Exploring Jewish Identity Through Documentaries

The set up couldn’t be more Jewish.

The audience watches an introspective documentary film about a woman’s search for her “Jewish soul,”and then they give their honest feedback about how to make it better.

This scenario will take place on Sunday, August 6th as part of the launch of Docs In Progress’ newest NEA-funded program, Docs in the City. Docs in the City builds on Docs In Progress’ strong record of programming aimed at mentoring emerging documentary filmmakers while connecting them with enthusiastic audiences are interested in documentary film, the creative process, and the film topics.

The August 6th event, co-hosted by The Washington Jewish Film Festival, will kick-off with the screening of local filmmaker Bonnie Rich’s work-in-progress, Searching for My Jewish Soul. An audience feedback session will follow, moderated by Docs In Progress’ Erica Ginsberg. After that, the program continues with the screening of a completed documentary, 51 Birch Street, by a well-known New York (and Jewish) filmmaker, Doug Block. A Q&A with Block will follow.

In “Searching for My Jewish Soul,” Bonnie Rich takes a light-hearted approach to a serious matter—convincing her millennial daughters to raise her unborn grandchildren Jewish. Her daughters see little need for religion as they navigate adulthood. Bonnie is undeterred and pursues meaning in Judaism beyond matzo ball soup as she: goes on a 40-day diet of prayer, embraces Bubbie and Zaydie wisdom, sings Jewish songs off-key, and drags the girls to meet with rabbis. But will she convince her daughters that Judaism is relevant?

We had the chance to speak with Rich’s twenty-something year-old daughters, Leah and Rebecca, to learn more about what it was like to be the subject of this documentary. Leah lives in San Diego and is in the fitness industry, and Rebecca is a baker at the Wydown Coffee Bar in DC. You may also know Rebecca as an attendee at one of our Mini Gatherings and Happy Hours.

What did you think when she told you she was going to make the film?

Leah and Rebecca: We don’t think her idea for the movie came to be over night. It was a combination of several conversations we had with her about the millennial perspective of life and religion, not so wonderful synagogue experiences, and reconnecting with our family history.

What do you make of the process? Did you like being interviewed?

Leah and Rebecca: Our mom has been documenting our lives since we were children. Sometimes we were scripted, wearing silly clothing or singing…but we always played along.

We were good sports until she made us redo the shot three times, and then we’d max out on patience (which is still the case)… but we have never thought twice about our mom’s projects and we actually enjoy being on camera! Our mom is the most supportive and caring woman we know, and we were happy to support her along her process.

Was it hard sharing with your family that you weren’t going to raise your children Jewish?

Leah and Rebecca: Our entire family is extremely supportive of the life decisions we make. They all agree that as long as the person we choose treats us well, they don’t care if they are Jewish. However, our mom has obviously made a point that she wants our children to be raised Jewish. Neither of us has children yet, so we will all just have to wait and see what happens. She has put very loving pressure on us to raise our children Jewish, and we intend to continue the family traditions.

Has your perspective on your Jewishness evolved in the process of your mother making this film?

Rebecca: My perspective on Judaism has changed in the sense that I feel more open-minded to joining young adult Jewish groups and events and having the occasional Shabbat dinner with friends. However, I still don’t have any interest in learning the Torah, morning service, or more ritual than I learned in Hebrew school. I have a strong love and appreciation for the family traditions during high holidays and Passover, and I plan to continue those in the future. Every time I mention the documentary to anyone, it strikes a very interesting conversation about religion. She’s definitely provoking my generation to think about faith and spirituality.

We also spoke with Erica Ginsberg, Executive Director of Docs In Progress about how she connects with her Jewishness and her programming decisions.

Tell us a bit more about this new program, Docs in the City.

This new program, Docs In The City, combines Docs In Progress’ vision of fostering a supportive community for documentary filmmakers and deepening the public’s appreciation for the artform. It does this by connecting a seasoned filmmaker with an emerging filmmaker in a way that provides professional development to the emerging filmmaker while also providing a different kind of screening experience for the broader public. By selecting two films which have commonalities in genre or theme, we revisit both an iconic film of that genre while also helping to workshop a film in development. The audience becomes an active participant in that process rather than just viewing the film passively or just asking questions about how it was made. Thus, the screening becomes more of an experience than just an afternoon at the movies.

What made you choose these films for August 6th?

We knew that we wanted to bring Doug Block to Washington DC as part of this program. He is an award-winning filmmaker who is best known for some of the best personal documentaries of the past decade, including The Kids Grow Up, 112 Weddings, and the film we will be spotlighting, 51 Birch Street. As soon as we knew that we wanted to bring Doug, we started to put out feelers for another film which was also personal in nature. We didn’t have to look far. Bonnie Rich had been part of our Fellowship program and had started to develop the film which has become Searching for My Jewish Soul. I knew that the films had some overlapping themes in terms of the relationships between parents and children, but they were also different enough that we could create a really interesting juxtaposition program between them.

While we look at this more as a personal documentary themed program rather than a specifically Jewish-themed program, there is no question that both films deal in different ways with aspects of contemporary Jewish-American life. That is why we approached the Washington Jewish Film Festival (who we had partnered with on several other work-in-progress screenings) to co-host the screening. They are an incredible partner.

You’re Jewish. How do you connect with your Jewishness?

In many ways, I connect with Bonnie’s daughters.

I wasn’t raised particularly religiously. I never belonged to a synagogue growing up (though we would occasionally go to the University of Maryland for the High Holy Days). I never had a bat mitzvah. I’ve never been to Israel. The first time I ever really felt I connected with my Jewishness was when I studied abroad as an undergraduate in Dublin, Ireland, and got to know a little bit about the city’s tiny Jewish community. Later I worked for the Washington Jewish Film Festival while I was studying film in grad school, and I kept a copy of Judaism for Dummies in my drawer…which I would consult regularly when I didn’t understand something I encountered, such as why donors would write checks in amounts like $18 and $36. I still don’t consider myself particularly religious, but I do feel a strong connection to being culturally Jewish. I have a great appreciation for Jewish humor which I think comes through in both of these films.
You can catch this programming on Sunday, August 6th at the DCJCC. Tickets are $13.50/screening or $25/both. Searching for My Jewish Soul starts at 2:00pm and 51 Birch Street starts at 4:00pm. Got to http://www.docsinprogress.org/docsincity for more info and for tickets.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.
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