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Biannual Jewish Film Festival to be held Sunday

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For 14 years, Charleston's Jewish Film Festival has had one goal: to promote greater understanding between the Jewish community and the larger community it has flourished in for more than a century.

"These film festivals are becoming much more frequent in towns around the country; there's much more interest," said Fred Pollock, director of the festival. There are more than 200 Jewish film festivals internationally, and 150 in the U.S. alone, according to Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper.

Pollock, a retired doctor who works as an orthopedic consultant at Charleston Area Medical Center, became interested in the idea of starting a festival in the Charleston area after Peter Godfrey, one of his fellow congregants at B'nai Jacob Synagogue on Charleston's East End and the founder of the area's Jewish Cultural Series, broached the idea 15 years ago.

The festival, which is sponsored by the Federated Jewish Charities of Charleston and is free to the public, is a biannual event held every summer and winter. This winter's event will be Sunday starting at 2 p.m. at the Park Place Stadium Theatre in downtown Charleston and will feature two films chosen by the festival's board and Pollock.

"There are three different things we look for in a film: the culture, in particular American Jewish culture, a focus on the Holocaust, which is ripe for drama and analysis, and the third concept centers on modern Israel and the problems it faces," he said.

The first film chosen for Sunday's festival, "When Comedy Went to School," is a 2013 documentary-style film that showcases a range of prominent Jewish comedians who rose to fame during the birth of standup comedy. The film focuses primarily on the "Borscht Belt," an area of the Catskill Mountains that produced performers like Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl and Jerry Stiller.

"A lot of these performers became popular during the middle of the last century, and it was common for Jews from New York to go up to the Catskill Mountains for the summer," Pollock said. "It has a wealth of interviews from these comics who are still around and who we all know, and one of them who has visited Charleston, Jerry Seinfeld, talks about how he saw comics performing there and said, 'I can do that,' and sure enough -- it goes from one generation to the next, and they talk about their experience."

The second film, "The Other Son," has a more somber premise. The 2012 French drama, set in modern Israel, is the tale of two young men -- one who is Israeli, the other Palestinian -- who are switched at birth. According to Pollock, the film is not particularly political, but instead focuses on the emotional repercussions and real-life difficulties of the scenario.

"It's kind of introspective, rather than political," he said. "The families in the story are not especially political families, but they are brought into current politics in Israel."

According to Pollock, the most important aspect of choosing films for the festival is whether they capture the attention of the viewers and leave them with a greater understanding of Jewish culture and experience.

"My main thing in picking these films -- is the film interesting? We want to show things that are interesting, so that people leave it thinking, and it's something that stimulates discussion," he said.

Victor Urecki, who has served as the rabbi at B'nai Jacob for 28 years, said the festival serves as a bridge between the Charleston community and the Jewish community.

"What we appreciate is the diversity of the films in showcasing the vibrancy of the Jewish community," Urecki said. "The Jewish community here is well-established and very active -- the community actually started in Charleston in 1859 with the reformed community, and then the orthodox community came from Europe in the late 1800s and formed our congregation's charter."

For Urecki, the festival is a chance to showcase the Jewish experience in a way that more accurately reflects the complexity of the culture.

"I think it shows the beauty of all societies, and shows that all societies are not monolithic," he said. "It halts the belief that you can understand a community because you know one person in one community; the reality is that all communities are multi-faceted in real life and that every culture has something different to offer -- something unique." Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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