind support for Israel is not being Jewish. Being Jewish is about more than our complex tribal politics.”

She was quick to add she remains a strong supporter of Israel and Zionism, which she called “the idea that has saved more Jewish lives than any other in history. She is not, however, a fan of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We are not famous for our magnificent cathedrals, we don’t build grand monuments,” she said. “Our monuments are our schools, our camps, our youth movements and our institutions of learning. Our monuments are our families and our children.”

To rebuild and maintain those monuments the Hamilton Jewish Federation (HJF) will trying to raise $1.3 million in its new community campaign. That’s the same as last year’s goal, but a separate emergency campaign seeks to raise another $150,000 to support agencies in danger of being overwhelmed by COVID-related demands.

The previous campaign collected 98 percent of its goal.

Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the HJF, said special demand is being felt by the kosher food bank, in general areas of food security, and by the loss of community participation as employment and incomes dip, which affects Jewish institutions and parents’ ability to pay tuition at Jewish schools.

“More organizations are going to be on financially fragile ground now and that will further a previous trend toward mergers and consolidation,” Rymberg said. “Our response to this crisis will be remembered as one of our finest moments.”