Film | Stuck in the Middle With You

Directors Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow

I’ve noticed that I do this thing that is quintessentially Jewish: I can’t help slanting a story based on who is listening, especially when I’m talking about the “I” word, a.k.a. Israel.

This past spring, the documentary Between Two Worlds premiered at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. The film looks at how sensitive issues- such as intermarriage and remembering the Holocaust- are given voice in the Jewish world.  But the main focus was on the politics around talking about Israel.

The screening was followed by a colourful discussion which revealed considerable disquiet among audience members about some of the pillars that have seeped into the Toronto Jewish community in the last decade or so. Sample view: just go to Hillel, love Netanyahu and never use the word “occupation.” Towards the end of the discussion, I considered the ways I might describe this film to a staunchly pro-Israel colleague, or how I’d outline its’ main argument to a J-street enthusiast. My realisation: When talking Israel, I frame what I’m saying depending on whom I’m speaking to. It’s the art of storytelling, I assure myself. The best tellers do it.

I’d like to think I’ve been talking about Between Two Worlds objectively since I saw it, but this is a fallacy.  Surely it’s normal to assess your audience and then speak accordingly? Bottom line: why am I so worried about getting it wrong when I talk about this particular film?

Since meeting the film’s directors Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, I feel strengthened by the idea that our global Jewish community’s dirty laundry is normal and unavoidable, that a concern over information getting into the wrong hands gets us nowhere and that debate which runs in a seemingly unmanageable direction is preferable to living in conditions where there is no debate at all.

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I met with Kaufman and Snitow at the Sutton Place Hotel where we engaged in some friendly chit-chat before Kaufman asked the question that pretty much cemented why this film was made. A calm and unassuming character, Snitow suddenly produced an impressive round of words against the “shallow identification festival” otherwise known as Birthright, continuing on in this vein until Kaufman cut in, “Do [kids] still do kibbutz? Because that’s evaporated in the United States.  Learn some Hebrew, pick oranges… right?”  It seemed I’d chanced upon friends from a lost era, renegades who romanticise their own Israel experience replete with memories of communal farming life.   They acknowledge a shift in how young people identify with Israel today. There’s more of a political association now. The directors use this shift to frame a new historical moment within global Jewish politics acknowledging our increasingly well-trodden M.O. of disunity, disillusionment and heartache.  It’s not a snapshot for warm and fuzzy, but that’s what other documentaries at the festival were there for.

The catalyst for the making of Between Two Worlds was the incendiary backlash at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2009, when organisers programmed Simone Bitton’s controversial film Rachel. Based on the life of activist Rachel Corrie, this controversy was an evocative place for Kaufman and Snitow to begin their story, painting a bleak picture of our Jewish communal status quo; figureheads at loggerheads, hippies vs Sharansky-ites.  Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, explains that the censorship gods during the Rachel fiasco had appointed themselves “the sole arbiter” of which media the entire community should be allowed to create and to consume.

So who decides what is appropriate for public consumption? Kaufman affirms, it’s the “job” of cultural institutions to break bans on talking to others. “I’m very disturbed by the collapse of the middle, that people are just getting silent rather than defending [question-asking]. I’m upset about it. In the Jewish establishment, it’s pervasive, this silence of the middle.”   [Bolded Pull-quote]

Snitow agrees, taking it up a notch with the position that non-Jews, too, are “afraid of getting involved in the mishigas of the Jews, particularly about Israel… When people are silent, then it really is dangerous for freedom of speech.” He suggests that mainstream Jewish liberals have been so hurt by the perception of Israeli policy [TK4] outside of the Jewish community that they are apprehensive to become further involved in any related discussion.   This may or may not be true.  I have a number of personal friends who’ve experienced anti-semitism on campus but continue to work in the Israel advocacy game. Still, Snitow highlights the challenge of how to reconcile a support for Israel with a commitment to one’s local community, and to liberal politics in general.

I’m curious about which controversial issues will be top priorities for filmmakers in fifty or a hundred years’ time. Kaufman weighs in: “We hope that people are still arguing about Israel because that means Israel still exists… that there will be a strong social justice tradition, which has a major role and position within Jewish identity. Hopefully by then people would have understood that the Jewish community is not monolithic…I hope [in the] future diversity is seen as healthy rather than unhealthy.”

At the beginning of our morning, Kaufman joked that while there has been buzz about the film in Toronto, he hasn’t exactly been recognised on the street. I suggest that with the film premiere that afternoon, there could be another anti-Corrie uprising by some right-from-middle individuals, echoing what happened in San Francisco two years ago. “People on both sides of the Corrie reaction are still eager to bash one another over the heads… It’s clear from our film which side we’re on.”

I’m empowered, then, to be more vocal about which side I’m on: it’s the side proclaiming that seeing this film will be good for you. You might baulk at the obvious out-takes of the right-wing and the observant, but at least they’re in there, and they’re credited with intelligence. More positively, you’ll be fascinated by the way the directors have linked the major issues with an exploration of their personal family history, driving home why we care so much about Jewish continuity in the first place. As far as documentaries go, Between Two Worlds is a page-turner that dishes up lots to talk about, regardless of how you attempt to tell the story when it comes to the “I” word.

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Between Two Worlds screens this Sunday, October 23rd at 7PM in Montreal at Temple Emanuel-Beth-Sholom. More info at What’s Nu?: Shtetl’s on-line calendar of arts and cultural events happening in and around Montreal.

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Janis Seftel is a writer and film festival groupie based in Toronto.  She works at the multi-disciplinary non-profit the Ashkenaz Foundation which co-presented two films at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2011.  The next Ashkenaz Festival will take place in late August-early September 2012.