Why Is the Longest-Running and Largest Jewish Film Festival in the World in San Francisco?

A Brief and Only Slightly Biased History

By Peter L. Stein | Executive Director Emeritus, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (2003–2011)

Every February, on the first Friday evening during the Berlin International Film Festival (the Berlinale), you will find a small group of Jewish film festival programmers and filmmakers taking a break from nonstop screenings by schmoozing over a glass of wine and a bit of dinner. It is a kind of cultural Shabbat — the continuation of a tradition begun more than 20 years ago by the organizers of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival as a way of creating a community of Jewish festival programmers who could remain connected well past the fleeting Berlinale. The first Berlin Shabbat gatherings were both an acknowledgment that Jewish film festivals were growing in number, but also that they often were isolated in their communities and can learn much from one another. It also tacitly provided a momentary Jewish refuge in a city with a fraught Jewish history.

And so it is fitting that at 2019’s ever-expanding Berlinale Shabbat dinner — organized in recent years by the Jewish Film Festival of Berlin & Brandenburg (JFFB)’s Nicola Galliner — I was asked to commemorate JFFB’s 25th anniversary by recounting here the origins of the worldwide Jewish film festival phenomenon at its ground-spring, the Ur-festival, the one that started it all: San Francisco — the city where I was born and raised, and where I had the honor of both attending the renowned Jewish Film Festival as an audience member, serving on its board as a filmmaker and producer, and for eight years serving as its Executive Director.

The JFFB suggested as a theme, “What is important to understand about the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s history?”

As a good Jew, I answer a question with a question: “Why San Francisco?”

Ask anyone who knows a bit about the story of Jews in the United States to name its Jewish cultural capitals, and easy answers come quickly: New York City (whose Jewish population is triple that of Tel Aviv); South Florida, with more than half a million Jews among its condominium complexes, senior communities and beachfront high-rises; and perhaps Los Angeles, which in its sheer size and sprawl contains hundreds of pockets of Jewish life including an enormous media industry that has traditionally attracted Jews.

Likely nowhere on that list would be San Francisco. Despite its deserved reputation as an engine for cultural and technological innovation, as a bastion of progressivism and tolerant social values, and as an extraordinary tapestry of diverse ethnic communities, San Francisco has for its 170 years been a place where Jews migrated and largely melted in to the metropolitan fabric. Even with a Jewish population today of some 350,000 in the greater San Francisco Bay Area — about 5% of the area’s total — visitors to San Francisco are hard-pressed to find an identifiable “Jewish neighborhood.” In some way this is due to San Francisco Jews having been victims of their own success: from the very establishment of the “instant city” during the California Gold Rush of the 1850’s, Jews were so adept at assimilating into mainstream civic life that they were rarely forced to isolate themselves into cultural ghettos. Hence the institutions they built and the contributions they made tended to be secular, benefiting the city as a whole, rather than remaining parochially for themselves. In fact Jews in San Francisco became mayors, business leaders, philanthropists and civic pillars in the 19th century, at a time when East Coast Jewish communities were facing widespread discrimination and struggling for acceptance among their Christian neighbors.

That assimilation continues today: San Francisco Bay Area Jews have among the highest rates of interfaith households in the country — a recent study[1] found that 2/3 of Jewish adults in the Bay Area between 18–34 years old were married to non-Jews, and 40 percent live in a household with a non-white person — factors which have conventionally been seen as symptoms of fragmenting (rather than diverse) Jewish identity.

So it seems counterintuitive that San Francisco, with its dispersed and, some would argue, disaffected Jewish community, would be the birthplace of what we can now see as a worldwide Jewish cultural movement: the Jewish film festival. But indeed in 1980, a young filmmaker and activist named Deborah Kaufman organized the first such event in the world — naming it simply “the Jewish Film Festival” — and presented ten films in a small theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. It captured a zeitgeist, and the festival has continued to be produced without interruption for 39 years, now attracting some 40,000 attendees each July to screen more than a hundred films from across the globe that address, and question, the Jewish experience. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (as it came to be known) sparked an explosion of Jewish film festivals in nearly every community and country where Jews can be found.

So why San Francisco? In fact, the very same diverse, assimilated and questioning nature of San Francisco — as both a cultural nexus and a Jewish community — provided the necessary ingredients that gave rise to the festival in the first place, and which continue to form the essence of its position today as a leader in the field of identity-based media.

Deborah Kaufman came of age in the Bay Area in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, at a time when radical political activism and ethnic solidarity movements were shaping the lives of a generation of students on Bay Area campuses. At San Francisco State University, student protests in 1968 had led to the formation of the nation’s first freestanding College of Ethnic Studies, while the ongoing anti-Vietnam and civil rights activism at UC Berkeley forever linked the fates of its sizable African American, Latino, Asian American and Jewish student populations.

At the same time, a new generation of Bay Area filmmakers, rejecting the commercial emphasis of Los Angeles, were establishing film collectives, art-houses and alternative media outlets in the Bay Area to support a new wave of politically engaged filmmaking. Young artists were discovering the power of media — especially documentaries — to express new ideas about what it means to be a minority in America.

These young and emboldened communities of artists and activists started to show their films to one another as a way of not only sharing their work, but finding and building a sense of community. The “identity-based” or “culturally-specific” film festival was born out of this atmosphere as a social, political and cultural phenomenon: a self-defining, self-reflecting incubator for newly conscious constituencies. Thus it is no coincidence that the very first gay film festival took place in San Francisco in 1977, followed in quick succession by Jewish, Asian American, Latino, women’s film festivals and many more…most of them the first, or at least among the first, of their kind.

In the case of the Jewish Film Festival, however, there was another important dimension that defined the mission. As Kaufman would come to describe it, the Jewish Film Festival was started as “an intervention”: Kaufman (joined in the second year by Janis Plotkin, who between them led the festival for its first 22 years), did not see reflected in traditional American Jewish life, or in Hollywood’s stereotyped depiction of Jews, the diversity and complexity that they felt defined their generation’s dynamic Jewish identity. Since the end of World War II, American Jewish life had largely been defined by the twin poles of the Holocaust and the foundation of the State of Israel; but in San Francisco, the large population of unaffiliated and to some degree marginalized young Jews did not see their political concerns — or even themselves — reflected in American Jewish institutions, media outlets or synagogues. The Jewish Film Festival was established first of all as a cultural corrective: presenting a range of imagery — including films about the Sephardic and Mizrahi experience, about relationships between Blacks and Jews, about feminist Jews and gay Jews, films that addressed Israel’s relationship with its Palestinian neighbors, and films that focused on stories of Jewish resistance and activism during the Holocaust, beyond victimization — in other words, films that presented counter-narratives to prevailing and often sacred points of view.

The electricity generated by this intervention, and the joy it seemed to bring to generations of “outsider” Jews who finally were finding themselves on the screen and in the audience, became the great defining strength of the festival, and its numbers and influence grew. SFJFF’s directors, staff and volunteers began helping other communities build similar festivals (not always with the same sense of activism, which was in some ways unique to San Francisco), even publishing a tip-sheet for starting your own film festival (Jewish or otherwise), and later a book-length guide to independent Jewish film — a function now served by a robust online archive. In their first decade, SFJFF’s organizers began raising enough money to travel annually to Berlin to scout for films at the burgeoning Berlinale, which became an essential meeting-ground for international filmmakers and festival programmers eager to bring new Jewish voices from across Europe and the Middle East back to hungry Bay Area audiences. At home, the festival grew to screen in four locations, eventually adding year-round screenings, a winter festival, a distribution arm, a youth filmmaking program, and becoming itself an important training ground and informal film market for the growing field of independent Jewish film. And in a bit of far-thinking real estate wisdom, the festival in 2001 banded together with several of its fellow pioneering non-profit media arts organizations (including the groups that present San Francisco’s LGBTQ film festival and its Asian American festival) to purchase their own building in San Francisco — a prescient move that not only honored the cross-cultural DNA of the Bay Area’s festival community, but helped preserve independent cinema presenters in a rapidly gentrifying city.

A formative and standout event in which SFJFF proved its role as a powerful cultural intervention came in 1990, when it organized and presented a groundbreaking festival in Moscow, just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Drawing some 60,000 participants and overcoming tremendous logistical and political obstacles, the Moscow festival became the single largest Jewish cultural gathering in the history of the Soviet Union. It was followed in 1992 by a similar tour to Madrid, in order to mark the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain, as well as to point up the pre-expulsion cooperation between Muslims and Jews.

This kind of cultural activism by SFJFF was often greeted with suspicion, and occasionally with resistance, from mainstream Jewish organizations and funding agencies. The proposed Moscow festival was strenuously opposed by groups who at that time were supporting efforts to rescue persecuted Soviet Jews; that came just two years after the festival faced outrage and funding cuts when it invited Palestinian peace activist Mubarak Awad to participate in a post-film panel in San Francisco.

In fact, over the nearly four decades of the festival, one can practically chart the rise and fall of American Jewish anxiety, especially around the Israel-Palestine conflict, by measuring the ferocity of criticism lobbed at the festival’s programming choices. In the mid-1990’s, in the rosy optimism of the Oslo Accords, the festival presented films celebrating the overlap of Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi and Mizrahi cultures, showcased films made by Palestinians, and enjoyed community collaborations with the Bay Area’s Arab Film Festival. These programs were generally greeted warmly (if sometimes warily) and rarely drew significant opposition. During my own eight-year tenure at the festival, which happened to coincide with the second Intifada, Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war and increasing concerns about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on American campuses, the vehemence of criticism from Jewish conservatives amplified into outright culture wars across the country, targeting Jewish theater companies, museums, Jewish community centers and, specifically, the SFJFF. These cultural presenters were increasingly pressured to retreat from offering programs and speakers perceived as divisive to Jewish solidarity or overly critical of Israel.

Ironically, this backlash was happening amidst an unprecedented flowering of Israel’s film industry, whose powerful dramas (often dark) and sophisticated documentaries (often highly critical of Israel’s status quo) were forming an important piece of SFJFF’s annual program. These tumultuous tides intersected in 2009 at SFJFF’s screening of an Israeli documentary about the American anti-Occupation activist Rachel Corrie, and the festival’s invitation to her mother to engage in a Q&A after the film. The event erupted into months-long angry calls for boycotting the festival and eliminating its funding, and counter-demonstrations supporting the principles of open debate in Jewish life — a controversy that went viral in new waves of social media outrage.

But even though the faultlines in the Israel-Palestine conflict will likely continue to be reflected in community response to festival programs, it’s important to point out how far we have come in the nearly 40 years of SFJFF, in widening the notion of what a Jewish film is and what a festival can mean for community cohesion. A look at most Jewish film festival websites and catalogs — among the hundreds across the world, including at Berlin’s own now sizable Jewish film festival — will uncover films celebrating an extraordinary range of Jewish expression, from hip-hoppers and tattoo artists, to world-class Israeli chefs; you will find Orthodox dramas, Mexican rom-coms, lesbian comedies, Bollywood musicals and film school horror flicks that reflect surprising aspects of worldwide Jewish identities. No longer can it be said, as the founding generation once lamented, that we can’t find ourselves on the screen. It is no small part a credit to the visionaries who began, supported and sustained the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival that we celebrate the 25th anniversary of one of its cultural descendants, the Berlin Jewish Film Festival. Hats (or maybe yarmulkes?) off to two venerable festivals.

Peter L. Stein is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, the former executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (2003–2011), and a fourth-generation San Francisco native. He is grateful to directors emeritae Deborah Kaufman and Janis Plotkin and to former program director Nancy Fishman for their history of SFJFF first gathered for its 25th anniversary in 2005 (available at jfi.org/about-jfi/history), and to current organizers Lexi Leban and Jay Rosenblatt for growing the tradition.

This article first appeared in Celebration! 25 Jahre Jüdisches Filmfestival Berlin & Brandenburg (published 2019 by Neofelis Verlag). Reprinted with permission.

[1] “A Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,” February 2018, commissioned and published by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.

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