F ounded in 1995, the Seattle Jewish Film Festival brings nine days of Jewish and Israeli life, history, culture, and art to big screens all over town. Produced under the auspices of the Stroum Jewish Community Center, the 2014 SJFF features 25 films from 15 countries, starting with the opening-night feature The Zigzag Kid, based on Israeli author David Grossman's beloved adventure novel, and winner of best feature film at this year's Seattle Children's Film Festival. Elsewhere, SJFF casts a spotlight on true Jewish stories. Among the documentary subjects: Amy Winehouse, Neil Diamond, theater legend Joseph Papp, the Israeli winner of the Miss World pageant, and Jews who defended Wagner while that notorious anti-Semite was still alive. For a full schedule of film screenings, see seattlejewishfilmfestival.org. For a mini-review of but one SJFF film, keep reading.
When Comedy Went to School
In Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank's documentary, a variety of comedy stars hold forth on the glories of the Catskills, the vast vacation community in the mountains of southeastern New York where generations of Jewish families went for rest, relaxation, and romance, and scores of fledgling comics perfected the skills that would earn them fortune and fame. Fortunately, the parade of sentimental reflection regularly expands to explore the larger culture of Jewish comedy, from its biblical roots (Isaac means "He who laughs") through its flowering in the Yiddish theater to the initially iffy distinction of being a "Jewish entertainer" (see: George "Nathan Birnbaum" Burns). Best of all, it revolutionized my concept of "Catskills comedy," a genre I'd lazily equated with "Take my wife, please." But Catskills comedy was the opposite of predictable—with audiences cycling through shows and comedians perpetually exchanging influence, jokes had shorter life spans than mayflies, requiring comedians who wanted laughs to never stop inventing. What they produced continues to inform a tremendous amount of what we call comedy today.
The Seattle Jewish Film Festival runs March 1–9 at various locations. Full fest info at seattlejewishfilmfestival.org.