San Antonio Jewish Film Festival


Arnon Goldfinger's The Komediant is a portrait of the Burstein family, durable stars of the Yiddish theater. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The Barshop Jewish Community Center and Embassy Theater provide a kosher alternative to studio tripe

What is a Jewish film festival? A series of Jewish films. What is a Jewish film? A film by or about Jews. What is a Jew? Someone who, like Franz Kafka, Lenny Bruce, and the Talmudists, forever poses vexing questions.

Without question, the third annual Jewish Film Festival offers its strongest lineup yet. Of the six entries screening at the Embassy Oaks Theater from February 28 to March 2, four have never before been shown in San Antonio. During a fallow time for new releases, the festival, sponsored by the Barshop Jewish Community Center, provides a kosher alternative to studio tripe.

The question that animates My Architect is: Who was Louis Kahn? The film is one man's meditation on his elusive father, who was also, Philip Johnson claims, "the most beloved architect of our time." Understanding Kahn's life begins with the mystery of his death in 1974, alone, in debt, in the Penn Station men's room. Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn was 11 and puzzled by the man he adored but knew only through occasional visits. Nathaniel's mother never married the famous architect, who secretly maintained three separate families. "I needed to find out who he really was."

Architectural historian Vincent Scully explains: "God can be known only through his works." My Architect visits Kahn's works - the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Richards Medical Research Laboratories in Philadelphia, the capitol in Bangladesh. Although Frank Gehry claims "Lou was a breath of fresh air," his illegitimate son still needs to ventilate. He interviews the three women who bore Kahn's children, as well as those children, products of separate households. Born Shmilowsky in Estonia, Kahn was his own inimitable architect. "Honor the material that you use," he insisted. In My Architect, which captures some of the builder's longings to transcend time and matter, Nathaniel Kahn does honor to the enigmatic man who made him.

Third Annual Jewish
Film Festival

Presented by
The Barshop Jewish
Community Center
and the
Embassy Theater


Films run
Saturday, February 28
through Tuesday, March 2
$6 per person per show
$30 Flex Pak for six admissions

Embassy Oaks Theater
13707 Embassy Row

My Architect: A Son's Journey
7pm Saturday, February 28

The Hebrew Hammer
4pm Sunday, February 29

James' Journey to Jerusalem
7pm Sunday, February 29

The Komediant
7pm Monday, March 1

Shanghai Ghetto
4pm Tuesday, March 2

Taking Sides
7pm Tuesday, March 2

Wilhelm Furtwängler is a riddle of a different sort. Unquestionably one of history's great conductors, Furtwängler, who took over the Berlin Philharmonic when racial purity laws purged it of Jews, was a favorite of the Nazi command. After the war, he insisted he was just a musician. "I believe that art and politics should be kept separate," he declares in Taking Sides, an adaptation of the stage play by Ronald Harwood about the Furtwängler affair, which continues to pose pointed questions about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.

Harvey Keitel plays an American major assigned to bring war criminals to justice. He is a zealous vulgarian who has no taste for Beethoven. In contrast to his own assistant, a Jewish lieutenant who admires Furtwängler, he had never even heard of the "band leader" he delights in persecuting while preparing for prosecution. Keitel's major is a fierce antagonist to Stellan Skarsgard's haughty Furtwängler, and in a series of revealing confrontations, director Istvan Szabo conducts troubling variations on the theme of art and politics.

In James' Journey to Jerusalem, by Israeli director Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, it is easier to travel from South Africa to the Ben Gurion Airport than the remaining few miles to Jerusalem. Preparing to become the Christian pastor of his Zulu village, James makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Accusing him of entering their country for financial gain, customs officials throw James into jail. Bailed out by a contractor, he becomes part of a pool of foreign workers whose illegal status makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Although the film exposes injustices in a black market economy and James' miserable plight, it is a gentle comedy, due to an endearing performance by Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe. "Life in this country is a continuous trial," says a fellow African. Despite hard lessons in survival, sweet and soulful James remains hopeful of divine assistance on his journey to Jerusalem.

A portrait of the Bursteins, durable stars of the Yiddish theater, The Komediant, directed by Arnon Goldfinger, offers a vibrant eulogy to secular Yiddish culture, slain by the combined forces of Nazism and assimilation. Using performance clips and interviews, the film traces the career of Pesach Burstein, who at age 15 ran away from his Orthodox family in Eastern Europe for life as an actor, a komediant. He arrived on Broadway in 1923 and remained a force in theater and recordings until his death in 1986. With second wife Reiza and their twin children, he toured incessantly, performing to adoring audiences in Buenos Aires, Paris, London, Rio, and Tel-Aviv. The Komediant rehearses old rivalries within the vanished world of Yiddish theater and examines the hardships of the nomadic actor's life. Rebelling against her parents, daughter Susan left the theater, while, intent on mainstream success, son Michael reinvented himself as Mike Burstyn, the lead in Barnum. Even as the quintessential American showman, he cannot conceal his Yiddish roots.

Harvey Keitel (left) plays an American major assigned to bring war criminals to justice in Taking Sides. (courtesy photo)

Following Krystallnacht in 1938, the plight of European Jews, welcome nowhere but the death camps, was desperate. An open, international city, Shanghai required no visas, and about 20,000 Jewish refugees managed to make their way there, 8,000 miles from home. Directed by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, Shanghai Ghetto combines the testimony of survivors with archival and current footage to tell the astonishing tale of survival in an unlikely spot. Beset by poverty, hunger, and filth, the Shanghai Jews managed to create a network of schools, cafés, newspapers, and theaters. They remained aware that their own hardships paled in comparison to the fate of those left behind. During the Japanese occupation, Jews were confined to a squalid ghetto but not exterminated, surviving to leave after the war. A half-century after one of China's largest cities lost its Nazi refugees, Shanghai Ghetto remains an astonishing account of wandering Jews.

The Hebrew Hammer is an encyclopedia of tasteless Jewish jokes that could not have been compiled 50 years ago, except by a Nazi propagandist. Jonathan Kesselman's debut feature is a spoof of blaxploitation spoofs, offering a Jewish action hero to champion his people. When Satan's son attempts to convert Jewish children to belief in Christmas by littering the streets with copies of It's a Wonderful Life, private eye Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg) goes to work defending Chanukah. The Hebrew Hammer is violent, crude, and often hilarious. Much of its humor derives from a sense of offense, of being so insufferable that a viewer must either laugh or leave. It celebrates a world in which Jews at last feel free to make films, festivals, and fun of themselves. •

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