Religious fanatics and a strange honeymoon: Tuesday at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I saw three films at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Tuesday. Two were documentaries about ultra-Orthodox Jews connecting with outsiders. The third was a dramatic comedy about a Holocaust vacation.

I don’t have to tell you why these are Jewish films. They’re obvious.

City of Joel

A short fiction film, Black Hat, preceded the feature documentary. It was a touching piece about a deeply Orthodox man who goes to a gay bar.

Okay, onto the feature, City of Joel:

How would you react if thousands of insular Chasidic Jews moved into your small, rural community? That’s what’s happening in Monroe, NY. The Chasidim create the own community, Kiryas Joel (City of Joel), and balloon the population. And since they average eight children a family, they will keep ballooning. To the non-Jewish families of this very white town, this feels like an invasion. Is it anti-Semitism, or a legitimate gripe? After all, the Chasidim are using the electoral system to destroy the public schools. Director Jesse Sweet, in a film made up almost entirely of closeups, finds no easy answers.

I give City of Joel a B. I saw the last SFJFF screening of this film, but it may have a theatrical release.

The Rabbi Goes West

Rabbi Chaim Bruk, a witty, likable, funny, and charismatic Chasidic rabbi, leaves New York to bring his extreme form of Judaism to Montana (yes, there are Jews in Montana). Directors Amy Geller and Gerald Peary not only follow him on his cursade, but they also interview rabbis who have already made Montana their home. Many of these, especially those in congregations with women rabbis, do not feel happy about this proselyting newcomer. Other issues include a cyber attack from The Daily Stormer. A fascinating film until it becomes repetitious.

I give The Rabbi Goes West a B.

The filmmakers and the rabbi were in attendance, and stayed around for a Q&A. Not surprisingly, the rabbi did most of the talking. Some highlights, edited for brevity and clarity:

  • On claims that Bruk is basically a salesman: I never studied marketing. I think people are looking for something real. Judaism comes alive in the synagogue.
  • Most people feel welcome [in a Chasidic service]. The pay-to-pray thing [in non-Orthodox congregations] is insane.
  • Peary on Chasidic politics: I’m not crazy about Chasidic congregations’ foreign policies or their supporting Trump.
  • It’s not true that by putting up the mezuzah turns you into a Chasid.
  • Chasidism is about getting a Jew to do a mitzah.
  • Bruk: I won’t tell you all my sins because we don’t have a priest here.

I saw the last SFJFF screening of The Rabbi Goes West. It’s unlikely to get a theatrical release, but it may be available to streaming or on disc.

My Polish Honeymoon

I rarely see movies that succeed in being funny, serious, and believable at the same time, but this is one of them. A recently wed French couple leave their baby with the grandparents and head off to an unusual to honeymoon. Being of Polish-Jewish heritage, they’re going to Poland to attend a Holocaust commemoration. The couple have their problems (drinking is one of them), grandma is not very responsible, and the town appears to be a tourist trap for Jews (the husband calls it Holocaust Disneyland). Exceptional.

I give it an A. There was no Q&A.

You have one more chance to see My Polish Honeymoon at the SFJFF. It will play at the Rafael Sunday, August 4, at 11:45am. It may get a theatrical release, and will probably be streaming somewhere eventually.