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  • Sing a Song, Save a Language

    by Christian Niedan
    Isa Kremer singing in Yiddish.

    Amidst the current revival of Yiddish music and culture in attempts to keep the language from “dying out,” it’s easy to forget that Yiddish has led a tenuous existence through much of the 20th Century. Long seen by the wider world as the Jewish tongue, Yiddish has survived suppression, obsolescence and the extermination of most of its native speakers. Today, its musical torchbearers offer CDs and digital downloads to fans of all religions. But back when opera was the only place to hear the greatest singers of the age, the renowned voice that brought Yiddish songs to non-Jewish ears belonged to Isa Kremer, the subject of the film Isa Kremer: The People’s Diva.
    Read more

    June 27, 2008 | No Comments »

    Alec Baldwin’s Secret Jewish Identity

    by Margi Rauchut

    We stopped by the 100th anniversary celebration for legendary store Barney Greengrass, where Alec Baldwin shared some fun stories about his true Jewish self.

    June 26, 2008 | No Comments »

    Sex And Another City

    by Margi Rauchut

    sexinthecitydocent.jpgThe cinematic heavens opened last weekend for every woman who moved to New York City for the two L’s — love and labels – or has fantasized about doing so. Armed with Twizzlers and a clique of girlfriends, moviegoers sold out theaters to shed tears over the four women of Sex and the City’s make-believe heartbreaks and drool over the ensembles the women wear while their hearts are being broken.

    Carrie Bradshaw and her crew might be a little misguided and materialistic, but Sex and the City can teach us one thing: relationships are an endless topic of eavesdrop-worthy conversation. There’s always more to say about other people’s love lives, and there are always ears eager to listen.

    It’s a lesson Israeli director Amos Gitai has clearly learned well. In a city halfway across the world from SATC’s NYC, Gitai also tells a story of friendship, love and sex; but he focuses less on the purses, and more on the emotional baggage, his characters carry.

    Set in Tel Aviv, Alila follows a bob-haired sexpot named Gabi who’s taken a strong, but emotionally unavailable man for a lover. Like the women in “Sex in the City,” Gabi goes shoe-shopping with her best friend, but Gabi and Mali’s conversations forgo the zingers to focus on candid soul searching. The questions the women raise are just as riveting as the brunch discussions found in SATC, but they handle the topics a little less flippantly. Gabi’s flaky love life, we realize, is a result of her own insecurities: deep down, she’s not the vixen she makes herself out to be.

    (Imagine if Samantha Jones turned soft!)

    It’s been said that the fifth friend in Sex and the City is the city itself. Similarly, Alila is full of careful cinematic decisions that showcase Tel Aviv as one of the many characters in Gitai’s panorama.

    Just as Sex and the City teaches audiences the nuances of New York City culture — from what it means to live on Park Avenue to the necessity of looking down on Los Angeles — Alila captures the nuances of Tel Aviv life. The illegal Asian laborers, the Holocaust survivor living next door, and the drama surrounding the adolescent boy who’s afraid to serve in the army are unique to Israel’s social climate. And, as a backdrop to the plot’s twists and turns, subtle details, such as reports of violence playing on the radio in the background and the bustling colorful streets full of vendors seen from a car window, convey a sense of the general atmosphere of the city that shapes the lives of its characters.

    Bottom line: If you’re in the mood for a movie about love, sex and friends in a dynamic city — that focuses a little less on looking fabulous and offers a little more Jewish than a convert named Charlotte — check out Alila.

    June 13, 2008 | 1 Comment »

    World Television Premiere: Circumcise Me

    by Rebecca Honig Friedman

    The hilarious film Circumcise Me: The Comedy of Yisrael Campbell is making its World Television Premiere on The Jewish Channel this month. Orthodox-convert comedian Yisrael Campbell shares his stand-up routine and the wild life story that inspired it.
    Watch the trailer above, read more about the film here, and watch the whole thing, in all its side-splitting, knee-slapping hilarity, on TJC this month!

    June 6, 2008 | 2 Comments »

    60 Years Later, A Treasure Trove of Films

    by Christian Niedan

    israel_flagdocent.jpgThe 60th anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence is May 14th, and today marks the official celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day! Celebrate by taking a look at some of TJC’s films about Israel. With six full decades of history and culture to draw from, it’s no surprise that the films in our Israel category are as diverse as they are entertaining and informative.

    Violence stemming from land disputes between Arabs and Jews is a primary concern within the country. So, in his landmark documentary series Land of the Settlers, Israeli newsman Chaim Yavin starts taking sides in the complicated debate over the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and the West Bank, visiting the homes of both Arabs and Jews living in the disputed territories.

    The origins of these settlement communities stretch back to decisions made by political figures like Moshe Dayan. In Slaves of the Sword: Moshe Dayan, we get an up-close and personal look at the flamboyant and controversial Israeli Defense Minister. With testimony from both supporters and critics, the legacy of Dayan’s decisions are painted in vivid color.

    But for today’s ground-level IDF soldier, the only shade that really matters is green. Among the young conscripts who choose to break their silence in At The Green Line, the politics of protecting Israel’s borders are not always clear-cut. Some refuse to serve, while others try to change the system from inside.

    Israel’s not only inhabited by Jews and Arabs, though. Amongst the country’s diverse population is a small group of African-American immigrants who practice Old Testament tradition and call themselves African Hebrews. The revival of polygamous marriage practices among this community is explored in Sister Wife. And while embracing a new spouse may make a husband happy, we see how it can also make a wife feel like a second fiddle.

    Issues of sexual needs vs. family acceptance are not restricted to new immigrants either. The travails of being both Orthodox and secretly gay in modern Israel are captured with emotional detail in Say Amen. Within a close-knit Moroccan-Israeli family where producing children is a paramount value, one man struggles to confess his homosexuality to those closest to him.

    To see these and more films focusing on the promised land, head over to TJC’s Israel category for a current slate of provocative and engaging titles.

    May 8, 2008 | No Comments »

    In Honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day

    by Margi Rauchut

    holocaustremebrance.jpgIn honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoa), which is today, I want to highlight some of the films showing on TJC that explore rarely considered facets of the Holocaust experience and prove how many different stories there still are to tell.

    One of the most shocking Holocaust stories is that of Ilse Stein. The Jewess and the Captain reveals how Ilse, a beautiful young Jewish girl, fell in love with a Nazi officer, who went on to save her life — and the lives of several other Jews from the Minsk ghetto. The documentary shares an interview with Ilse just before her death, shocking archival photographs, and KGB secret documents in order to reexamine her strange romance that blossomed in the middle of the ghetto.

    While The Jewess and the Captain explores the Holocaust from a Jew’s perspective, Shadows Of Memory looks at WWII through the rarely-explored eyes of ordinary German citizens. People often ask, “How could the Holocaust have happened? How could so many good people not see what was going on?” This documentary tries to answer the daunting question through conversations with three generations of German women, including the filmmaker’s mother, a woman who lived through the war but didn’t see the atrocities—or chose not to.

    With the overwhelming number of horror stories the Holocaust produced, it is easy to close our eyes to the most disturbing facts and tales, but Leo’s Journey: The Story Of The Mengele Twins (which premieres tomorrow) confronts the story of Dr. Joseph Mengele head on. Following a rare survivor of the notorious doctor’s “medical” experiments, on his journey back to Auschwitz for the first time since the war, the film explores what Mengele — often referred to as the Angel of Death — was doing with Jewish twins at Auschwitz. What was he researching and why did only 258 of 3,000 twins survive?

    Clearly, Leo’s Journey is meant for an adult audience, but A Story About a Bad Dream is a Holocaust film geared towards children. It tells the story of a little girl’s Holocaust experience through the gentle voice of a naïve child, with colorful reenactments that make the story digestible for younger viewers, who, in decades to come, will be responsible for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.

    These are just a few of the excellent and eye-opening documentaries showing in TJC’s History and Remembrance category, where you’ll find new and provocative titles sharing stories from the Jewish past every month.

    May 1, 2008 | No Comments »

    Try the Pastrami, It’s Divine!

    by Rebecca Honig Friedman

    The documentary Divine Food: 100 Years in the Kosher Delicatessen Trade tells the story of the Oscherwitz family and their passion for making kosher corned beef, pastrami and other classic deli fare. But tasting is believing. So we hit up New York City’s most famous kosher and kosher-style delis to find out why this food is held so close to Jewish hearts…and stomachs!

    Check out TJC Movie Talk — hosted by Forward Arts and Culture Editor Alana Newhouse — in the TJC Original Series category for an inside look at some of the other delicious film selections playing on The Jewish Channel.

    April 17, 2008 | No Comments »

    Finding A Way In

    by Christian Niedan

    womenforsaledocent.jpgIsrael’s first suicide bombing in over a year took place in Dimona on February 4th. Though the two terrorists involved were from Gaza, they began the journey to their target by ducking through a hole in a border wall with Egypt. The rest of their route highlights the porous nature of Israel’s own Egyptian border, and the threat of those who conspire to cross it illegally.

    For the Magav, Israel’s border guard, keeping terrorists out of the country is a major concern, but not the only one. Far away from heavily patrolled border crossings with Gaza and the West Bank, and out in the hinterlands of the Sinai and Negev deserts, police strive to rebuff entrance to another unwanted immigrant group: Russian prostitutes.

    Bringing foreign sex workers to cities like Tel Aviv means easy profits for their handlers. When legal transport isn’t possible, smuggling networks enlist rural cash-poor Bedouinsto facilitate border jumpings from nearby Egypt. Police respond by relying on calculated surveillance and night vision equipment to intercept crossings. Despite these efforts, illegal immigrants with futures in prostitution still make it through.

    These cat-and-mouse games are similar to those being played out along America’s desert border with Mexico. Like the Magav, U.S. patrols employ advanced military technologies to guard a massive stretch of territory that far outstrips their manpower.

    For illegal aliens who dodge capture, the reward is finding agricultural and service work with dollar wages exceeding anything to be found back home. For Russian prostitutes who find a way into Israel, the payoff is often a life of sexual slavery.

    The film Women For Sale recounts this harsh lifestyle from the point of view of the prostitutes themselves. Their illegal immigrant status keeps them firmly under the psychological control of gangs who literally own their bodies, and pimps who ensure they turn a profit.

    In Israel, trafficking for sexual exploitation was only made a crime in 2000. Before that, smuggling prostitutes was a safer alternative to running drugs, weapons and terrorists. That industry’s continuing legacy has given Israel prominent mention in annual U.S. and U.N. human trafficking reports.

    But the bad press has had an effect. As NYU Professor Rakefet Zalashik tells the Forward’s Alana Newhouse on the latest episode of TJC Movie Talk, Israeli authorities have recently made a more concentrated effort to fight human traffickers and protect former-Soviet immigrants. As for the Magavnikim who watch the dusty border with Egypt, each night’s work is another opportunity to keep terrorists out — and to further block up the prostitute pipeline.

    March 15, 2008 | No Comments »

    Are Dreadlocks the New Peyos?

    by Rebecca Honig Friedman

    Though it may not be apparent, Jews and Rastafarians have quite a lot in common, and the dreadlock-sidecurl parallel isn’t even the half of it.
    The documentary Awake Zion explores the Jewish-Rastafarian connection in depth, but we wanted to know more. So we had the film’s director, Monica Haim, take us down to the world-famous, reggae record store Jammyland, where she shared her inspiration for the film and showed us what this shared tradition is all about.
    The segment’s running in the upcoming episode of TJC Movie Talk, but you can see it here first.

    March 13, 2008 | 1 Comment »

    Cuba Without Fidel: Ruth Behar’s Take

    by Christian Niedan

    Ruth Behar is the documentarian behind the film Adio Kerida: A Cuban Sephardic Journey. Born in Havana, she left Cuba with her family in 1959 following Fidel Castro’s rise to power, and grew up in New York City. Behar is now an award-winning professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and was named one of the 50 Latinas who made history in the twentieth century by Latina Magazine. In addition to writing and editing several major scholarly works, Behar has published her own personal essays, poetry, and short fiction. Her newest book, An Island Called Home: Returning To Jewish Cuba, recounts her journey back to Cuba and the Jewish communities she discovered there.

    The Jewish Channel caught up with Behar to get her take on Cuba under a new Castro, and what that means for the Caribbean island’s Jews.

    How was Fidel Castro viewed by the Cuban Jews you interviewed for your film?

    I worked on my film between 1999-2002, at a moment when Fidel Castro was still actively ruling Cuba. Most people in Cuba, out of a combination of habit and fear, tended not to talk about Fidel Castro openly. They used the common gesture of bringing their hands to their chins and pretended to be stroking an imaginary beard whenever they wanted to speak about “Him.” I didn’t want to create any problems for the Cuban Jews I interviewed on the island, so I steered away from politics and focused on questions about Cuban Sephardic heritage. Some of the people I interviewed later made aliyah to Israel and I followed up with them there after the completion of the film. They then spoke more openly about Fidel Castro and expressed their dissatisfaction, not so much with him, but with politics in general.

    So in the section of the film about Cuba, no one brought up Fidel Castro. But when I interviewed my Sephardic Cuban father, who lives in New York with my Ashkenazi Cuban mother, I mentioned that it was widely rumored that Fidel Castro had a Sephardic Jewish grandfather from Turkey. My father is fiercely anti-Castro and I was curious to see how he would react to this remark. Although he definitely was surprised, he continued to nibble on the range of delicious finger foods my mother had set out on the dining table. Finally, he shrugged and said that it didn’t matter whether Fidel Castro was Jewish or not. After all, my father exclaimed, he now lives in USA!

    What does his relinquishing of power to brother Raul mean for the future of Cuba’s Jews?

    The relinquishing of power to Raul Castro isn’t going to bring about any immediate changes in the life of the Jews in Cuba. The Jewish community in Cuba depends on the economic, moral, and educational assistance of American Jewish organizations and missions. So long as that support continues, the community will not be threatened. Major changes in Cuban Jewish life will only come about when diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States are normalized, allowing for the free flow of people, ideas, and goods between the two countries. Once that occurs, many more American Jews, included those of Cuban Jewish background, will travel to Cuba. No one can predict exactly what will happen then, but I expect there will be many more people involved in preserving Cuban Jewish heritage and in building new Jewish institutions on the island.

    March 5, 2008 | No Comments »

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