Spotted in Jewish DMV: JxJ Film and Music Festival

by Samuel Milligan / April 26, 2023

The art we make and the art we love express who we are and share the wisdom we’ve collected. What are you reading right now? What’s your favorite movie? Who was on your Spotify Wrapped last year? The person who loves In the Heights and the person who’s obsessed with “The Rite of Spring” and the person who deeply relates to Everything Everywhere All at Once are all interacting with the world in their own unique, individual ways. Whether we’re creating or part of the audience, art is something we use to say: This is who I am

With the Washington Jewish Film and Music Festivals rapidly approaching, we checked in with the creative team at JxJ to get an inside look at the stories this year’s festivals tell, the ways that art informs our connection with Jewishness, and the next generation of Jewish storytelling.

Read our conversation with Yael Luttwak (Artistic Director), Lena Barkin (Marketing Coordinator), Jacob Ettkin (Arts Outreach Coordinator), and Mariel Tabachnick (Coordinator) below!

Blue watercolor background. Text: JxJ DC Jewish Film and Music Festival; May 11-21, 2023

Samuel: What overarching story do you see this year’s festival telling?

Yael: It’s about bringing people back to movies, to concerts, and to each other. The content has that incredible ability. There’s nothing like art and culture to bring people together. 

Lena: A lot of people are still grappling with how to build and grow connections after so long in a containment mindset. What used to feel challenging feels almost impossible now. I see this festival’s story as investigating how those connections outside ourselves are made and what they mean. Whether it’s through romance or sense of duty or grief, movies don’t work without human connection. Sometimes, it’s portraying connection as a struggle, but that can be cathartic, too. Like, yes, I also think this sucks! 

Jacob: I keep coming back to this phrase: ‘new lenses.’ Camera puns aside, so many of these films focus on exploring new sides of the Jewish condition. They also talk about empathy. In this post-quarantine world that we are still struggling to live in, stories about empathy and connection feel more relevant and more necessary than ever.

A still from Queen of the Deuce, directed by Valerie Kontakos. Playing at JxJ 2023.

Queen of the Deuce, directed by Valerie Kontakos.

Samuel: What stories or experiences in this year’s JxJ do you think specifically appeal to younger audiences? 

Jacob: As a young queer professional myself, I’m really excited about Queen of the Deuce and Concerned Citizen. Both films take a look at queer voices, one being an 80-year-old Jewish lesbian grandma, the other being about a gay couple confronting gentrification in their neighborhoods.

Lena: Maybe it’s the Turner Classic Movies addict in me, but I tend to believe there’s not as big of a divide between generational movie goers as we like to think. There are a lot of stories about self-discovery and growing up that center around young adults, like the romcom Matchmaking and social commentary Concerned Citizen. But, I’m equally interested in the documentary stories of past generations, like The Seven Years of Absalon or Pocketful of Miracles, and the ways those events connect with what’s happening around us now. As long as the story is fresh and interesting, the film feels personal and unique.

Samuel: What would you like a 20- or 30-something to take away from the experience of being able to see all this deeply Jewish art?

Mariel: As a 26-year-old myself, I think it’s important for us to appreciate access to Jewish art. Now, more than ever, with rising antisemitism, I think it’s also especially moving to be able to see and engage with Jewish art. Even making Jewish art is a way to process our positionality within the world right now.

A still from Concerned Citizen, directed by Idan Haguel. Playing at JxJ 2023.

Concerned Citizen, directed by Idan Haguel.

Yael: There is a place for you here. We’re so excited to open our doors and watch movies and concerts together. Don’t underestimate your role – we are here for you

Lena: I hope they find something to relate to and realize that so many Jewish conversations are ongoing. Part of being the new generation and being young is just getting caught up on all the stuff that’s happened before, or feeling discouraged because it feels like it’s been done, but it’s an always evolving thing and your voice and viewpoint always count. 

Jacob: Jewish art is alive! It is multifaceted and intersectional! And, most of all, it can be joyous. There is so much joy and so much love in these stories and these concerts: joy that I hope spreads past the walls of the theaters.

Samuel: What role has Jewish art played in constructing (or helping you construct) your personal relationship with Judaism and Jewishness?

Lena: It makes you start thinking about how you’d want to be reflected. It’s hard to speak to specific ways Jewish art influenced me…It’s just there and always has been. 

A still from March '68, directed by Krzysztof Lang. Playing at JxJ 2023.

March ’68, directed by Krzysztof Lang.

Yael: I am not a religious Jewish person. So, culture and art are the prime ways that I’ve shaped my Jewish identity. Art is the way that I have educated and continue to educate myself about being Jewish. The role art plays is critical. I’m not alone; for a lot of people, art is the way to learn what it is to be Jewish, to learn our history, and to pass it on. 

Mariel: The more I engage with Jewish art, the more I feel connected to my own Jewishness. Seeing how others are able to express themselves and our histories through film inspires me to do the same. 

Samuel: You can go see a film or artist at JxJ with three other people. Who are they and why? 

Mariel: I would take my late grandma and my relatives who lived on shtetls in Eastern Europe to see the movie SHTTL. This movie is about the day before Nazi Germany invades a shtetl in Poland. This film showcases the history of my own family, which I found fascinating. I think it would have been amazing to watch and discuss this film with my own relatives who went through the same thing.

A still from SHTTL, directed by Ady Walter. Playing at JxJ 2023.

SHTTL, directed by Ady Walter.

Samuel: What’s a film or musical act from the past that you wish could have debuted at JxJ?

Jacob: I’m absolutely obsessed with the band Schmekel  – an all-transgender Jewish folk punk group that was around in the early 2010s. To hear hits like “Homotaschen” and “New Men with Old Man Names” at JxJ would be incredible.

Lena: Maybe Duck Soup. Or the Follies with Fanny Brice. From this century? Inside Llewyn Davis

Mariel: I wish that the film Shiva Baby could have debuted at JxJ. I absolutely loved it. It was a refreshing take on Jewish life that I found very relatable. The script and acting were amazing. 

Yael: “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn. That song is at the heart of why we do what we do. It’s a song about Memphis and the blues, but he’s also showing his own Jewish heritage. It gives this really important universal message about building bridges and educating. 

A still from Homeboys, directed by Tamar Goren. Playing at JxJ 2023.

Homeboys, directed by Tamar Goren.

Samuel: Okay, last one. How does art help shape shared identity within a community?

Lena: When art comes from within a community, it both takes and gives back. It couldn’t exist without the history and tropes and stories and commentary that have already been shared over and over by people; it needs that bedrock from which to draw. But, when you add something new to the community, it changes the fabric just a little. Everyone who adds to it becomes part of it and can shift things around.

Mariel: Diversity in art is essential in order to see a community for what it is, as opposed to a monolith of similar views. For example, this year’s festival showcases many aspects of Jewish community, illustrating that the Jewish community is vast and diverse.

Yael: Art is storytelling. Stories are our soul. They’ve always been the soul of our culture and who we are. That’s why they’re the most powerful way to connect. We have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to use this platform to connect with one another. 

Jacob: One of the most impactful articles I read in college was about the idea of the co-authored self – the idea that identity is formed through storytelling. A sense of self comes through asking, “What do the stories I tell myself about myself say about me? The stories my family tells me about me? The stories my society tells me about me?” Therefore, the stories we see on our screens are core to defining who we are as individuals and as a community. Art provides space for communities to come together and reflect. 

JxJ Festival; May 11-21, 2023; GatherDC film pass; Use code GATHERFEST for 3 films for $30 total

PS: Want to check out some of the awesome films at JxJ? Visit JxJ’s website and use GatherDC’s code “GATHERFEST” to get tickets to three screenings for only $30 total! 

Plus…want a night out at the movies (or concerts!) with other DMV 20s and 30s? Check out some of the awesome community-organized JxJ events on our calendar!

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.