Do you think you have to head to New York to enjoy the art and entertainment offerings this season? If so, think again. Regardless of whether you are located in Middlesex or Monmouth county, there is a venue for local, high-quality cultural happenings right in your neighborhood or even as close as your screen.
The Rutgers Jewish Film Festival marks its 24th iteration this year with a broad selection of new, independent films, as well as one old studio oddity. On Nov. 1, three of the new ones were screened at Regal Cinema:
“SHTTL” is a multiple award winner at the 2022 Rome Film Fest, the 2023 Atlanta Jewish Film, Berlin Jewish Film and Cleveland International Film festivals and the 2023 Diasporama. Shot in black and white in Yiddish with English subtitles, the 1941 setting in the Ukraine would seem to combine into a distancing nostalgia-fest; however, its theme of a traditional community, polarized over threats of modernity and assimilation and under siege by an outside enemy, is almost presciently relevant.
“No Name Restaurant,” another 2022 film, could not be more different. A winner of the 2022 Bavarian Film Award at the Munich Film Festival and the Guenter Rohrback Filmpreis, it is an odd-couple buddy comedy involving a rabbi from Brooklyn via Jerusalem stranded in the Sinai and a Bedouin who lost his camel. The mix would not be complete, of course, without a generous helping of Catholic monks. For those who could use a dose of silly optimism, this movie could readily fill the bill.
“The Good Person,” the winner of the Cinemarket Wip Award at the Haifa International Film Festival, is billed as a comedy and starts out almost as a contemporary damsel-in-distress story, but in this meta satire of behind-the-scenes filmmaking, no one and nothing — not misogyny, hypocrisy, feminism, Orthodoxy, anti-religious hostility, selling out — nothing emerges unscathed.
This year’ s edition of the film festival will wind up at the Rutgers Business School Nov. 5 with another showing of “No Name Restaurant” and another floundering rabbi buddy comedy, “The Frisco Kid.” The one old-studio oddity, it was released in 1979 after having been in development for seven years and rejected twice by its star, Gene Wilder, before he accepted the role upon reading the second revised draft. Reviews at the time were not kind and, even in the halcyon, pre-PC days of the 1970s, the Jewish and other ethnic stereotypes were sometimes criticized as overdone.
Yet, many artworks rejected by contemporary tastes have gone on to later critical acclaim, and, even at the time, Gene Wilder’ s performance was treated much more generously than was the film as a whole. If a broad, throw-back parody sounds appealing, “The Frisco Kid” could be a welcome diversion.
Not realistic enough to be considered magical realism, with not enough time travel to be considered science fiction and with too much substance to be considered a ghost story, the animated “Where Is Anne Frank?” defies description. (It’ s certainly not a kiddie cartoon!) This remaining film in the festival lineup brings to life Kitty, the imaginary addressee of the eponymous diarist after the glass protecting the volume is broken. At once corporeal and evanescent, Kitty involves herself in contemporary issues while searching for her creator. Not quite feel-good, not quite sad, this award winner at the 2021 Luxembourg City Film Festival and Silk Road International Film Festival China can best be described as bittersweet.
For a look back at a slightly more recent era, the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold offers a vicarious trip to the Borscht Belt of the Catskills. John Kenrick, a former lyricist and producer and current theater historian, will be delivering a multimedia presentation about that unique milieu as a fertile breeding ground for a whole generation of comedians. Anecdotes and contemporary clips will enliven this event to be held at the museum on Nov. 12.
The museum’ s halls will echo with live musical performances in December. The season will kick off with jazzman and musician Bob Tuzzo singing pop and Broadway favorites at a wine party fundraiser on Dec. 2.
On Dec. 10, Dr. David Brahinsky will appear at the museum to present a dual program. In his capacity as Professor of Comparative Religion and Philosophy at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania, he will deliver a talk about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-born scion of a long line of prominent rabbis on both sides of his family. After a traditional rabbinic education, Rabbi Heschel pursued a doctorate at the University of Berlin, but was deported to Poland and only later rescued in 1940 when the President of Hebrew Union College brought him to New York.
There he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he became one of the 20th century’ s preeminent scholars of Jewish mysticism, philosophy and theology. For the second part of the program, Dr. Brahinsky will pick up his guitar and, as leader of the Roosevelt String Band, will present a concert of Jewish-associated folk-rock.
On Dec. 17, the museum will host a program of Hanukkah music by the Florian Schantz Jazz Combo. Founded by Florian Schantz at the age of 9 (yes, 9!) years old, this jazz band specializes in thematic, historical music programs. On Dec. 25, the month’s music programs will be capped by its Annual Klezmer Concert, performed this year by the Hester Street Troupe, a trio devoted to Jewish music, klezmer and shtick.
Of course, despite the panoply of performances, the museum is still primarily a museum, and the comprehensive exhibit on Red Bank’s Eisner family will be on view until the end of this year. Be sure to check out “The Contributions of Sigmund Eisner,” “JLife Heart of New Jersey,” June 2023, before you go.
In February, which marks the beginning of the museum’s 18th (“chai”) year, an exhibit recounting the museum’s history will be mounted. After years of negotiation among the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, The Freehold Township Historic Preservation Commission and Bernard Hochberg, the owner of the 200-year-old Levi Solomon Barn, the Township approved the establishment of a county-wide Jewish museum on its second floor.
After more than two years of restoration and renovation beginning with the incorporation of the museum as an independent, non-profit corporation, the barn was transformed into a modern exhibit and performance venue. “Before” pictures of the barn will be on display as well as every issue of the museum’s newsletter, from its first issue until today’s, along with a visual survey of the museum’s main accomplishments. A fine complement to this exhibit would be the permanent exhibit, “A History of the Jews of Monmouth County: Three Centuries of Growth and Change.”
If none of this has tempted you off your couch, there are still local sources of Jewish cultural programming readily accessible on your screen. The Rutgers Jewish Film Festival has a separate program of virtual films available from Nov. 6 to 12.
The 2022 Israeli drama “The Other Widow,” an award winner at the 2023 Sofia International Film Festival, explores the experience of a costumer, one of the invisible members of a theater company, whose paramour, the very visible resident playwright, suddenly dies and leaves her with no legitimate outlet for her grief. As she instead begins to insinuate herself into his mourning family, the film integrates the ongoing theatrical performance into her increasing involvement with the bereaved.
“Generation 1.5,” an Israeli documentary released in 2023, looks back at the surge of immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1990s and how the children and teenagers have—and have not—been assimilated completely into Israeli society. “The Goldman Case,” a 2023 French docudrama, recreates the appeal of the murder conviction of a French Jew who, like his Polish parents, was a left-wing radical. Consisting almost entirely of the courtroom proceedings, the film has been uniformly described as riveting. “The Story of Annette Gelman,” a docudrama released on French television in 2022, begins with the romance of Catholic Parisian Jean and Jewish artist Annette. That idyll is shattered when Jean’s disapproving father denounces her to the Gestapo. It does not end well.
But your season should. From the return to the in-person theater to the physical connection with the area’s past to cerebral exercise for the committed couch potato, there is a plethora of cultural activity available for the taking in Monmouth and Middlesex Counties. Don’t miss out.
Rutgers Jewish Film Festival
The Regal Cinema Commerce Center
2399 US 1 South
North Brunswick, NJ
Rutgers Business School – New Brunswick
100 Rockafeller Rd.
The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County
310 Mounts Corner Drive
PO Box 7078
Freehold, NJ 07728
“The Contributions of Sigmund Eisner,” JLife Heart of New Jersey, June 2023
SUE KLEINBERG is a contributing writer for JLifeNJ from Monmouth County.