Film Festival looks back over 20 years

December 21, 2012

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The Virginia Festival of Jewish Film, which will celebrate its 20th consecutive year as a major cultural event in this community Jan. 19–27, was a feat for a community this size when it began in 1993.

Twenty years ago, Marty Trachtenberg, JCC director, and a film aficionado, learned that a handful of larger Jewish communities such as Washington, D.C., West Palm Beach, Boston and San Francisco were running successful Jewish film festivals. Trachtenberg contacted Tench Phillips, owner of the Naro Expanded Cinema, to talk about having a Jewish festival there. “Marty had been coming to the theater for years,” says Phillips. “We had shown Holocaust movies with a big Jewish following. Marty and I talked about having a dedicated festival that would feature a few of the recent Holocaust movies and include a few lighter movies which were Jewish in theme, and that’s how the discussions started.”

Trachtenberg enlisted the help of Jody Mazur, the JCC cultural arts director, and the two of them decided to present their ideas to several lay leaders.

Barry and Lois Einhorn, no strangers to communal service and volunteering, agreed to be the festival’s chairs. “We met at Uncle Louie’s for lunch,” recalls Lois Einhorn. “We discovered that there were no Jewish film festivals in Virginia; hence the name: Virginia Festival of Jewish Film.”

Phillips was happy to let the JCC have the use of the theater during the slower, Christmas holiday weeks.

Mazur went to several conferences to learn what types of movies were shown at Jewish film festivals, still a new concept. She also discovered that these festivals were a gateway into the larger Jewish community, a selling point for bringing such a program to this area. “All people could feel welcome. These festivals were a way of reaching the largest Jewish segment of the population without regard for what temple you went to, or if you chose not to go to temple,” she says.

A film festival committee was formed and immediately began debating what would constitute a Jewish film…just a Jewish director, or did it have to have a Jewish theme or subject? After screening several dozen movies, the first film festival committee chose a lineup that included the opening night film Cup Finals and a popular comedy, Leon the Pig Farmer, which will show again this year in celebration of the 20th Anniversary.

“We also decided to show one classic Jewish film at each festival,” says Lois Einhorn. “We continue this tradition by showing Mal’s pick each year.” (The Virginian-Pilot entertainment editor Mal Vincent picks an annual film classic).

On Saturday, Jan. 11, 1993, the lineup of six films began at the Naro. “When I saw that marquee all lit up with the name ‘Virginia Festival of Jewish Film,’ I got goose bumps,” says Lois Einhorn. “We did it!”

The Virginia Festival of Jewish Film continued on its successful path for 10 years, growing and becoming an annual tradition for Jewish and non-Jewish moviegoers in Norfolk each December. Then, the JCC had an opportunity to partner with Tidewater Community College. “Through this partnership, we were able to expand the festival to the greater Tidewater community, enhancing cultural diversity,” says current festival co-chair Gloria Siegel.

“We were the first community of our size to undertake such an ambitious endeavor,” says Trachtenberg. “Kudos to the efforts of the JCC’s staff and committed leadership. It is personally gratifying to me that the festival has ‘morphed’ into an annual cultural event in Hampton Roads. I extend my best wishes for its continued success.”

View the full film schedule here

by Leslie Shroyer

Letter to the Editor