November 19, 2018

L.A. Jewish Film Fest: From grave to whimsical all in one week

This year’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, running May 1-8, features more than a dozen feature films and a number of shorts, all touching on major topics in Jewish contemporary life; many focus on self-preservation and conflict, but there’s also lighter fare mixed into the programming.

One whimsical entry, “Cupcakes,” is a musical comedy about a group of young Tel Aviv neighbors who compose a song that goes viral and lands them on a Eurovision-like television contest. In the romantic comedy “One Small Hitch,” a young woman agrees to fake an engagement with her old friend to please his dying father, but the charade leads to some genuine feelings. 

A standout is “The Life of the Jews in Palestine: 1913.” The festival will screen historical footage of Jewish immigrants building settlements in Ottoman Palestine, as it was then called, on the eve of World War I, 35 years before the founding of the State of Israel. The footage disappeared for 80 years, and this will be the first time the newly restored digital copy will be seen outside of Israel.

While all the selections this year are fascinating, here are three highlights:

“The Sturgeon Queens” 

Even if you don’t go meshugge for the taste of smoked salmon, you’ll still get a kick out of this one-hour documentary that follows four generations of the Russ family and their iconic Russ & Daughters lox and herring market on New York’s Lower East Side.

Director Julie Cohen discovered the shop while producing a PBS documentary in 2007 called “The Jews of New York” and interviewed patriarch Joel Russ’ daughters, Hattie Russ Gold and Anne Russ Federman. They’re now 101 and 93, respectively, and retired in Florida, yet their enthusiasm for the store and its history radiates. That original interview is paired with cameos by longtime clientele and by celebrity customers, including actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, chef Mario Batali and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The film also marks the centennial of the store’s opening in 1914, and looks to the future as the new owners, the great-grandchildren of the founder, plan to open a Russ & Daughters cafe, organize a “Herring Pairing” and other events, and create buzz-worthy delicacies like the “Super Heeb,” the store’s most popular sandwich. Cohen says the name raises fewer eyebrows among film audiences than what goes on the sandwich: wasabi flying-fish roe. “When they see the green wasabi caviar, there’s a gasp,” she said with a laugh. “People seem very concerned about the very nontraditional idea of putting wasabi on a sandwich with cream cheese and white fish.”

But those tensions pale in comparison with the difficult decisions made by Joel Russ in the 1910s and ’20s, when he chose to keep the store open on Shabbat and to serve nonkosher fish. Other tensions arose in the 1970s, when Latinos began working behind the counter. Some customers left in protest, but Herman Vargas, now the store’s general manager, recalls winning them over by greeting them in Yiddish. Now, Cohen says, Vargas “speaks better Yiddish than most members of the Russ family.” And his skill at turning a hunk of salmon into perfect, paper-thin slices has even earned him the nickname “The Artistic Slicer.”

In the film’s credits, Cohen includes photographs of the film crew’s ancestors and the years in which they first immigrated to America, be it from Italy, Pakistan or pre-Israel Palestine. “The Russ family story is echoed by generations of so many Jewish families who came from Europe to the Lower East Side and pretty much everywhere else,” Cohen said. “Their family story — moving from poverty to education and success, and also the tensions between tradition and assimilation — it’s a story that a lot of Jewish-Americans and other groups of immigrants can relate to.”

May 3, Laemmle Town Center, May 4, Laemmle Music Hall

“Operation Sunflower”