SHARING SOME LIGHT: Amid the Sundance Festival’s Glitter, Jews Find Connection and Respite

January 31, 2018
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul and Shabbat Tent leads a Shabbat dinner at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Olga Goister

eEvery January, Harris Tulchin, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer and producer, travels to Park City, Utah, to attend the annual Sundance Film Festival. Usually, he spends his days there busily networking with potential clients, promoting his film projects and enjoying the ski slopes.

This year was different. Tulchin spent much of his festival time at the Sundance Shabbat Lounge, an unofficial Sundance site whose organizers sought to provide a welcoming Jewish space in the midst of the festival, which transforms Park City, population 7,800, into a bustling culture center of 50,000 independent filmmakers, entertainment professionals and other dreamers. Over 11 days, Sundance features more than 200 screenings, scores of panel discussions and countless industry parties.

And then there’s the Shabbat Lounge. On Friday before sundown, as a photographer snapped images of Shabbat Lounge attendees in front of a backdrop imprinted with the words “Shabbat Tent,” Tulchin, a member of the Santa Monica congregation Beth Shir Shalom, said he was grateful to find a Jewish home at Sundance.

“Having a Shabbat at a festival and taking some time away from the hustle and bustle of the festival is good,” Tulchin said. “Coming to a place like this where you meet the rabbi and other Jewish people, you not only have film in common but spirituality.”

During the opening weekend of the festival — which ran from Jan. 18-28 — the Shabbat Lounge occupied the second floor of Wasatch Brew Pub, a centrally located establishment on Park City’s Main Street, a postcard-worthy stretch of stores, cafes and restaurants that serves as the main artery of the festival.

People of all backgrounds — Jewish and non-Jewish — showed up to celebrate Shabbat and Havdalah.

People of all backgrounds — Jewish and non-Jewish — showed up to celebrate Shabbat and Havdalah, enjoy free food and an open bar, dance to Jewish music and find temporary respite from the intensity of the festival.

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein served as the welcoming face of the operation. Bookstein is the spiritual leader of L.A.’s Pico Shul and the organizer of Shabbat Tent, a program that holds Shabbat gatherings at music festivals and other events. On Friday evening, he led a Shabbat dinner for 85 attendees, with a kosher menu that included pesto salmon, beef ribs, challah, hummus, Israeli salad, Moscato wine and more.

“Sundance sameach,” Bookstein said, greeting the eclectic array of people seated at two long tables in the brewery. He had to shout to be heard over the cacophony of chatter from patrons on the bar’s first floor. “Enjoy yourselves. Make friends. Mingle. Go to the bar. Have a beer.”

The dinner kicked off a weekend that attracted more than 1,000 people to the Shabbat Lounge, including Los Angeles rapper Kosha Dillz, who attends Sundance every year in the hope of increasing his exposure among well-connected entertainment professionals. In an interview, Dillz praised Sundance attendees for their openness to one another’s ideas and ambitions.

“Sundance is like the gem of all gems, for anybody. It’s magical to me, because it’s the most money per capita, per square mile for anyone trying to hustle,” he said. “Imagine Los Angeles, every person crowding into one street actually being open to sharing ideas and being excited in a winter wonderland, versus a guarded Los Angeles.”

Rapper Kosha Dillz performs for the crowd at the Sundance Shabbat Lounge. Photo by Yehuda Prero

“Sundance is like the gem of all gems, for anybody. It’s magical.” —Kosha Dillz

That openness is part of what brings people to the Shabbat Lounge, which Bookstein was hosting for the second consecutive year. Bookstein began his work in the Los Angeles Jewish community at college campuses. He previously ran Jewlicious, the annual Jewish arts and music festival that drew college students and young professionals to locations including the Queen Mary in Long Beach. His most recent venture, Pico Shul, a storefront congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, draws young Jews, many of whom are just discovering observant Judaism.

Though Bookstein’s efforts at Sundance were under the auspices of another organization, Shabbat Tent, in a way he was bringing Pico Shul to Sundance. As with his synagogue back home, everyone was welcome.

“We provide this because the whole notion of the Shabbat Tent is it provides a low-barrier entry to everyone,” he said. “We don’t judge people for how they live their life — there are no prerequisites.”

Shabbat Tent began in 1999 when attendees of a Phish concert turned their campsite into a space for Shabbat services. With no funding, the group of live-music devotees began holding Shabbat gatherings at other music festivals to provide a respite for like-minded festivalgoers.

A turning point for the scrappy organization came in 2007, when Matisyahu, the Jewish reggae singer who at the time was observant, contacted Shabbat Tent about organizing a large-scale Shabbat celebration at his performance at the Langerado Music Festival in South Florida.

In 2009, Bookstein and Jewish professional Josh Kaplan took over the organization. They have expanded its reach, bringing Shabbat Tent to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, High Sierra Music Festival and other events, and attracting financial supporters including the Alevy Family Foundation, Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies, the Avi Chai Foundation and San Francisco-based philanthropist Suzanne Felson. Chabad of Park City was a partner on the Sundance Shabbat Lounge.

Bookstein said Shabbat Tent works because the universal message of Shabbat appeals to people of all backgrounds.

“The message of Shabbat is we need to take time during the week to focus on something higher than ourselves,” he said in an interview. “In the fast and furious world we live in, Shabbat resonates with people.”

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein holds court at the Shabbat Sundance Lounge. By the end of the weekend, attendees were approaching him with their pitches for movie ideas. Photo by Yehuda Prero

“In the fast and furious world we live in, Shabbat resonates with people.” —Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

Kaplan, president of JConnect, the parent organization of Shabbat Tent, said the organization engages young Jews where they are.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘Come to our place, and we’ll take care of you.’ We go to where you are — film festivals, music festivals, college campuses — and it’s meaningful,” Kaplan said. “A lot of these people don’t want to walk into a synagogue, and we don’t know what kind of spark we’ll create by going to them.”

The Chai Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish outreach organization, is among the partners of Shabbat Tent at Sundance. The Chai Center’s Rabbi Mendel Schwartz conceived of the idea after leading Shabbat events at the Cannes Film Festival for many years.

He decided to expand his activities from Cannes to Sundance to reach a different kind of audience, and reached out to Bookstein, whom he saw as a natural partner for the venture. Bookstein seized the opportunity to connect with more Jews outside of his synagogue.

“It was a combination of Jews who wanted to go to festivals but didn’t have a way to make Shabbat and realizing all these Jews are going and don’t have Shabbat,” Bookstein said. “We put it all together.”

Schwartz, who estimates about half of the Sundance festival’s attendees are Jewish, said the Shabbat Lounge attracts people with a wide range of Jewish identities and levels of observance. (About 20 percent of those at the Shabbat dinner weren’t Jewish, he said.)

“Some people are looking for community; some people are just looking for business networking; and for some people it’s just the reverse — they are uncomfortable being Jewish in L.A.,” he said. “I find some people — because it’s fun, sexy and cool to be at a film festival and do Shabbat there — they’re willing to go for that, especially with people in their own industry. It’s a different type of Shabbat.”

Schwartz wasn’t able to attend this year’s festival because the weekend coincided with the first yahrzeit of his father, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, widely known in the Los Angeles Jewish community as Schwartzie.

Accompanying Bookstein were his wife, Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein, three of their children and several members of Pico Shul.

Fabian Lijtmaer, a visual artist, Pico Shul congregant and a supervisor at a residential treatment center, drove from Los Angeles to Utah to take part in the Sundance Shabbat Lounge. He and Yehuda Prero, the chazzan at Pico Shul, left L.A. at 11:26 a.m. on Jan. 18 — in gematria, the Hebrew characters for the name of God add up to 26 — and the two arrived at exactly midnight, Lijtmaer said.

Wearing a fedora splattered, Jackson Pollock-style, with white paint, Lijtmaer recounted the drive in an interview after Shabbat dinner. He said he and Prero had sung nigunim — wordless melodies — every 26 minutes along the way, stopping occasionally to pray and buy beef jerky.

While many at the festival were seeking to make connections to one another, Lijtmaer was hoping to facilitate artists’ connections to God.

“I love film very deeply, and film is a very spiritual thing. For some reason there’s been a separation between the spirituality of film and the filmmaking part, so I feel like, to bring the spirituality, the light of Shabbos, is an opportunity to elevate Jews and elevate all people, give them a connection to God and re-empower them to connect to God through their creative endeavors,” he said. “It is beautiful to be able to come together in an open platform and share that light, share the love and share that inspiration above all.”

During Havdalah, Rachel Bookstein, the rabbi’s wife, was smelling the Havdalah spices when a young man approached to inquire about what she was doing.

“That’s what we are here for,” she said later. “It’s a big team effort. But when people come in and have a place to be together, and have a little taste of Shabbat, and we watch them smile and have Jewish conversations in the middle of all their industry conversation, it’s amazing.”

Attendees of the Sundance Shabbat Lounge mix and mingle before a Friday night dinner. Photo courtesy of Tamar Simon, Mean Streets Management

So was the flurry of Sundance activity beyond the Shabbat Lounge, which ranged from panels on virtual reality to a star-studded women’s march in solidarity with the #metoo movement, to a concert showcase featuring singer Joan Jett.

On the morning of Jan. 21, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fielded questions from NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg hours before the premiere of “RBG,” a documentary about Ginsburg’s life. The crowd included Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute; “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman; and CNN President Jeff Zucker.

Totenberg asked how long Ginsburg, 84, planned to serve. “My answer and the answer that will continue to be my answer is: As long as I can do the job full-steam, I will be here,” Ginsburg said to loud applause.

Founded by Redford in 1981, the Sundance Institute, which organizes the festival, has grown exponentially. The festival nurtures talented and emerging independent filmmakers who submit their features, documentaries and shorts to the festival in hopes of generating interest in their films. Winning an award at Sundance can dramatically improve a film’s chances of making its way to larger audiences in theaters.

The good-natured party at the Sundance Shabbat Lounge drew attendees of all backgrounds to the Wasatch Brew Pub in Park City. Photo by Yehuda Prero

This year’s films included many with Jewish themes, among them: “The Kindergarten Teacher,” a remake of a 2014 Israeli film of the same name; “Three Identical Strangers,” a documentary about Jewish triplets separated at birth; “Eve,” a 22-minute meditation on widowhood directed, written and produced by and starring Susan Bay Nimoy, the widow of actor Leonard Nimoy and cousin of Temple Israel of Hollywood Rabbi John Rosove; “The Oslo Diaries,” a documentary featuring Shimon Peres’ final interview about the Oslo Accords; and “The Catcher Was a Spy,” about a Jewish baseball player who was recruited by the U.S. government to assassinate a German-Nazi scientist.

“If you’re a film junkie, Sundance is amazing,” said Dan Adler, founder of Media Eagles, an L.A.-based media consultancy firm. “It is the one thing I do as a treat to myself. It’s a great experience.”

This year, Adler arrived at the festival after the opening weekend to avoid the large crowds. In just a few days, he saw 21 films, mostly documentaries.

Adler is both a supporter of Bookstein’s work — including Shabbat Tent —and a member of Temple Har Shalom, a Reform congregation in Park City. The synagogue community serves as an official screening site dubbed the Temple Theatre.

“Sundance completely takes over the temple — it’s part of our operating budget,” Har Shalom Rabbi David Levinsky said. “It’s a chance, essentially, to let Jewish visitors to the Sundance festival know there is a thriving Jewish community here in Park City.”

The Jewish side of Sundance attracted plenty of non-Jews as well. Olga Goister, an independent filmmaker who recently relocated from L.A. to New York, found herself at the Shabbat dinner. The Ukrainian native, whose favorite film growing up was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.,” started chatting with a music composer seated across from her. When she mentioned that she might need his music for a film one day, he gave her a business card with a built-in USB drive holding his music.

But Goister may have been seeking something deeper than industry networking. Later, she approached Bookstein and asked the bearded rabbi to say a prayer for her success. Surrounded by people from all over the world — from Denmark, India, Mexico, the U.S. and Israel, enjoying beer, cocktails and one another’s company — Bookstein read to Goister a passage from his prayer book that said the key to happiness is improving one’s character.

As the rabbi spoke, Goister said later, she realized she had found what she was looking for — “a combo of good-hearted spiritual people and amazing filmmakers, who,” she said, “are ready to help each other.”

This article was corrected to reflect that Rabbi Yonah Bookstein’s background is not in the Chabad movement. 

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