(Credit: Creative Commons)

At the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I met and later dated a Swedish woman. She was tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and older than me, but none of this mattered much in the giddy and stuffed atmosphere that was the festival’s after-party, at the Swedish American House (actually, she had gotten her tickets through a friend working at that house). Like me, she was delighted to be at a party that was in many ways an imitation of a big Hollywood bash – standing in line, for instance, next to the actress we had just watched onscreen.

A hundred years back, none of this would have been possible. Jews were mostly living in fringe communities spread across Europe or, if not, we were relegated to second-class citizenship within cities plush with anti-Semitism. This is all old hat, but sometimes being a Jew in the twenty-first century makes it easy to forget how lucky we are.

We can meet and date Swedish women who might have once thought us anathema. We once would have thought them untouchable.

That’s why the movie I most enjoyed at the film festival – Nono, the Zigzag Kid – was not particularly Jewish. Rather, it was about how Judaism has faded into the background of life; for so many of us, it is not a distinguishing mark anymore. And yet that does not mean that we’re not Jewish.

Nono, the main character in Nono, the Zigzag Kid – adapted from the novel by the Jewish author David Grossman – is certainly a Jew. He mentions multiple times that he is about to become Bar Mitzvah. But he also laughs at his cousin, who is portrayed as over-serious for his thirteen years, stiff, and boring. It’s at the cousin’s Bar Mitzvah party that Nono, trying to liven things up, jumps off the roof holding an umbrella and fails to glide down to the grass below. This gets him sent away to live with his cousin’s family – to be disciplined – but he escapes en route and is instead trained by criminal mastermind Felix Glick, from whom he learns to be a great detective. Meanwhile his father, also a great detective, is hot on his trail.

If it all sounds a bit ridiculous, it’s supposed to. Yet Nono is on a serious quest to learn about his deceased mother, who has been a mystery to him. Fittingly, the world, through Nono’s eyes, is fun and beautiful, but it is also tinged with sadness.

I don’t know if Nono was the best movie I saw at the festival, but I came away extremely pleased. I felt like I had seen Jewish cinema that did not stick its Jewishness in my face; even though the characters are Jewish, Nono is not about Judaism. Still, it’s a Jewish film.

We live in a time when Woody Allen, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jake Gyllenhaal, James Franco, Adam Brody, and Shia LeBeouf are all Jews (thank you, Buzzfeed’s 51 Hottest Jewish Men in Hollywood!). Jews are clearly no longer an underrepresented minority in show biz, yet these big Jewish names hardly make Jewish cinema (except Allen). And that’s okay. Jews are under no obligation to make Jewish cinema; yet all too often, cinema is either Jewish or it is not.

Nono walks a somewhat finer line, being about Jewish characters who do not do anything particularly Jewish. Even the Bar Mitzvahs are only depicted by their parties; the religion seems almost purposefully omitted. These are Jews, but they could be anyone.

And that’s wonderful. Judaism, rather than an identity that’s imposed upon us, is now an identity one can choose, when one wants to. Nono is not defined by his Jewishness, but neither does he reject it. Actually, he’s giddy about his Bar Mitzvah and what it represents. And, to everyone who might say that it represents nothing, because it’s been drained of religious significance, I’d respond that the movie itself is a sort of spiritual adventure which culminates in Nono’s discovery of his mother and therefore represents a coming of age as pertinent as any midrash.

So, while Nono, the Zigag Kid was a really good movie, it was not typical of Jewish film: no mourning, no Torah, no neuroses à la Woody Allen, no bickering, no over-concerned mother, nothing, in short, that has marked Jewish consciousness over the past hundred years. If anything, it comes out of the Tel Aviv tradition, in which Israelis lounge around on the beach, drink margaritas, and watch beautiful women surf.

And that’s totally un-Jewish. Typically, Jewish films contain at least one tormented character (read: Hannah Arendt), multiple massive disasters (Exodus?) or heavy handed references to the end of the world (think A Serious Man). While these are some great films, they don’t exactly leave their viewers feeling… happy. Nono does.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Jews, after all we’ve been through, deserve a chance to relax. We deserve to make films just like the next guy, and really, I don’t blame the plethora of successful Jewish actors in Hollywood for never making stereotypically Jewish movies – why would they want to make more films about death and dying? Judaism, though, doesn’t have to be that, which is what I’ve learned in my twenty years since being circumcised.

I saw three other movies at the festival, so I don’t feel that I’m equipped to speak on it at length, but there is one other movie I want to touch on, and that’s Hannah Arendt. Hannah, like Nono, offers an example of an innovative Jewish personality, someone who actively revokes and changes our conceptions of what it means to be Jewish.

(Credit: Creative Commons)

In her treatise The Banality of Evil, Arendt indicted Jewish community leaders who were complicit with Nazi orders, writing that, had they thought more about these orders, they might not have prevented deaths. To many Jews, this was “victim-blaming” that meant Arendt was defending Nazism, and, as the movie makes clear, she even lost good friends who held this opinion. In fact, the movie does not wholly make the case that Hannah was blameless in the furor her book raised. Mostly, she was willfully blind to the people her accusations might hurt, people who were not eager to examine their own culture in the wake of such a tragedy (something we can all probably understand). And there’s also her romance with the philosopher-turned-Nazi Martin Heidegger, who features prominently in Hannah’s flashbacks. Was he, like Adolph Eichmann – the man about whom The Banality of Evil is written – simply “unable to think?” And yet he was a famous philosopher. Does Hannah’s own brilliant theory of how evil occurs in some way vindicate her fallen mentor? And if it does not – if he was able to think, and in fact did not think well – then it still may paint him as better than the sadists with whom he worked.

Hannah’s theory, in a way, puts her above her old mentor. Heidegger was unable to think well enough to not join the Nazis; in one scene, he tells Hannah that joining the party was his only avenue to learn about politics, which is transparently a cop-out. Arendt, who escaped Nazi Germany, escapes her mentor by explaining him. But at the same time, she feels real grief and pain about his decision, and her decision to explain his life – through The Banality of Evil, at least somewhat – is touching. She gives him after all, some benefit of the doubt. And yet she does not forgive him by any means.

That may be me reading too much into Arendt, but it is a complex movie that offers multiple portals into Hannah’s psyche. I’m just taking one of them.

In a broader sense, I enjoyed that Arendt was such an iconoclast, able to stand up to her fellow Jews though, of course, still hurt by their anger at her. Even though this movie reflects a time fifty years ago, she was a modern Jew in her ability to separate her identity from her Judaism. She was primarily a philosopher and intellectual (and maybe a lover, since Arendt is peppered with men who are in love with her) and then a Jew. She had her priorities straight, I think.

Anyone, after all, can be a philosopher and intellectual. While we are born Jews, we are also made Jews by what other people think of us – they call us Jewish, and so we are. But Hannah knows that, even having witnessed the tragedy the Jews suffered in the Holocaust, this is not all that defines her.

I liked the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival because it seemed to me to keep this truth close to its heart: that Jews are not all defined by being Jewish. Because the movies shown there offer so many different perspectives on all sorts of topics, of prejudice, abortion, musical legends, French family, and even Polish war crimes, the landscape of Jewish cultural interests is broadened, and what it means to be a Jew can change. I like that, and I hope that the film festival will continue to appeal to Jews, and to people of all stripes. After all, we are all basically one.

I did see another film at the Jewish Film Festival with the Swedish woman I met on opening night. It wasn’t as fun as the first time – all that giddy excitement of being at a real-life film festival had worn off. Instead, it was replaced with the tried and true romantic formula of going to the movies. Indeed, we could have been watching a movie anywhere: on a theater on Van Ness Avenue or, where we were, at a Jewish cultural event in the heart of the Castro. Either way, we had a good time. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is a great example of an event which continues to catalyze a more inclusive, and expansive Jewish culture, and one which has been copied around the United States because of its resounding success. Here’s to next year!


Ian Hoffman is a student at Swarthmore College and a former editorial intern at Tikkun. He hopes readers will join him in checking out the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival next year in San Francisco, Berkeley, and around the Bay Area. You can also watch Nono, the Zigzag Kid, and Hannah Arendt on DVD later this year.

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