What’s more Jewish than bagels, lox, and schmear? Film! At least, so says the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), which invited viewers into and beyond the stereotypes at its Opening Night festivities Thursday evening in San Francisco. A lively and boisterous crowd packed the Castro Theater, kicking off SFJFF’s thirty-second year with the world premiere screening of Roberta Grossman’s comic documentary Hava Nagila (the Movie).
Now in its fourth decade, the SFJFF has become an institution in the Bay Area, known for bringing a hip, diverse, and thought-provoking array of intriguing films over the years that have served as at least one barometer for measuring the pulse of the Jewish world. With the catchy melodies of Oakland’s Inspector Gadje, a six-piece Balkan brass band playing outside, and with fewer kippas and beards in the audience than shmear and kvetch jokes on the screen, one SFJFF staffer put it best during the Opening Night pomp and circumstance when he called the Film Festival “the Bay Area’s largest secular synagogue.”
Opening night was not without its hiccups, and in particular the audience had an energy of its own, with some individuals booing the event’s sponsor Wells Fargo and becoming antsy during a long and drawn out opening night roll call and cheering loudly for the movie to start. SFJFF Executive Director Lexi Leban, who acknowledged the “lively audiences and diversity of opinions at our events,” drew laughs for just-one-more-minute jokes before nonetheless continuing on. By the time Grossman, recipient of easily the largest ovation of the evening, got up to speak, promising “I’m only gonna speak for about thirty-five minutes,” because she would like to read “A list of about 400 donors I would like to thank,” the crowd was in stitches.
While the festival’s humor and hip sensibilities were polished and on display, and the boisterousness of the crowd reaffirmed both the vitality and the fissures still present in the Jewish world, the night, from the first ovation, was truly Grossman’s. Well-known in the Bay Area and Jewish world for her Academy Award-shortlisted film Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, that featured at the 2008 SFJFF, as well as for her work with the Berkeley-based non-profit production company, Katahdin, Hava is the hip and well-supported follow-up which, judging by its keen production, sharp wit, and disarming cultural inquiry, is likely to further Grossman’s reputation as a leader in her field.
About as irreverent and hokey as anyone familiar with the legendary Jewish niggun-turned-bar mitzvah party starter might expect (the film itself starts off in this very way, with a grainy camera panning a decked out social hall while Grossman as narrator informs viewers that “they served you the chicken, even though you ordered the fish”), the film also takes a stab at the minor chords and heart-tugging notes that reside inside the melody, interpreting the mix of sweet and bitter as a metaphor for the Jewish experience. Grossman and Team trace the song to its point of origin as a Chassidic niggun (wordless melody) in mid-1800s Sadagora, Ukraine, proceeding to employ it as a meme to consider and riff on the past 200 years of Jewish history. While kitschy humor and lively rounds of the timeless tune carry the film through its opening minutes, Grossman deftly raises the stakes, considering “Hava’s” Chassidic roots, its migration to Israel where the wordless niggun was fitted with lyrics, to its journey overseas to America, where it became an overnight sensation and the strange anthem of the American Jewish Diaspora, following it on its migration to the suburbs, into the enormous social halls of American-Jewish synagogues (think Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent Book of Job update, A Serious Man), and into international recognition and pop stardom even today. While Grossman’s narration and the humorous melodrama of Hava’s contested origins (some say it was Idelsohn, some say it was Nathanson…what can you do?), not to mention interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, and Leonard Nemoy and hilarious and well-placed footage of Woody Allen trying to play cello in a marching band, keep the energy and pace of the film moving, Grossman makes use of the subsequent space to ask the piercing question: Is “Hava Nagila” (the Song) a symbol of Jews’ success in contemporary America and around the world? Or, is the song’s tawdry fame and two-dimensionality a symbol for how much the diaspora Jewish community has lost? (Here’s a hint: it’s a little bit of both.)
A similar question was perhaps present amid SFJFF’s red carpet rollout, where jokes about bubby’s accent amid the well-to-do crowd kept the laughs coming but perhaps impaired the festival’s vision. In the same manner that “Hava” in a way loses its soul to the bar mitzvah blow-out, the SFJFF presentation (in many ways positioned as the descendent of those old suburban socials) seemed at times, while prim and proper, in danger of mistaking its Shtick for its essential character. There were moments at the opening when “quintessential Jewishness” seemed to be defined as a need to both be successful and project success, while sprinkling in some Yiddish—much in the same manner in which “Hava” began to be employed in the old suburban social halls, and continues being used to this day.
The Shtick or the Song, as the film points out, thus becomes the lubricant of assimilation and cultural loss, even as it achieves itself cultural fame. “Hava Nagila,” seen in this way, and the consciousness that accompanies it, is “a cul-de-sac,” as Henry Sapoznik says in the film, “the place where people ceased looking for Jewish music.”
Is the Film Festival unconsciously posing as a cultural equivalent of Sapoznik’s “Hava”? Not so fast. One difference between SFJFF and “Hava Nagila”: a commitment to celebrating and furthering Jewish life, while managing to avoid killing it. SFJFF has a slate of over sixty films, scheduled at sites throughout the Bay Area between now and August 6, continuing on the proud tradition of what remains the first and largest Jewish film festival in the world. As Leban said in her introductory remarks, the film festival is itself “a safe space to consider issues of Jewish identity and appreciate the diversity” of voices and perspectives present within Judaism. As the festival branches out to the Peninsula, Marin, and the East Bay (including an outdoor presentation at the Oakland Art Murmur on August 3), planners hope not to dead-end Judaism but to provide revitalizing grist for conversations both Jewish, not Jewish, and everywhere on the gradient in between. If the wider Bay Area is anything like the crowd at the Castro on Thursday night, the response is likely to be lively, and varied.
The festival is at the Castro Theater July 19-26, and at locations in Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael through August 6. Hava Nagila (the Movie) will be showing at Cine Arts in Palo Alto Sunday, July 29 at 6:40 pm; at the Roda Theater in Berkeley Wednesday, August 1 at 6:35pm; and in San Rafael Saturday, August 4 at 4:20 pm. For more information, visit the festival’s website: www.sfjff.org.