12 OLAM | FEBRUARY 28, 2020
F E AT U R E
Movies engender experiences that have a stronger staying power than lectures, not to mention classes in Hebrew. BY MAARI WEISS
JEWISH IDENTITY THROUGH FILM: A Series of Screenings And Discussions
fter gaining firsthand experience with the amount of convincing it can take to motivate children to attend Jewish Sunday schools, Professor Amitai Etzioni, a German-born Israeli and American sociologist had an idea. He began pushing for the use of movies in Jewish education, for both children and lifelong learners. In his words, “Movies engender experiences that have a stronger staying power than lectures, not to mention classes in Hebrew. If properly chosen, they have a powerful affective and normative content – while also entertaining. That is, they are enticing rather than off-putting.”
In the years and decades since his efforts to cajole his children to attend Sunday school, Etzioni shared his proposal with many Jewish educators. While the educators liked the concept, it did not gain traction until he brought it up with Carole Zawatsky, the CEO of the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center in Washington (DCJCC). They named the series “Jewish Identity Through Film.” Etzioni created a curriculum consisting of seven movies, each followed by a dialogue that he would moderate. He aimed to select lesser known movies, feeling it would be better if the participants had just seen the movie for the first time. The series began on Sunday, October 6, 2019 and ran for seven consecutive Sundays, with screenings each week in the DCJCC’s newly renovated theater. The first movie they showed was Sarah’s Key, a 2010 film adapted from a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, directed and co-written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, and starring Kristin Scott Thomas. The movie toggles between two stories. One follows an American expat journalist living in modern-day Paris as she writes about the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of Parisian Jews and discovers a family connection to those events. The other shows a young Jewish girl’s experience in the Roundup and its aftermath. The conversation after the film focused on fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, including the value of joining with other groups and communities of
faith, and the merits of organizing around political and civic causes. Participants also discussed the importance of speaking out in small instances of public and private anti-Semitism and the power of telling individual stories, rather than sharing statistics.
The second film was Ida, the winner of the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, the movie takes place in 1962, when an orphaned young woman in Poland prepares to take her vows as a Catholic nun. Before doing so, she meets her aunt and learns that her parents were Jews. In an effort to learn more about what happened to their family, the two women travel together into the Polish countryside. For this film screening and discussion session, Professor Walter Reich served as the guest leader. The conversation began with a Polish audience member sharing her family’s story and the way the film resonated with her. Afterwards, the discussion primarily took the form of a question-and-answer session. The questions covered topics such as geography, the Jewish population of Poland, Poland’s refusal to accept responsibility for it’s actions during the Holocaust and failure to try to reckon with and atone for its past (unlike Germany), and the current state of anti-Semitism and Holocaust education in Poland and Germany.