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Rutgers Jewish Film Festival: Throughout All the Wars and All the Troubles


By Bruce Chadwick

originally published: 10/25/2023

Rutgers Jewish Film Festival: Throughout All the Wars and All the Troubles

Scene from Matchmaking

When it comes to film festivals, Karen Small, the executive director of the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival, has seen it all – several times.

When she tells you the 24 year history of the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival you can hear the pain in her voice.

“The Pandemic…” she starts.

“The Pandemic was just awful, not just for us, but for everybody. We had no festival, then, a year or so  later, half of a festival. We had movies in theaters and also virtual movies. We had good responses to both types, but, still, it was tough on our audience. It got better each year of the Pandemic, but slowly. I think now, this fall, we are completely back to normal,” she said.

Then there were all the streaming movies on television. “Over the last ten years or so streaming movies on TV became quite popular and they cut into our audience,” she said.



 
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She is still feeling the effects of it. “I think this year, our 24th, is the first perfectly normal year we’ll have in like five years. Everything should go smoothly this year,” she said.

Despite the Festival’s troubles, it has been very successful over its more than two decade history (Ms. Small has been part of its management for each year).

Why?

“We show our movies in large, professional theaters on big screens. People see them and say to themselves ‘its just like commercial movies.’ We show some movies twice, so if you miss it the first time you can see it the second time,” she said. ”We have also built a solid audience. Our patrons come back year after year. They bring their kids. People like it. We are part of New Jersey life,” said Small.

The Festival kick off on Thursday, October 26, with two screenings of Irena’s Vow, the story of a woman who works as a housekeeper for a Nazi and hides Jews. (Regal Cinema, North Brunswick)

The festival has an interesting line-up of films, some quite commercial and some eclectic, lovingly eclectic.

Consider their movie about matchmakers (go ahead, hum the song from Fiddler on the Roof.)



 
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“Yes, Fiddler, a movie about a matchmaker in 1900 or so, but people are not aware that there is a lot of matchmaking going on in today’s America. People want the best for their kids and so they see a matchmaker who lines them up with a likely partner. It has worked like that in the Jewish community for years. It still does,” said Small.

The films are about people of the Jewish faith against the Nazis in World War II, of course, but the Festival, as always, has many films about Jewish life in the world, and America, in the past and in the present.

The films include Barren, about a visiting rabbi who guarantees to use of powers of prayer to make a young women pregnant; SHTTL, the story of life in the Ukraine before the Soviet invasion of that country at the start of World War II;  The Conspiracy, a documentary about the false stories about Jews trying to take over the world; Rabbi on the Block, about the tensons between Jews and blacks in Chicago; plus surprise, surprise, The Frisco Kid, a 1979 American Western about a rabbi’s trip to a synagogue in San Francisco starring Gene Wilder. And then there is Where Is Anne Frank? A compelling animated (yes, animated) film about the teenaged girl in Europe in World War II who wrote the famous diary.  There are also four films in a ‘virtual’ festival.

“Something for everybody, right?” said Small, who adds that each year more than 2,000 people attend the Festival.

She adds that not only are many films about life in Israel, but star Israeli actors. “You can see the quality of acting in that country in these movies,” she said.

Isn’t it ironic, though. That the film festival is opening just after the Hamas-Israeli war began?

“Ironic is not the right word. The people of Israel have always had problems with their neighbors. This war came out of nowhere, but, hey, that’s what life is like in the Middle East today, “ said the director.

Maybe some day someone will make a movie about the current Hamas-Israeli war?

You bet they will…

The Rutgers Jewish Film Festival offers screenings in theater from October 26th through November 5th and virtually from November 6-12, 2023. Click here for a preview of the festival by New Jersey Stage.



Bruce Chadwick worked for 23 years as an entertainment writer/critic for the New York Daily News. Later, he served as the arts and entertainment critic for the History News Network, a national online weekly magazine. Chadwick holds a Ph. D in History and Cultural Studies from Rutgers University. He has written 31 books on U.S. history and has lectured on history and culture around the world. He is a history professor at New Jersey City University.


 
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