TAKE 25! San Diego Jewish Film Festival celebrates silver anniversary with flicks screening Feb. 5-15 in La Jolla

It’s a happy year for the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, which began with a few casual screenings in the gym at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, moving on to its first real festival venue at MCASD-La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium in 1990.

That first festival featured four films; this year, there are 54 full-length and 50 short films, shown in five different locations over 11 days, starting Thursday, Feb. 5. The SDJFF is now widely considered one of the most important platforms for movies about the Jewish experience.

Year by year, the SDJFF has been broadening its range. This year’s opener is “Serial Bad Weddings,” a French comedy about mixed marriages; the centerpiece is “Above and Beyond,” an American documentary about the ragtag band of foreign pilots who helped win Israel’s War of Independence; and there are four audience favorites from previous years, including “Nowhere in Africa,” a German drama that took home an Oscar in 2003.

A special attraction this year is the India-Jewish Showcase, featuring “Shree 420,” a Chaplinesque Indian classic from 1955. Also included: a Skype talk with Randhir Kapoor, whose family brought Jewish actresses to Bollywood, and a live performance by a local Indian dance troupe.

One of the fastest-growing, most popular parts of the SDJFF is the Joyce Forum, a short-film festival-within-the-festival named in honor of founder Joyce Axelrod, who has been on board since the early movies-in-the-gym days. “Last year, we had three programs of shorts; this year we have ten,” Axelrod exulted. “We had so many submissions, many of them award-winning films, and 15 of the filmmakers are coming here on their own dime!”

For the past two years, festival director Craig Prater, whom Axelrod praised as “a risk-taker, full of fabulous ideas and worldwide contacts,” has been raising the SDJFF’s profile, with the help of festival chair Saundra Saperstein and co-chair Devorah Gurantz. Together, they are creating new events, bringing in film industry hotshots, and reaching out to an ever-widening community. Their aim is to make SDJFF a major player, not just in the world of Jewish film festivals, but film festivals in general. It certainly looks like they’re well on their way.

25th annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival

When: Feb. 5-15

Where: Films screen at the Jewish Community Center’s Garfield Theatre, 4126 Executive Drive; ArcLight Cinemas at UTC/La Jolla; Reading Cinemas 14 in Clairemont; Carlsbad Village Theatre; Edwards San Marcos Stadium 18.

Joyce Forum Short Films: 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9, JCC and ArcLight

Schedule: sdjff.org, or pick up a printed program at the JCC

Tickets: (858) 362-1348 and sdjff.org

Local talent: Director Sophie Tuttleman, who grew up in La Jolla, will speak at the screening of “The Cancer Mirror,” a film about her mother, a scientist and philanthropist who lost her battle with brain cancer. Joyce Forum, 5 p.m. Feb. 9, JCC

Theo Bikel and the legacy of Sholem Aleichem

Theodore Bikel is a legendary folksinger, activist and actor who has played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” more than 2,000 times. Tevye the Milkman is a beloved character created by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), sometimes called the Jewish Mark Twain. The Russian-born Yiddish writer died in New York City at age 57. At 90, Theo Bikel is still going strong.

In the past year, he married again, updated his memoirs, had his 90th birthday honored with a folksingers’ concert in Beverly Hills, and performed for the Austrian Parliament in Vienna, the city of his birth, on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a night of Nazi-led violence that ultimately turned him and his family into refugees. “The mass murderers are gone,” he told his Austrian audience, “but I’m still here, singing about peace.”

Last year, too, he transformed his intimate, one-man show about Sholem Aleichem into a documentary which has been since been acclaimed at film festivals from San Francisco to Haifa, Warsaw and Sydney. “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem” will have its local premiere at the SDJFF.

The film, called a celebration of two Jewish giants, is narrated by Alan Alda, and includes appearances by several of Bikel’s friends, like Dr. Ruth Westheimer and 102-year-old author/educator Bel Kaufman (now deceased), who also happens to be Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter.

Among other things, it is a testament to the humor that is part of the Jewish tradition — the ability to turn calamity into comedy. “Let my name be recalled with laughter, or not at all,” Sholom Aleichem wrote in his will, which was published, after his funeral filled the city’s streets with mourners, in the New York Times.

Recently, Bikel spoke of his feelings for Sholem Aleichem: “He has been part of my life ever since I can remember. When I was a little boy, my father would read his stories to me, in Yiddish, of course. That language was indelibly etched in my mind. It became my anchor, my roots, and my portal into the shtetl. The world he chronicled is gone, but we can all read the stories, in whatever language is comfortable. Read them, and laugh.”

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