If we build it? Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow's crew in "Dis-Continuity" cover the Museum of Tolerance's plan to build on part of a Muslim graveyard.

Kaufman and Snitow: New Jewish Identity

Michael Fox May 12, 2009

The American Jewish experience used to be defined by immigration, assimilation, the Holocaust, Israel, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. But Brooklyn has supplanted the Lower East Side, Sacha Baron Cohen (a Brit, but based in the U.S.) has replaced Brooks and Seth Rogen has overtaken the Woodman. As a new generation of young Jews negotiates the relationship between custom and modernity, Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow have jumped into the fray, camera in hand.

Snitow frames the question this way: "What is the process of reinvention within a secular culture?" Kaufman elaborates, "This has happened before in Jewish history, the ones who wanted to retain traditions versus those who were influenced by the greater world around them. To be on the side of change is to be on the side of Jewish survival—that’s the position we’re taking."

will integrate interviews and character-driven stories into the framework of a personal essay, marking a departure of sorts for the veteran East Bay documentary makers of Blacks and Jews (1997) and Thirst (2004). (Full disclosure: I co-authored a 2007 book about water privatization with Snitow and Kaufman inspired by Thirst.) Instead of their usual approach of keeping out of sight behind a journalistic veneer, the filmmakers’ voices and faces will be ever-present in the feature-length piece.

"This is one of the big questions for us, as we have not even narrated our films," Snitow concedes. "We have been outsiders. But we needed to talk about where we were coming from." Adds Kaufman, "I think it’s very important that the audience have a sense of who we are. We have a stake in this, also. We’re not coming to this scientifically."

Kaufman talks about putting themselves in the line of fire along with their subjects, which is hardly unknown territory. The S.F. Jewish Film Festival, which she founded in 1980, consistently received brickbats from the Jewish establishment for showing films—from Israel, mind you—that were critical of Israeli society and policies.

promises to be just as controversial, not least for a segment on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance under construction in Jerusalem on, incredibly, the site of a Muslim cemetery. The filmmakers have an interview with the L.A. institution’s heavyweight founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, already in the can.

Kaufman and Snitow look at another point of connection between Israel and American Jews, the Birthright program that provides a free trip for Jewish teens and young adults. Explicitly intended to forge a connection between a younger generation and the Jewish state, Birthright (or Birthrate, as some call it) has the side effect of promoting relationships that result in marriages—and Jewish births. "We’re doing a film that’s critical of the Jewish establishment to some degree, while we’re taking seriously the question of how survival will take place," Kaufman sums up.

The film is either a quarter or a third of the way through production, depending which member of the husband-wife team you ask. They’ve shot interviews in Los Angeles, New York and Israel, with Bay Area shoots still to come. The final structure, along with the tone and vibe of the filmmakers’ voices, won’t be fully resolved until the postproduction stage, however.

"All of our films are heavily made in the editing room," Kaufman confirms. "There’s no clear-cut ending in any of our films." Snitow adds, "And we don’t usually come down on any side that is predictable. We want to raise the issue of entitlement: Who has the right to speak?"

They recognize that part of their challenge is to illuminate concerns that go beyond the American Jewish community, which doesn’t faze them. Snitow notes that a similar debate with respect to modernity and tradition, and the role of women as something other than baby-carriers, is going on with respect to Islam. And Kaufman asserts, "All American families of all ethnicities are dealing with the same issues—intermarriage, what stories do we keep alive, what myths about our own history do we keep alive—especially in the era of globalization when all people are moving around."

As part of the first-person "research," the duo has watched films by Chris Marker (Sans Soleil), Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares), and a host of other cinema essayists. For more information about the project, visit their web site,

Notes from the Underground

The S.F. Black Film Festival suffered a major setback when founder and prime mover Ave Montague passed away in January. The fest is still scheduled to take place over its customary two weekends, June 4-7 and 11-14, but further details are sketchy at this point. … The next installment in the Quentin Crisp saga, An Englishman in New York, opens Frameline33 on June 18, with Wendy Jo Carlton’s Hannah Free, adapted from a Claudia Allen play, wrapping the festival 10 days later. As previously announced, George and Mike Kuchar are this year’s recipients of the Frameline Award. … Lise Swenson has postponed production on Saltwater until the fall to avoid the scorching Sonora Desert temps while keeping the funding window open.

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