The Spokane Jewish Film Festival will be featuring  “American Birthright,” “High Maintenance: The Life and Work of Dani Karavan,” “Kiss Me Kosher,” “Neighbours,” “A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto,” “With Slight Steps,” “Wet Dog,” “Pops,” “Masel Tov Cocktail,” “A Jew Walks into a Bar” and “Eight Nights.”

Exploring the variety of nuances in the Jewish religion and culture through film, the Spokane Area Jewish Family Services (SAJFS) starts its 18th annual Jewish Culture Film Festival today at the Garland Theater. 

The ten day event features eleven films, the longest film festival hosted by SAJFS to date, and will certainly entertain while sparking deep discussions on what it means to be Jewish.

The film festival was started 18 years ago to unite the Jewish community in the city through films about their culture and religion, and according to Neal Schindler, director of SAJFS, it is the largest film festival in the Inland Northwest.

Since then, the festival has grown significantly, becoming a yearly tradition of the SAJFS. Schindler says that this tradition is one of the main events that the organization puts on and that the event’s purpose has expanded to not only be for the Jewish community but for all people in the Inland Northwest looking to learn more about Judaism.

“There are not many Jewish cultural events that are open to the public, and this one is not just for our city but the region,” Schindler said. "It's important to do this to provide a sense to many people outside of the Jewish community what it means to be Jewish.”

Schindler believes that these 11 films for this year's festival will certainly fulfill this purpose, depicting the variety of nuances in the Jewish culture and religion.  Schindler believes that these films will connect with people on an emotional level while also being accessible to people of wide audience.

The 11 Jewish movies in total are: “American Birthright,” “High Maintenance: The Life and Work of Dani Karavan,” “Kiss Me Kosher,” “Neighbours,” “A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto,” “With Slight Steps,” “Wet Dog,” “Pops,” “Masel Tov Cocktail,” “A Jew Walks into a Bar” and “Eight Nights.”

These films were chosen after months of selection and deliberation that began in July when Schindler started searching for cinematic pieces with Jewish themes.  Schindler said that he and the selection committee, a team of people that made the final decision for the film list, are confident that these movies will be entertaining while also painting a detailed notion of what it means to be Jewish.

Schindler said that he is proud that the wide array of films is diverse, including a mixture of documentaries, comedies and more serious movies, all with varying lengths from producers all around the world.  He said this range of films will complicate the common ideas of what it means to be Jewish that are sometimes even present in the Jewish community.

“My hope is that everyone who attends finds at least a couple of films that really resonated with them, to come out of it knowing something that you didn't know before, to have greater appreciation of film in general and Jewish film in particular,” Schindler said.

Of course, the festival is more than just about the watching of films but includes the discussions afterwards.  Schindler has worked hard since being given the final list of films for the festival to bring in relevant speakers for after-film discussions.

One of these speakers will be Jonathan Miller, who helped produce the documentary, “A Jew Walks into a Bar,” which follows the journey of how an ultra-orthodox Jew became a standup comedian.  Miller said that he was excited that the film was going to be screened at the festival, and he believes that it presents a unique film that will be entertaining for an audience.

“In many ways, what David is going through, while it's very specific, is also very universal for people who are doing something that's against the way they're brought up,” Miller said.  “There's a lot of themes of finding yourself, finding your voice. So, even though what he's trying to do is very specific, the themes are certainly universal.”

While this film festival marks its 18th year, Schindler says that this festival is particularly important because of the current events that have sparked fear in the Jewish community.  Schindler said that it has been only a year since the organization center was vandalized with Swastikas, which makes the purpose of this festival to educate and support even more salient.

“Whenever there's a Jewish cultural event, there's the opportunity for folks, not just to learn more about Judaism and Jewish identity, but also to show solidarity with the community,” Schindler said.  “I found that folks want to show solidarity here in Spokane here in the Northwest, and a way to do that is to support (these) events.”

The first night of the film festival will show the British short film “Pop” and the Italian film “A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto” in the Garland Theater in downtown Spokane. Proof of vaccine will be required upon entry.

This will be the only screening that is open to the public. Due to COVID-19 concerns, however, the rest of the movies will be screened privately for the Jewish community on Gonzaga University’s campus.  Still, Schindler said that everyone is invited to participate in the discussions afterwards via Zoom.

Noah Apprill-Sokol is a staff writer.