Schmear and Now: The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival

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The 34th annual festival focuses on cinematic adaptations and the quest for identity, including a documentary about a family-owned specialty foods store in New York.

 

There are few better ways to announce the gravity of a documentary’s subject matter than to lead off with a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. So when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg begins talking in the opening scene of one of the featured offerings of the 34th annual Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, she immediately commands the viewer’s attention.

The grave topic at hand? Fish.

This isn’t just any old piscatorial discourse, however. Ginsburg is onscreen to extol the virtues of Russ & Daughters, which has been offering smoked fish and more on the Lower East Side for a century. The Sturgeon Queens, the utterly charming result of Julie Cohen’s determination to document the fourth-generation family business’ survival and reinvention, is the second act of this year’s film festival, which kicks off on Nov. 1 for a 15-day run.

According to Olivia Antsis, the director of the festival, The Sturgeon Queens fits into both of the festival’s main themes: cinematic adaptations and the quest for identity. She notes that out of the festival’s 16 feature films and seven shorts, at least seven of them, including The Sturgeon Queens, are based on books.

Other notable entries chosen by the festival’s selection committee include Etgar Keret: What Animal Are You?, a documentary of the Israeli author’s tour of New York City; Run Boy Run, a harrowing historical dramatization of a then 8-year-old Yoram Widman’s struggle to stay alive and hold onto his Jewish identity during the Holocaust; and The Zig Zag Kid, a coming-of-age detective film drawn from the David Grossman novel of the same name.

The Sturgeon Queens is based in part on the book, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House That Herring Built, written by Mark Russ Federman. Known around East Houston Street as Mr. Russ, the schmoozer emeritus of the perpetually busy shop, Federman is the grandson of Russian immigrant Joel Russ, who traded in his herring pushcart for a storefront in 1914. Federman, who gave up a career in law to run the family business from 1978 to 2009 — at which time he turned it over to his daughter and nephew — says that writing the book and being involved in the documentary actually helped with his transition.

“When you do something for three decades, you become it and it becomes you,” he said, before using a decidedly mixed analogy to explain further. “You can’t stop cold turkey, or you’ll get the bends. I couldn’t stop being Mr. Russ, and on the other hand, I couldn’t stick around the store anymore — there were too many Russes — so I decided to write a book.”

Federman’s quest to reinvent himself is of a piece with a number of other films in the festival, which is no surprise, considering the penchant of Jewish artists — regardless of medium — to explore the nature of identity. “Even if we feel very at home in a new place and with a new life, there is always a complex connection to our roots and heritage,” Antsis said in discussing the lineup of identity-themed offerings at the festival. Among them: Sderot: Rock in the Red Zone, a documentary that is as much about filmmaker and former Angeleno Laura Biadis’ love affair with what ultimately became her new hometown as it is about the Israeli border town’s reputation as an incubator for rock bands; The Dove Flyer, which follows a group of Iraqi Jews who are forced to immigrate to Israel; and Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent, a documentary that brings to light the life of a man who fought to reclaim the identity of two groups: German Jews in the 1930s and African Americans in the 1950s and ’60s.

Prinz’s battle for civil rights included a seminal speech given in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963 — a speech that has been largely overlooked because of the one given immediately after by his friend and colleague, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When I read the text of his speech, it was like I had been waiting my whole life to hear these words that were written before I was even born,” exclaimed Rachel Eskin-Fisher, the Mount Airy native who co-directed the film. “I studied black history, civil rights and Jewish history, but I had never heard of him before.”

For someone whose dissertation was on Jewish genealogy and who says she founded a production company with her partner, Rachel Pasternak, specifically to “find these incredible stories from the past and retell them so they didn’t get lost,” bringing Prinz’s life story back to life was the ideal project.

The film is a testament to the power of research — it is replete not just with riveting footage from the civil rights era, but with photos and home movies of Prinz’s time as a rabbi in 1930s Berlin. During that time, Prinz was arrested multiple times by the Nazis for continuing to preach to his congregants about the power of Judaism as the cornerstone of their identity and, at the same time, urging them to flee the country before what he correctly saw as the inevitable endgame.

Eskin-Fisher and Paternak follow the rabbi’s story as he is expelled from Germany and lands in Newark, N.J., where he soon takes up the cause of fighting against an institutionalized prejudice that had an all-too-familiar echo for him. He joined forces with like-minded religious leaders, including King, whom he began corresponding with as early as 1958.

“We did this so that he wouldn’t get lost to history — if we didn’t, he would be largely forgotten,” Eskin-Fisher said with conviction.

For those wanting to learn more about this unsung figure of two separate movements and about the process of documenting him, Eskin-Fisher will be on hand, along with Prinz’s daughter, Deborah, after the showing of the film on Nov. 11 as part of the festival’s numerous special events.

Other notable happenings during this year’s festival include a book signing and reception with Etgar Keret, opening and closing night receptions and a brunch with Russ & Daughters specialties, an event that already has a lengthy waiting list.

IF YOU GO

Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival
Nov. 1 to 16
Various locations in the Philadelphia area
pjff.org; 215-545-4400