Friday, March 23, 2007

This weekend: East lansing

Just arrived in East Lansing Michigan for the 10th annual East Lansing Film Festival.

We had a funny review in the city pulse:

“Yiddish Theater: A Love Story”
Saturday, 3/ 24, 6:30 p.m.
Bresson Theater, Wells Hall
It’s difficult to determine the theme of “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story.” Is it “If you’re old, stay active or you’ll die?” Or is it “Do what you love to do until the Man crushes your hopes and dreams?” I’d like to think it’s a combination of “Make the world remember” mixed with heaping amounts of the American Melting Pot myth, but maybe I’m just being too hopeful.

“Yiddish Theater” has the anxiety of an execution flick, with its deliberate countdown-to-extinction style. The story is told over the course of the eight nights of Hanukkah 2000, the final night of which coincides with both New Year’s Eve and what could possibly be the closing of the Folksbeine, New York’s last surviving Yiddish Theater. (Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Yiddish theater was as common as traditional theater.) The film even includes the tearful description of a dying loved one. Ends abound here.

The sun is also setting on octogenarian Zypora Spaisman, who has been performing these Off-off-Broadway plays performed entirely in Yiddish since World War II. “Yiddish Theater” branches out and explores the lives of some of the actors and actresses as well, but their lives serve as little more than distraction from the big question of what’s going to happen to the theater on Jan. 1, 2001.
— Allan I. Ross
Here's what they've written about it in their program:

"Directors to visit the 10th East Lansing Film Festival!
This article was posted on Mon, Mar 12 2007

The tenth annual East Lansing Film Festival (ELFF), the largest film festival in Michigan celebrates independent film productions and is excited to bring directors from around the world to attend this year’s festivities! From amazing documentaries to comedic feature films, there is no lack of variety in genres, topics, and directing styles in this year’s festival, which takes place March 21-29, 2007.

Listed below are the films that will have directors attending and the contact information for each director:

Yiddish Theater: A Love Story
6:30pm - Wells Hall, Theater A - Bresson, Rm. 102
Dan Katzir, Director

This fascinating documentary is a poignant portrait of Zypora Spaisman, founder and grand dame of Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, the only surviving Yiddish theater in New York. Director Katzir interviews the flamboyant actors who are determined to preserve kiddishkeit as well as profile the extraordinary life of the determined, highly energetic and theatrical Spaisman whose love for the theater and the Yiddish language kept American Yiddish Theater alive for 42 years.
Last weekend: Albequrque

Saturday, March 10, 2007


A short interview with both my producing partner, Ravit Markus, and with myself, as well as with other LA transplants about life in the U.S.

Israeli official woos expats -- you can go home again
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

The message from the high Israeli official addressing more than 100 Israeli expatriates at Stephen S. Wise Temple was simple and direct.

"We want you to come back."

Catchy slogans are one thing, translating them into reality is vastly more complex, Zeev Boim admitted.

Boim is Israel's minister of immigration absorption, and he was in Los Angeles with a backup team of government and private industry representatives as part of a concerted campaign that touched down in seven U.S. and Canadian cities.

In the early decades of the Jewish state, Israelis abandoning the homeland were scorned as weaklings, traitors and "yordim," those "going down" from the peaks of Israel to the depth of the Diaspora.

Ostracism didn't work in stemming the outflow, and for some time the Israeli government has been wooing, rather than denigrating, the growing number of Israelis abroad. Boim's North American tour, toward the end of last year, represented Israel's strongest signal yet of its earnest intent to welcome its departed sons and daughters back into the family fold.

For any campaign, it is useful to know the size of your target audience, but pinning down the number of Israeli expatriates in any given country or city is the despair of demographers. Do you count only native Israelis or include those who, for example, went from Russia to Israel, became citizens but then moved on to Europe or the United States? And what about the American-born children and grandchildren of Israelis?

During an interview at the Israeli consulate, Boim offered a relatively straightforward criterion: All holders of Israeli passports, including those with dual citizenship, are considered Israelis.

Boim, who should know, estimated that there are 700,000 to 1 million Israeli expats in the world, of whom some 600,000 are in North America, including 150,000 to 200,000 in the Los Angeles area. Some local Israelis maintain there are as many as 300,000 of their compatriots in Los Angeles, which would represent more than half of all Jews here.

More realistically, Boim's ministry has given out considerably lower figures than the boss, and local demographer Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) insisted that the count is completely out of line, with only 26,000 Israelis in the Los Angeles area.

Whatever the number, Boim argued that the key to luring back expats lies in providing decent jobs, and that Israel's strong economy, especially in the high-tech sector, is in a position to offer such employment.

In each of the cities Boim visited and after his pep talk, seriously interested expats could talk to specialists from his ministry and private industry about jobs, establishing businesses, housing, government assistance and liaison with local Israeli consulates.

Although the expats, classified as "returning residents," would not receive as much government aid as new immigrants, Boim held out inducements in the form of tax relief, cutting bureaucratic red tape and even deferment from mandatory military service. Additional sweeteners are reserved for those willing to settle in the underpopulated Galilee and Negev regions.

The "come back home" push aims for long-range, not immediate, results, Boim said. He cited the return of some 6,000 expats in 2005 as a promising sign. On the flip side, however, around 8,000 to 9,000 Israelis left for overseas residence during the same year.

A large majority of those attending the Los Angeles meeting with Boim came on a look-see basis, but about 10 percent stayed to talk about the nuts and bolts of returning home.

Among them was Angie Geffen, the American-born daughter of Israeli parents, who traveled from Scottsdale, Ariz., with her husband, Amir, an Israeli electrical engineer.

Contacted a week after the meeting, she was bubbling over with enthusiasm, praising the excellent organization and helpfulness of Boim's support staff. She said the meeting had saved her weeks of research.

"We'll move in a couple of months," she said confidently.

During a follow-up call two months later, Geffen had come down from her high. She complained about protracted disputes with Israeli housing authorities about obtaining land and shelter for her and 32 other families in a Galilee community.

She, her husband and their young son still hope to leave for Israel before Passover, "but we will have to rethink our finances," she said.

Another participant was "Ehud," a 31-year-old teacher at a Jewish day school here, who left Israel as a child and asked that his real name not be used. Ehud said he was impressed by Boim's talk but not by a 10-minute follow-up interview with one of the minister's assistants.

"When I talked about available job opportunities in Israel, I was told, 'We'll try to find you something when you get there,'" Ehud said. When he pressed the matter, the interviewer told him, "We don't start the process until you get there."

Ehud still wants to marry and start a family in Israel, but he might first visit on his own to check out the job situation.

What keeps Israelis in the Diaspora, and what draws them back home? The individual answers and motivations differ, but talks with expats yield some common themes: The big draw in coming to the United States is almost always economic opportunity. The big pull to return is the sense of social intimacy and togetherness few expats can find elsewhere, and the worry that their children and grandchildren will lose their feeling of Israeli connectedness.

Ravit Markus is an independent producer who dreamed of going to Hollywood while a film student at Tel Aviv University.

Since arriving here more than two years ago, she has produced some well-received documentaries, most recently, "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story," in collaboration with fellow expat, director Dan Katzir, and she is now turning her hand to a romantic comedy.

Now in her late 20s, Markus considers herself quite typical of the local expats, both in their ambitions and conflicts.

"Life is exciting in Los Angeles, and the film industry presents a fascinating challenge," she said. "What I miss most about Israel are the love and warmth of family and friends, walking around everywhere, amidst other people.

"In Los Angeles, you are physically detached from other people, and even more detached emotionally; you really don't have deep friendships," she said. "The upside is that you have your private space, people don't constantly pry into your business. But, then, sometimes you feel alone."

The ideal career for Markus, as for director Katzir, would be a dual track, working in both the American and Israeli film industries.

"I would like to be bicontinental, to work both in Hollywood and in my native country, like many European and Mexican directors do," Katzir said.

Rivka Dori is among the veteran expats in Los Angeles, having arrived in 1966 with her future husband, who came for a college education.

As a longtime teacher -- Dori is director of the joint Hebrew studies program at HUC-JIR and USC -- and community activist, she is especially focused on the second generation of American-born Israelis, including her own adult children.

The second generation, she believes, "is neither here nor there, not Israeli and not American."

Dori established an after-school program for "Heritage Learners," second-generation youngsters of high school age, to expose them to Hebrew as it is spoken today and to Israel's culture.

Her students, she said, face a dilemma in defining their identities. They are exposed to all the pressures and attractions of American teen life, while their parents try to indoctrinate them with a feeling of loyalty and belonging to Israel -- up to a point.

"When the youngsters absorb their parents' lesson and one day tell them that they want to join the Israeli army, the parents are usually horrified," Dori said.

Few expats are involved in the social life and causes of their American Jewish peers, and, if pressed, they are likely to define themselves as "Israeli Jews in America."

Dori doubts that many of them will follow Boim's exhortation to resettle in Israel and believes that when the members of the third generation grow up, "they will be less conflicted and more Americanized."

Avner Hofstein has a special perspective on the expats. An experienced reporter for Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest daily, he has been on assignment as the paper's West Coast correspondent for the past four years; he is also an occasional contributor to The Jewish Journal.

Israelis here, as in their native country, are full of contradictions, Hofstein observed.

They have bought fully into the materialistic life of America, while trying to recreate the Israeli neighborhoods and milieu they knew in the 1970s and '80s. "Especially in the Valley, Israelis have their own cafes, markets, dances and social and business networks," he said.

"They pop into each others' homes unannounced and are very much into each others' business," Hofstein added. "On the one hand, they tend to be hawkish and super-Israeli patriots, on the other hand, they are highly critical of Israeli society, perhaps to justify their own departure.

"There are no Israeli ghettos in Los Angeles, but you have a sense of closed communities, with their own networks of professional and business services, and few American friends," he said.

The Council of Israeli Communities (CIC) is the closest to a central expat organization in Los Angeles, with a membership of about 5,000, according to its president, Moshe Salem. Founded in 2001 to speak up for the State of Israel and its policies, CIC now focuses mainly on strengthening relations with the people and culture of the home country.

A sure sign that the Israeli community is coming of age is that academic researchers are beginning to pay attention to it. Through the Israel American Study Initiative (IASI), a group of UCLA scholars and librarians is trying to collect and analyze the chronicles and documents that tell the history and development of the community.

IASI tracks Israeli culture and life in the United States in its BAMA magazine and the Web site,

"We are studying the Israeli community for itself and from three perspectives," said Jonathan Friedlander, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. "The role of Israelis within the larger Jewish community; within the Middle Eastern community of Arabs, Armenians and Iranians, and their impact on the entire Los Angeles ethnic mosaic."

Writing in BAMA, professor David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, notes one crucial contribution of Israeli expats, alongside Jewish immigrants from Iran and Russia. Without them, writes Myers, "The Los Angeles Jewish community would either have hit the wall demographically or be in decline."


Got a little blurb about our screening in Santa Barbara.

Honor for Nature

The Jewish community received a warm reception at the 22nd annual Santa Barbara Film Festival during its 10-day run from Jan. 25 to Feb 4.

A highlight of the festival was the presentation of the Sir David Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking to director Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore for their Academy Award-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

Before receiving the award from director James Cameron, Guggenheim and Gore participated in a Q-and-A with cinematographer Mike deGruy.

They discussed the filmmaking process; the world's recognition of global warming; and their fathers, director Charles Guggenheim and former Sen. Al Gore, Sr., who had worked together on a campaign documentary in the 1960s.

The festival also featured documentaries about Shoah survivors, most of which were were followed by Q-and-As with the filmmakers and survivors.

Dan Katzir's "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story," about New York's Lower East Side Yiddish theater world, portrays the late Zypora Spaisman and her colleagues as they attempted to keep their company alive during the eight days of Chanukah in 2000.

Jon Kean's "Swimming in Aushwitz" tells the stories of six survivors -- Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacobi, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman -- who didn't know each other while at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but come together years later to discuss family, faith and the camp.

The film "Henry" documents Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a Canadian abortionist, Holocaust survivor, womanizer and crusader as he reflects on his life and actions.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara and UCSB presented "Video Portraits of Survival: Volume Two," which contains stories of Santa Barbara survivors and refugees of the Shoah.

-- Sara Bakhshian, Contributing Writer

Thursday, March 08, 2007


So today someone emailed me that he saw my film mentioned as one of the recommended films in an article in the NY Jewish newspaper. Funny this is the second article about us this week in NYC, and yet, we're not interesting anyone in NYC who'll show the film.
I totally don't get it.

Here's info about that film screening, if anyone will want to go, taken from the festival's website. It's interesting how every festival writes different synopsis's that reveal a different understanding of the film:

The Yiddish Theater: A Love Story
Sun, March 25: 5:30PM Q&A w/David Romeo & Stefan Kanfer with book sale and reception.
Tickets: $12/members; $16/nonmembers.
Tue, March 27: 5:05PM

Dan Katzir. 2006. 80 min. NR. Israel/US, in English/ Yiddish, with subtitles.
A delightful, touching documentary about an aging but tenacious Yiddish theater star, Zypora Spaisman, her young, spirited troupe, and their determination to preserve a 1000-year-old culture by reviving a 1916 Yiddish play in circa 2000 New York. When the production receives surprisingly glowing reviews, hope turns into a desperate search for money to take the show "uptown." A warm and wonderful little film you're guaranteed to love - no matter how you feel about Yiddish theater.
*Sun. March 25 at 5:30: Q&A w/David Romeo & Stefan Kanfer, book signing, reception. David Romeo was general manager and producer of the Yiddish Public Theater's production of Grine Felder (Green Fields), featured in the film. Stefan Kanfer is the author of Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America, which traces the rise and fall of the Yiddish theater and its lasting impact on American culture.
Tickets: $12/members; $16/nonmembers


More Than A Night At The Movies
Local Jewish film festival offers a mix of documentaries, comedies, dramas and post-screening discussions.
Merri Rosenberg - Special To The Jewish Week

By now, the annual Westchester Celebrates Jewish Film Festival, which opens March 8 and runs through March 29 at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, has become a tradition for filmgoers in the county.

With its mix of documentaries, comedies and dramas, the series — now in its sixth year — offers more than conventional or clichéd expectations of “Jewish” movies. Many of the films feature post-screening panels or speakers to provide an experience that transcends simply an evening at the movies. Last year more than 5,000 people attended and organizers expect a larger turnout this year.

“We literally have hundreds of films to pick through. There’s really a lot to look at,” said Brian Ackerman, programming director of the Jacob Burns Film Center. “People know they can make films about ‘difficult’ subjects, and there is a support structure where [they] can be shown.”

Although subjects and themes range widely, and include offerings from the United States, Israel, Great Britain, France, Argentina, Germany, and Spain, among others, there are some clusters.

There are Israeli films such as “The Last Fighters,” about six survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto. The complexities of the Israeli-Arab situation are explored in such movies as “Blues by the Beach,” focusing on a Tel Aviv nightspot that was affected by a suicide bombing and “First Lesson in Peace,” about the director’s 6-year-old daughter who is enrolled in an Arab-Jewish primary school.

World War II and the Holocaust are the subjects of films such as the French documentary, “Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes,” and “The Rape of Europa,” a documentary about the Nazi theft and destruction of European art during the war, which includes a post-screening Q&A with the book’s author Lynn Nicholas and a Metropolitan Museum of Art curator. There is also a documentary about the Mauthausen concentration camp and its impact on the non-Jewish Austrian tour guides who work there, with a Q&A featuring Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee and Hannah Lessing, head of the Austrian Fund for Nazi victims. A German documentary, “Two or Three Things I Know About Him,” explores family memories of the filmmaker’s unapologetically Nazi father.

As Ackerman said, “We’re very conscious of the notion that there’s a stereotype of Jewish film festivals being about the Holocaust. [But] there were five fantastic films that just jumped off the shelf that we couldn’t ignore.”

The somber nature of many of the films reflects the current climate.

“This year, I was surprised by the number of movies that were focused on the Shoah,” said Laura Lewis, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Westchester, which is a cosponsor of the film festival for the fifth year. “The number of people denying the Holocaust is growing, so perhaps people want to be sure that the ever receding memories of the Holocaust remain bright. And the war in the summer gave people a lot of pause for thought … Some of the somber mood may be a result of dashed hopes. This terrible situation will go on for a long time, and directors feel a need to comment on that.”

Still, there are plenty of lighter films, too, including “Ira and Abby,” a romantic comedy featuring Robert Klein, Jason Alexander and Judith Light; “Toots,” a nostalgic look at New York nightlife of the ‘40s and ‘50s directed by Toots Shor’s granddaughter and “The Yiddish Theater: A Love Story.”

The series is also cosponsored by the Elaine Dannheisser Foundation in association with The Westchester Jewish Chronicle, as well as corporate sponsors from the community. n

The Westchester Celebrates Jewish Film Festival opens March 8 and runs through March 29. For more information about specific programs, or to purchase tickets, check or call (914) 747-5555.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Atlanta International Jewish Film Festival

Seems like in Georgia we're having some impact. After being in the Atlanta International, we've managed to also be in the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

The festival was at the end of January, but we've been traveling to so many festivals, we kind of forgot to give our wonderful friends in Georgia their due thank you.

They didn't use our standard synopsis in their brochure. This is what they wrote:
Yiddish Theater: A Love Story is a profile of the last diva of Yiddish theater and her inspiring struggle to sustain an art form seemingly destined to die with her. For more than 40 years, Zypora Spaisman, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, has fought to keep alive New York’s famed Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre. Despite glowing reviews, the theater has lost its audience and faces certain extinction. Acclaimed Israeli director Dan Katzir discovers Spaisman and her troupe in the brutal winter of 2000 during a last-ditch effort to move the Folksbiene uptown from the Lower East Side to Broadway. For eight days and nights (ironically during Chanukah), Katzir follows cast, crew and fundraisers in their quest for a modern-day miracle to save the longest-running Yiddish theater in America. The film includes unique scenes with many of the leading experts and last remaining stars of the Yiddish world. Sure to elicit laughter and tears, this moving documentary celebrates the beauty of a 1,000-year-old culture and the devotion of those committed to preserving it

Friday, March 02, 2007


Film Captures Stage Legend

Caroline Lagnado | Fri. Mar 02, 2007

Filmmaker Dan Katzir is the last person anyone would expect to fall in love with Yiddish.
Growing up in a prominent Israeli family with strong Zionist beliefs — his great-great-uncle was former Israeli prime minister Moshe Sharet, and his great-uncle was former Israeli president Efraim Katzir — he had been brought up to be averse to Yiddish language and culture, revering Hebrew and Israeli culture instead. “My grandmother was part of a group whose purpose it was to stop people from speaking Yiddish on the streets in Israel,” Katzir told the Forward. “My whole life I grew up hating Yiddish and people who spoke Yiddish.”

All that changed when Katzir — an award-winning director, producer and screenwriter behind such feature films as “Today You Are a Fountain Pen” and “Out for Love…Be Back Shortly” — was on vacation in New York in the winter of 2001. Katzir met Zypora Spaisman, then an octogenarian actress and founder of the Yiddish Public Theatre. Spaisman, who was living in New York, convinced a reluctant Katzir to come see her play, “Green Fields,” which would be able to run for only one more week, due to lack of funding.

For Katzir to fall in love with both this spunky Yiddish actress and her mission to keep Yiddish and Yiddish theater alive was “beshert, it was meant to be,” Katzir said. While Katzir couldn’t offer Spaisman and her company the capital it needed to stay afloat, he could offer them his art: He spent the final week of “Green Fields” documenting the company’s struggle to find an audience and investors.

This footage became the documentary “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story.” The film follows Spaisman and the rest of the “Green Fields” troupe during those difficult days facing small audiences, a harsh New York winter and harsher New York investors who declined to fund the production. “Yiddish Theater” is not only about Spaisman and her peers’ valiant efforts and passion for their art; it is also about the struggles facing Yiddish theater at large.

As a non-Yiddish speaker, Katzir acts as a bridge between the cast members and the audience members, who might not speak Yiddish. In one scene, he asks Spaisman why she continues to insist on performing in Yiddish. “My language will disappear,” she says in the film, “and the English language will stay.” Spaisman died in 2002 at age 86, just months after the documentary was filmed.

Spaisman grew up speaking Yiddish in Poland, performed in Yiddish after she left for Russia, and continued to use and perform in Yiddish throughout her tenure as an actress in New York. Still, Spaisman recognized the trouble that Yiddish was in, and saw herself as capable of saving it. For Spaisman, keeping Yiddish theater alive was a way to keep the language alive; for years she was in charge of productions for Folksbiene, the Yiddish theater. And her involvement in theater went beyond what she did onstage: Besides acting, Spaisman sold tickets and swept the floors to keep Yiddish theater going.

Initially reluctant to embrace Yiddish culture, Katzir fell in love with Spaisman and her art. He hopes that his viewers will do the same. “Yiddish Theater” has recently shown at some prestigious film festivals around the country, and continues to be shown — but ironically, it has not been screened in New York City. “We were surprised that this film seems to be more popular on the West Coast and in the Bible Belt than with New York Jews,” Katzir told the Forward.

While Katzir was unable to obtain New York funding for this decidedly New York project, he did receive a grant from the Israeli Makor Fund, in addition to funds from the Yablon Cultural Foundation, the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, the Goldrich Foundation, the Webb Foundation and West Coast private donors, two of whom are Holocaust survivors. “Yiddish Theater” will be screened in Tel Aviv this spring, and will appear in film festivals in Baltimore and in the Pleasantville area of New York this month. In the coming months, it will be shown in the Canadian city of Toronto and in Amherst, Mass.
Fri. Mar 02, 2007


 Another Amazing Review in Art Beats LA. Thanks  Kurt Gardner. ART BEATS LA REVIEW OF AMERICAN POT STORY: Slamdance Review: ‘American Pot St...