Contemporary Jewish dilemmas, age-old stories, highlight JFilm’s current season

Contemporary Jewish dilemmas, age-old stories, highlight JFilm’s current season


JFilm opens its 24th annual festival on April 20 at the Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill with the Pittsburgh premiere of “Harmonia,” a biblical tale of love, motherhood and sibling rivalry. A party in memory of longtime JFilm committee member Lois Weaver will be held at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Katz Theater following the showing.

The festival will continue through April 30, showcasing 20 films — mostly Pittsburgh premieres — ranging from a documentary about finding Judaism in Ghana (“Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana”) to a screwball comedy about an Arab/Jewish gay couple and their dysfunctional family (“Family Commitments”).

The films come from around the world, including Germany, Israel, France and Italy.

The Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill continues to be the primary venue for the festival this year, but a few showings will be held at the Carmike 10 at South Hills Village in Bethel Park, Hollywood Theater in Dormont and Seton Hill University.

Guest speakers will be featured following some of the films, including Pittsburgher Brian Balk and his family members who were longtime members of Latrobe’s Beth Israel Congregation. The Balks will speak following both screenings of “There are Jews Here,” April 26 at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center and April 30 at The Manor Theatre.

Reviews of four of the films follow. For a complete schedule and to view trailers, go to


(98 minutes)

Thursday, April 20, 7 p.m.

The Manor Theatre

The parallels between the characters of “Harmonia,” the Israeli film which opens the 24th annual JFilm Festival on April 20, and the biblical story upon which it is based are patent: Sarah, a harpist in the symphony orchestra conducted by her distinguished husband, Abraham, cannot bear a child. Enter Hagar, a quiet but gifted Arab horn player from East Jerusalem, who becomes deeply involved with the couple and offers to have a baby for them.

The boy is named Ben, but eventually is called Ismail, and although he is a brilliant musician, he is wild and undisciplined. Hagar leaves the family, and Sarah raises Ben as her own son, but the adopted son and mother struggle to truly connect. Then, miraculously, Sarah becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Isaac, who also is musically talented, but in a way that is more acceptable to his parents.

The film, which was nominated for five Israeli Academy Awards and was the winner of the Best Cinematography and Lia Van Leer Jewish Heritage awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival, meanders slowly and almost surreally through the lives of its characters, who communicate often through music rather than by words. Scenes are introduced with short passages from Genesis, framing the actions that are to come.

The age-old stories of the outsider being rejected in favor of the insider and the sisterhood of women unrelated are retold but within a contemporary context that illuminates conflicts still being played out between those of the different Abrahamic faiths today.

But where the film really shines is at its conclusion, an unexpected and inspiring twist on the tale, leaving one to wonder what the world would look like today if only the original story had ended in a similar way.

— Toby Tabachnick

­‘There are Jews Here’

(90 minutes)

Wednesday, April 26, 7 p.m.

Seton Hill Performing Arts Center

>> Sponsored by National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University

Sunday, April 30, 11 a.m.

The Manor Theatre

>> Free bagel brunch, provided by Smallman Street Deli, at 10:30 a.m.

>> Community Partner: Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives

Locals may enjoy “There are Jews Here,” if for no other reason than to see members of the Balk family of Pittsburgh, who are featured prominently in this documentary that follows four congregations in remote areas of the United States with shrinking membership.

Filmmakers Brad Lichtenstein and Morgan Elise Johnson reveal stories of once thriving, but now dwindling, Jewish communities in Montana, Alabama, Texas and Latrobe, Pa. Each congregation is dealing with its diminishing membership in its own way.

The final days of Latrobe’s Beth Israel Congregation are captured, including the shul’s last bat mitzvah — that of Ellie Balk, who travels 45 miles from Pittsburgh to Latrobe with her parents Brian and Carol, her sister Dalyah, and her grandparents David and Roz Balk, to help make the minyan regularly on Shabbat. The lay leadership of the congregation, guided by longtime member Mickey Radman, ultimately decides that keeping the congregation running is no longer viable, and the film allows viewers a glimpse into the heart-wrenching process of packing up the shul’s records and artifacts to be preserved by the Rauh Jewish Archives at Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center.

When the film shifts to Texas, Montana and Alabama, the filmmakers spend a lot of time homing in on the stories of individual members of the congregations, rather than the histories of those Jewish communities and what brought them to the brink of closure, which might have been more interesting.

The film drags in parts, such as during a tedious argument between a woman in Texas who converted to Judaism several years prior and her Christian mother who seems to still resent it, and in extended coverage of the migraine headaches of the spiritual leader of the congregation in Butte, Montana.

Other parts of the film seem invasive and unnecessary, making what should be private moments public, such as footage taken during a Yom Kippur Yizkor service in Butte where a woman in the congregation is passionately weeping over the recent loss of her mother. Not everyone will agree with the filmmakers’ choice to film at all during Yom Kippur, and may find it exploitive and voyeuristic to be privy to others’ heartfelt prayers on the holiest day of the year.

— Toby Tabachnick

‘Pink & Blue’

(92 minutes)

Sunday, April 23, 11 a.m.

The Manor Theatre

>> Free bagel brunch at 10:30 a.m. at The Manor sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. Following the film will be a discussion with producer/director Alan Blassberg, Bryna Siegel Finer, Pittsburgh FORCE Peer Support Group co-leader, and Jamie Stern, clinical associate professor of medicine UPMC, moderated by Nancy Zionts, COO/Chief Program Officer, Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Aptly and oddly titled, director Alan Blassberg’s documentary details several self-described “journeys” with breast cancer. The film follows individual characters and family units as they react to and reflect on points within their varying cancer narratives.

Unsurprisingly, the tales are both sorrowful and inspiring. Of particular resonance is the story of Kelly Rothe, a 20-year-old who received a double-mastectomy. As viewers discover, Rothe’s decision to undergo the procedure at such a young age came in light of considerable family history. Her mother and aunt died of breast cancer, and at age 18 she discovered her own probability of having the disease. Being BRCA 1 positive, Rothe had an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer. However, because of the procedure, her risk was reduced by 90 percent, said doctors at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

Rothe’s experience, along with other females in the film, constitutes the title’s first word. As breast cancer’s representative color, pink is an extremely recognizable symbol, and watching a virtual child combat life’s heft adds another shade to the global hue. Where the film dips, however, is in its take on blue, a color associated with male breast cancer.

Blassberg dramatically calls attention to society’s vast ignorance regarding the disease as manifested in men. He rightly notes the disparity between pink and blue in terms of brand recognition and everyday understandings. He also makes clear that for those men with the “woman’s disease” the ordeal can be quite “emasculating,” as medical documents regularly probe the patient’s pregnancy status or date of last period. Stymieing this stigma is one of Blassberg’s genuine concerns; however, his film succumbs to similar overshadowing treatments of breast cancer. Introducing an abundance of “masculine” voices 55 minutes into the film, creates a story shift where one wonders whether Blassberg ultimately intended to educate about the BRCA gene or merely the color dynamic. Those objectives can mesh, but the latter may have been bolstered by placing earlier emphasis on the overwhelming absence of blue as opposed to producing a movie that seemingly diminishes it as well.

— Adam Reinherz

‘The Last Laugh’

(88 Minutes)

Wednesday, April 26, 7 p.m.

The Manor Theatre

When I returned from touring Poland and the concentration camps in 2005 the first person I visited was Simcha Brudno, a Lithuanian mathematician and Holocaust survivor. My professor and late friend was the impetus for my trip, a point that I directly made to him. After several moments of reiterating gratitude for inspiring such a life-altering journey, Brudno finally responded, “Don’t thank me, thank Hitler.”

That wit and harrowing jest rests at the heart of Ferne Pearlstein’s “The Last Laugh.” Though the connection of Jews and comedy can be a tired trope, Pearlstein reinvigorates the relationship by subjecting the Holocaust to an almost litmus test for laughter. With interviews from A-listers like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Jeffrey Ross and Gilbert Gottfried, Pearlstein probes the makings of the laugh-maker’s mind. “The Last Laugh” asks: “Was there a window of time that needed to pass before Holocaust jokes were acceptable? What jokes go too far?” and “Is there a distinction between mocking Nazis and the Holocaust?”

Offsetting this exploration is the candid dialogue of survivors. A telling scene includes two women seated on an indoor gondola riding along a makeshift river in a Las Vegas hotel as the costumed boat driver belts Italian songs. The farcical setting gives way to a brutally honest debate between the passengers whether the experience, or even life itself, can be enjoyed given their prior histories.

The present is dampened by haunting memories of selection and children’s screams, notes Elly Gold, an Auschwitz survivor.

“No, you cannot live in the shadow of those cries. You must remember it but you cannot live in those shadows,” counters Renee Firestone, the survivor seated beside her.

“I don’t live in the shadow, but the shadow is following me my whole life,” responds Gold.

Embedded within “The Last Laugh” are vignettes and selected acts from recognizable shows and movies. While the references draw laughs, they further Pearlstein’s purpose. Where viewers fall on the subject may be a matter of contention. Peeling the onion on Holocaust humor, however, will certainly yield a few tears.

— Adam Reinherz

read more: