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Film series brings American docs to life

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A scene from Famous Nathan

After hosting several screenings for this spring’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival, the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema will devote its auditorium to films about the Jewish American experience this June.

For a film series entitled “This Jewish American Life”, programmers will screen documentaries focusing on 20th century success stories involving Jewish immigrants to the United States. The titles range from explorations of iconic food companies to profiles of cinema and television pioneers.

“These films are very specific to a Jewish experience,” says cinema programmer and managing director Alan Black. “But I hope they could resonate with anybody who is new to North America or to this country… and has the experience of being in-between two cultures.”

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This package of non-fiction features came to fruition, Black adds, after he watched Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream. That 2015 doc, directed by Michael Levine, tells the inter-generational story of the famed factory in New York’s Lower East Side.

Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream

Although Black wanted to show the film publicly before Passover, due to other commitments, the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema could not. Regardless, the film’s subject matter reminded him of other treatments of Jewish life.

“There have been, maybe, a good two dozen films particularly about this New York Jewish experience,” Black says. “I [also] wanted to really focus on those types of films that were about rebirth and community and family.”

Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream will screen at 11 a.m. on June 16. On the following Saturday, June 23, Toronto audiences can see the similarly themed Famous Nathan, a 2014 doc about a Coney Island hot dog hotspot, Nathan’s Famous, which grew into a chain with worldwide recognition.

Various selections should prove to be a celebration of Jewish culture in America, through entrepreneurial and artistic ventures.

“This Jewish American Life” opens on June 2 with Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream. Directed by Israeli-Canadian Simcha Jacobovici, the doc looks at the rise of several Hollywood moguls, including Louis B. Mayer, Harry Warner, and Sam Goldwyn.

The series will close on June 24 with Hava Nagila, a doc from Roberta Grossman that explores the unexpected rise of the titular tune.

Meanwhile, festival favourite Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (playing June 10) will examine the career of Tony- and Emmy-winning actor Gertrude Berg. Born in Manhattan in 1899, Berg was best known for her radio series The Goldbergs, which later became a success on the small screen.

“I hope that people can see and understand that value [of] bringing new stories and new perspectives to a country,” Black says.

For Black, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, watching many of the selected titles brought back memories of his grandparents and their family traditions.

“Immigrants are typically very resourceful. When they bring their culture here, it can become part of the larger culture in a way that’s amazing. That’s what makes Canada and the [United] States unique places.”

In terms of Canadian content, the documentary When Jews Were Funny, from Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig, will play as a matinée on June 17.

An audience favourite at TIFF in 2013, the film features interviews with many prominent Jewish comedians, as Zweig investigates the reasons behind why Jews have brought so much good humour into American society.

As for a program that celebrates the Canadian Jewish experience, that may have to wait until another year.

“I can imagine there are, for sure, more iterations of this series,” Black says. “There’s no shortage of good [Jewish-themed] movies that are out there.”