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Rochester Jewish Film Fest takes the cultural temperature


"Breaking Bread." - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • "Breaking Bread."
In early 2021, amid the ever-shifting landscape of COVID-19 restrictions and reopenings, arts and cultural organizations were desperately trying to plan events for the second half of the year. Many of them had a tough time deciding whether their late 2021 events should be held in person or if they should stick to virtual presentations for a while longer.

Among those playing it safe are the organizers of the 2021 Rochester Jewish Film Festival, who will present the bulk of the festival, which runs Aug. 1-8, online. Of this year’s 20 programs (each of which will be available online for 48 hours from the scheduled screening time), only eight will be shown as in-person screenings at the JCC Hart Theater, the new outdoor Canalside Stage at the JCC, and the Dryden Theatre.

At those screenings, physical distancing will still be enforced through the ticketing system, which reinforces a 33-percent capacity restriction for indoor screenings, and masks will be required.

“One of the slogans we are using this year is, ‘Your fest, your way,’ because we didn’t know where we were going to be this summer,” RJFF Director Andrea Miller said. “It’s hard to predict where we’ll be next week, so we were on the conservative side in terms of what we're showing in person.”

RJFF presented a mini virtual festival of six films last summer, followed by a program of three films over the holidays. This year’s 20 films is closer to a normal year, which would typically include around 25 films, many of which screened at the Eastman Theatre — and often selling out all 500-seats — as well as a variety of talkbacks with directors and other special events.

There’s just one talkback this year: a moderated conversation between Jen Kaplan, director of “A Father’s Kaddish,” and the subject of that film, Steven Branfman. The talk will be pre-recorded and presented along with that film and “Commandment 613: A Sacred Craft” as part of the Opening Day Shorts Program on Sunday, Aug 1.

Both of the films in this year’s shorts program both have a regional connection.
"Commandment 613." - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • "Commandment 613."
“‘Commandment 613” is about a rabbi who practices the sacred craft of Torah scribe, restoring scrolls rescued from Europe during the Holocaust. A couple of those Torahs are in Rochester; one is at Temple B’rith Kodesh and one is at the University of Rochester Hillel.

“A Father's Kaddish” follows Branfman, who lost his son, a gifted potter who studied at Alfred University’s College of Ceramics. The school features prominently in the film as Branfman uses the craft of pottery as a personal kaddish (prayer) and means of healing.
"A Father's Kaddish." - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • "A Father's Kaddish."
Other festival offerings play on themes that are perhaps more relevant than ever today.

The Italian film, “Syndrome K” (Monday, Aug. 2, 11 a.m.), tells the true story of three Roman Catholic doctors who saved a group of Jews during World War II at a Vatican-affiliated hospital by convincing the Nazis that they were infected with a highly contagious disease.
"Syndrome K." - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • "Syndrome K."
“The story might not have resonated before the way that it's resonating with people now,” Miller said. “We now understand what it is to be afraid of an infectious disease.”

A favorite documentary this year, Miller said, is “Breaking Bread,” which tells the story of the first Muslim Arab to win Israel’s MasterChef competition. The subject, Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, also founded the A-Sham Food Festival in Haifa, in which Arab and Jewish chefs collaborate in an effort to make social change through food.

“There’s a lot of social and political undertones as they're cooking,” Miller said. “You get a really nice revue of Israel, and its complicated, beautiful history.”

And “Ma’Aborot: The Israeli Transit Camps” (virtual, Aug. 3) is an Israeli documentary that includes various stories from the residents of temporary housing constructed to accommodate Israel’s flood of immigrants following the war.
“Ma’Aborot: The Israeli Transit Camps.” - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • “Ma’Aborot: The Israeli Transit Camps.”
“There's a little bit of a reflection of ‘How are we handling our refugees?’ and ‘What are we doing with people who come to our country?’” Miller said. “And there’s actually a couple of people here in Rochester who grew up in those transit camps.”
Multiculturalism is an enduring feature of the Jewish Film Festival.

“Aulcie,” screening virtually and in-person at the Hart Theater on Aug. 3, is about an African-American basketball player from Newark, New Jersey, who leads Israel’s Maccabi team to the European championship, his struggles with drug addiction, and search for his biological daughter.
  • "Aulcie."
“They Ain’t Ready for Me” is a documentary that tells the story of Tamar Manasseh, a Black community leader and rabbinical student in Chicago’s south side rallying the community against gun violence (virtual and in person at the Canalside Stage, Aug. 3). And “Shalom Taiwan” (virtual, Aug. 5, 11) is an uplifting Spanish and Taiwanese-language film about a young rabbi from Buenos Aires traveling the world to raise money to save his synagogue.

“I think one of my favorite films this year is ‘Burka fil Mish-Mish,’ which basically means ‘if pigs could fly,’” Miller said. “It's a wonderful story about the Frankel brothers, who discovered this early Arab animation, sort of the equivalent of Mickey Mouse.” That film screens virtually on Aug. 8.
"Burka fil Mish-Mish." - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • "Burka fil Mish-Mish."
On closing night, Aug. 8, features an in person screening at The Dryden of “Howie Mandel: But, Enough About Me,” an autobiographical doc by the comedian.
"Howie Mandel: But, Enough About Me." - IMAGE PROVIDED
  • "Howie Mandel: But, Enough About Me."
“You do not have to be a Howard Mandel fan to enjoy this,” Miller said. “You laugh a lot during this film, it's just funny and light, with serious moments, and entertaining. We thought that laughing together in a theater would just be great right now.”

Due to physical distancing, purchase of advance tickets is recommended for in-person events. If the films are not sold out, you can get a ticket at the door, but you’ll be told where to sit. The complete lineup of screenings and more information is available at

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at [email protected].