The New York Jewish Film Festival just wrapped up its 33rd showcase of Jewish films from around the world. The magic of the festival isn’t just that it can transport you to places like Italy, Chicago, and Egypt in the span of a couple of hours. The films also have the power to broaden your sense of the Jewish experience through powerful storytelling.
In case you didn’t get to attend this year, here’s a wrap-up of three films that stood out, each chosen for their unique take on Jewish stories. These films run the gamut from romantic to inspiring to downright silly — and will give you a taste of the diverse Jewish narratives celebrated on the big screen.
“The Shadow of the Day”: A wartime love story
At first, this World War II film’s plot seems cliché: mysterious Luciano (played by Riccardo Scamarcio) — a restaurant owner and Fascist sympathizer — falls in love with his new employee, the young and beautiful Anna (played by Benedetta Porcaroli).
When he learns of her secret Jewish identity and tries to protect her, his political moral views shift. Yet, this artfully directed story transcends the usual righteous gentile narrative.
Set in Italy during the late 1930s at the height of Fascism, you can’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop as war looms near. The sense of imminent danger is palpable when Fascist party members dine in Luciano’s restaurant, drunk on power.
Anna later reveals her Jewishness to Luciano, sharing that her real name is Esther. We can’t help but feel frustrated when Luciano naively assures her, “You’ll be fine. This isn’t Germany.”
In “The Shadow of the Day,” the reality of the war is the shadow that slowly envelops Luciano’s previously held worldview. His love for Anna/Esther brings him into the light, calling that worldview into question.
“Love stories are a way to tell what’s happening in the world,” director Giuseppe Piccioni said in a talkback after the preview. “Stories of the past are a way to tell what’s happening in modern times.”
Containing powerful themes of doing the right thing and the need for human compassion, “The Shadow of the Day” feels more relevant than ever.
“Rabbi on the Block”: A Black Jewish woman’s inspiring journey
On Chicago’s South Side, the corner of 75th and Stewart Avenue is where community and activism intersect. Here, boundaries fade away and a culture of humanity prevails in the form of barbecues and pink t-shirts that say “Block Hugger.” And it’s all thanks to community leader Tamar Manasseh, a Black woman rabbi who is the focus of this inspiring documentary.
Directed by Brad Rothschild, “Rabbi on the Block” follows Manasseh’s grassroots work in both her Chicago and Jewish communities. She is the founder and president of MASK (Mothers and Men Against Senseless Killings), an organization driven by her Jewish values of repairing the world and looking out for one another.
Manasseh doesn’t like when people ask how she could be Jewish. She doesn’t feel the need to prove her Judaism to anyone, though, because she lives it every day in what she calls “Jewing,” or taking concrete actions to live out her values.
Manasseh shows viewers that “Jewing” can take on many different forms: shopping at a Chicago kosher supermarket, teaching non-Jewish community members about Jewish traditions, leading necessary conversations on racism and antisemitism, or even becoming a rabbi.
“For this film, I want people to see that what’s important about Tamar’s Judaism is that she’s putting it to use in the world for good,” Rothschild told The Forward.
“It’s not about the parsha this week and it’s not about you tearing toilet paper on Shabbat,” he continued. “I feel like that’s a more important lesson than debating between who is more Jewish and who is less Jewish…I would like for people to look at what Tamar does and say ‘this is how a Jew is supposed to behave.’”
Through candid conversations and heartwarming scenes like her long-awaited rabbinical ordination and the bris of her grandson, “Rabbi on the Block” will make you want to “Jew” more and make a difference in your own community.
“No Name Restaurant”: The Passover story you’ve never heard
Picture this: a Haredi man from Brooklyn finds himself stranded in the Sinai Desert with a Bedouin who is trying to track down his runaway camel.
That is the start of Ben’s (played by Luzer Twersky) Egyptian adventure, where he has only four days to reach Alexandria. His mission is to be the 10th man at a Passover seder so he can save the last of what was once the largest Jewish community in the world.
“No Name Restaurant” is an off-road comedy that reflects an old adage: in order to find yourself, you need to get lost every now and then.
It’s the people that Ben meets along the way — traveling through a sweeping desert landscape and a Greek monastery — that help him reach his destination, even if his companion, Adel (Hitham Omari), is a bit irritable and judgmental. Adel doesn’t understand Ben’s customs like washing his hands before meals, and why Ben can’t eat his bread (spoiler alert: it’s not kosher.)
“We tried to tell a story about tolerance and mutual respect, showing the importance of seeing in ‘the other,’ not just the stranger but a human being that shares the same needs, sorrows and desires,” Berlin-based co-director Peter Keller said in an interview.
“It’s definitely an honor to be part of the New York Jewish Film Festival. In Germany, I have the impression that the audience is more careful about when to laugh…especially when it touches Jewish matters. Here, in contrast, the mostly Jewish audience burst out laughing without any restraint, which was very refreshing.”
While “No Name Restaurant” may sound outrageous at first, this comedy reveals a more profound narrative. During conversations on religion, love, and their shared passion for food, Ben and Adel begin to discover they have more in common than they realize.
As the rest of their water evaporates under the hot sun, so do their differences, emphasizing the importance of human connection and how you can find it in the most unlikely places.
Originally Published Jan 25, 2024 12:18PM EST