26th Annual Seattle Jewish Film Festival Brings Audiences ‘Virtually Together Again’

by Mark Van Streefkerk

The Seattle Jewish Film Festival (SJFF) kicked off Thursday, March 4, featuring 19 films from around the world that celebrate Jewish and Israeli culture. Streaming online March 4 through March 18, the 26th SJFF focuses on themes of levity, laughter, and intercultural sharing, as well as complex topics that are sure to spark conversation. Including at least seven Zoom conversations with filmmakers and guests, as well as several culinary partnerships, this year’s festival is curated to inspire togetherness, even though it’s through a screen.

“We had 325 films to choose from [this year]. Art doesn’t stop,” said Festival Director Pamela Lavitt. “This is a testament to how art is healing. Art is about connection, and cinema has a way, luckily in the virtual environment, to continue to impact people and take them out of their isolation.”

Some notable films include documentaries They Ain’t Ready For Me, about Tamar Manasseh, a Black rabbinical student, mother, and community organizer in Chicago, Soros, a film about the influential and controversial billionaire and holocaust survivor George Soros, and Common Goal, which focuses on the Muslim players who make up almost half of the Israeli soccer team.

They Ain’t Ready For Me offers a look into the life of Manasseh, a mother who organizes against gun violence in Chicago’s South Side with her organization Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK).  “[It is] so intriguing to watch someone’s growth from being a mom, to a community organizer, to a rabbinical student, and then learning that her Judaism and her values can be important both to her Judaism and her African American community,” said Lavitt.

Thursday’s opening night featured the documentary Howie Mandel: But, Enough About Me. Following the life of Mandel, comedian, actor, producer, and judge on America’s Got Talent, the film reveals his struggle with OCD, and how he uses humor to cope with mental health during a pandemic. A pre-recorded Zoom question-and-answer with Mandel and director Barry Avrich followed the film. Trophy Cupcakes celebrated opening night by offering special cinema cupcakes.

Common Goal is part of a Sunday brunch program, partnering with Zylberschtein’s Delicatessen & Bakery to offer brunch kits that include bagels, rugelach, and babka buns. The documentary Breaking Bread focuses on Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel’s mission to spark social change through the culinary world. The first Muslim Arab to win Israel’s Master Chef tTelevision competition, Atamna-Ismaeel started the A-sham Arabic Food Festival, pairing Jewish and Arab chefs in collaborations on traditional recipes. In conjunction with Breaking Bread, kosher catering company Wolf & Spice will offer Schawarma or beef or vegetarian Arayas available for pre-order and pick-up. Rubenstein Bagels will host a pop-up on Mercer Island to celebrate On Broadway, a documentary about the pre-pandemic revival of Broadway.

Kiss Me Kosher is a romantic misadventure comedy streaming during the Seattle Jewish Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Jewish Film Festival).

Sublet and Kiss Me Kosher are two films that comprise Gay Gezunt! – an LGBTQ+ spotlight. Sublet is a drama about a travel writer who sublets a flat in Tel Aviv from a carefree film student, and Kiss Me Kosher is a romantic misadventure comedy that navigates clashing cultures.

Other highlights include In Your Eyes I See My Country, a documentary about two Arab-speaking, Moroccan, Jewish-Israeli musicians who strive to connect the fragments of their families’ roots, and closing night’s slapstick Argentinian comedy My Amazing Funeral, about a controlling Jewish mother who orchestrates a hilarious stunt to get her children to visit her. 

“I think that festivals are about delivering something to the community that they can’t otherwise get,” Lavitt explained. “We are really making an effort to constantly highlight and complicate the monolithic idea of what being Jewish or Israeli is in our community and globally.”

SJFF is one of Seattle’s longest-running film festivals, and a cornerstone of the Stroum Jewish Community Center. In previous years SJFF typically featured 30 films, screened at AMC Pacific Place, or Stroum’s own 375-seat theater on Mercer Island, drawing as many as 200–500 audience members per film. Taking place in March and April every year, last year’s SJFF was postponed only four days before its 25th anniversary. The festival resumed online in June and July of last year. 

Check out the complete SJFF film schedule here. Learn about the viewing window (you have 72 hours from clicking on the film to finish it on the same device), how you can buy single tickets, or festival passes here

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

Featured Image: They Ain’t Ready For Me is a documentary about Tamar Manasseh, a Black rabbinical student, mother, and community organizer in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Jewish Film Festival).

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