Founded in 1976 and housed on the campus of Brandeis University, the nonprofit National Center for Jewish Film preserves and screens films reflecting the Jewish experience. As posted on the organization’s website, the center “exclusively owns the largest collection of Jewish content film in the world, outside of Israel.” The center’s 15,000 films feature all manner of genre, including newsreels and home movies, some dating back to 1903.

The organization’s Annual Film Festival takes place May 7-19 and features a broad offering of Jewish films both domestic and international. The following curated reviews reflect the eclectic mix of films and documentaries in this year’s lineup.


"Abe" (Promotional still)
“Abe” (Promotional image)

It’s no surprise that Abe’s 12th birthday party in his Brooklyn brownstone deteriorates into a hostile referendum on Middle East politics, given that his father’s family is Palestinian, and his mother’s people are Israeli. Although each side claims Abe as their own, he has other ideas.

Abe’s passion is food and cooking, which he meticulously blogs about on Tumblr at “Abe Cooks.” On Thanksgiving, he creates a feast for the stomach and the eyes only to have the holiday turn into a culture war between the families. Should Abe have a bar mitzvah? Should he fast for Ramadan? Confusion and hostility set in, and Abe runs away from home to a street fair. While there he discovers a “mix it up” kitchen run by a Brazilian chef named Chico. Chico’s fusion of South American, Jamaican and American cooking suits Abe in concept and practice.

Thinking they are pleasing their son, Abe’s parents enroll him in a summer cooking camp that is too remedial for him. Abe ditches camp and makes his way to Chico’s multicultural kitchen, where he’s initially assigned to wash dishes and take out the trash. It may be a setup for a predictable ending, but the film aims to draw an analogy between the various identities that feed into the preparation of food and life. In the end, there’s no doubt that Abe will integrate into his life the best from all his worlds.

“The Tobacconist”

“The Tobacconist” (Promotional still)
“The Tobacconist” (Promotional image)

There’s a fine line between the personal and political in this World War II-era story. Franz comes to Vienna from the idyllic lakeside town of Attersee. The teenager’s mother has sent him to the Austrian capital to work in the tobacco shop of an old lover. Otto is both irascible and principled. He lost a leg in World War I and welcomes customers of all faiths and perspectives into his shop. His favorite patron is Sigmund Freud, who is as famous for his penchant for cigars as he is for his interpretations of patients’ dreams.

Franz befriends the revered psychoanalyst and asks for advice about his infatuation with Anezka, a young woman who is clearly experienced in the ways of love. As it happens, the relationship has Freudian overtones—Anezka is a stand-in for Franz’s mother, who has had a number of dalliances. Intertwined with this unsettling love story are scenes of growing violence in Vienna. Otto is arrested for serving communist and Jewish customers. Nightmares plague Franz, and Freud encourages him to write about them in a notebook. The teen dutifully records his dreams. He then tears out the sheets of paper and pastes them by the door of the tobacco shop for the public to read.

The audience will likely intuit the ending early in the film. However, vibrant performances and a compelling story will engage viewers.


“Henri Dauman: Looking Up”

(Promotional still)
“Henri Dauman: Looking Up” (Promotional image)

While photographer Henri Dauman may not be a household name, his pictures are iconic. His work has been featured in Life magazine and many other publications. For six decades, the Paris native has taken photographs of major 20th-century figures, including John and Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley and a very young Martha Stewart at the beginning of her modeling career.

However, Dauman was not only celebrity-driven. He captured pivotal historical events, such as the Vietnam War and the Cuban Revolution. The eponymous documentary of the photographer’s life is also anchored in the history of the Holocaust. When Dauman was a child, the French police arrested his father and deported him to Auschwitz, where he perished. Henri and his mother survived the war by hiding in the French countryside.

Tragedy struck immediately after Henri and his mother returned to Paris. His mother ingested tainted bicarbonate that she bought at the pharmacy across the street from their apartment and died of poisoning. Dauman was just 13 years old, and by 17 had made his way to the United States.

At the center of the documentary is a retrospective of Dauman’s work in a Paris museum. It’s the first show acknowledging his legacy, and he is thrilled to see his photographs displayed rather than printed in a magazine. “I never considered [my work] art!” he exclaims about the exhibit.

The film also follows Dauman as he returns to his childhood apartment in Paris—a place he has not seen since 1963. There is also a trip to the countryside, where he locates the house in which a local family hid him and his mother.

Henri Dauman: Looking Up” is as engaging as its 85-year-old subject. As one of the curators of Dauman’s museum show observes, “He was always in the right place at the right time.”

“King Bibi”

(Promotional still)
“King Bibi” (Promotional image)

Composed entirely of archival footage, “King Bibi” portrays the trajectory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rise to power as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. The documentary’s title is from a 2012 TIME magazine cover story featuring Netanyahu and is narrated by an actor who imbues the film with a straightforward and even businesslike tone. The documentary shows Netanyahu as influenced by both Israeli and American politics. Netanyahu attended high school and college in the United States, and one of the early criticisms of him in Israel was that he was “too American” in his political aspirations.

Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, was a prominent history professor at Cornell University with right-wing political views. His brother, Yonatan, was a commander killed during the 1976 raid of Entebbe. Netanyahu not only copes with his grief, but also with his father’s cold assertion that if Yoni had not died at Entebbe, he would certainly have become prime minister. The film openly suggests that Netanyahu’s need to please his father not only influenced him, but also continues to drive his political aspirations.

One of the more interesting aspects of “King Bibi” is watching the evolution of Netanyahu aging in parallel with his increasing mastery of rhetorical skills and the development of his right-wing views. There is also a clear moment in the film when Netanyahu’s supporters anoint him king by adopting a well-known ditty about King David and chanting, “Bibi, king of Israel,” at Likud gatherings.

“From Cairo to the Cloud”

“From Cairo to the Cloud” (Promotional Still)
“From Cairo to the Cloud” (Promotional image)

Jewish law deems that anything on which the name of God is printed—from prayer books to mere fragments of texts—must be ritually buried in a cemetery. Until they are disposed of, these materials are stored in a geniza. The most famous geniza was in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Fustat section of Cairo. For nearly a millennium, the Jews of Cairo came to the synagogue, where they climbed a ladder to a portal to deposit all manner of paperwork that did not necessarily contain God’s name. The result was a spectacular accounting of Jewish life in 11th- and 12th-century Cairo.

The treasure trove of documents was a fascinating mix of the secular and the sacred. For example, a schoolboy’s punishment for talking too much in class was to write out the line, “Talking is silver and silence is gold,” several times. That document was found in the geniza, along with significant Jewish religious material, including fragments of Moses Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” in the Rambam’s handwriting. There were also pages from the “Book of Ben Sira” as referenced in the Christian Bible as well as the Talmud.

As the documentary illustrates, rediscovering the geniza in the late 19th century takes on the urgency of a detective story. Scottish twin sisters collected rare documents and manuscripts during their travels to the Middle East, which brought them to the Cairo geniza. Upon their return, the women contacted Solomon Schechter, a professor of Talmud and Jewish studies at Cambridge University.

Within their findings was a handwritten page that Schechter identified as the Palestinian Talmud. Cambridge eventually funded Schechter to travel to Cairo and explore the geniza. To reach the geniza itself, Schechter had to jump down into the storeroom, not only kicking up a cloud of dust but also inadvertently trampling some documents. Rather than cherry pick through the papers, Schechter packed up everything and brought the contents back to Cambridge.

A parade of academics and researchers contribute fascinating pieces of information to cobble together a cohesive narrative of the famous geniza. Ongoing work on the geniza papers happens in several institutions, including Cambridge and Oxford Universities, the University of Haifa, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Princeton University.

Technology has brought the geniza into the 21st century. More than 500,000 items recovered from the Cairo geniza have been digitized for the internet. In the process, many fragments written in the same handwriting have been reunited like pieces of a puzzle to create a single document revolutionizing information for future scholars.

Find more information about The National Center for Jewish Film’s Annual Film Festival here.