Tonight: JFilm documentary explores 21st-century Judaism

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Is your culture something that you are born into? Is it something your family and society pass along to you?

And to what extent can you impact your culture? Does changing it destroy it?

You can explore these questions tonight at the showing of "Punk Jews: Create YOUR Culture," an hourlong film presented by JFilm at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Melwood Screening Room in Oakland. After the documentary, there will be a question-and-answer session with producers Evan Kleinman and Saul Sudin, followed by a full-blown reception.

Here's a blurb from the movie website:

"Profiling Hassidic punk rockers, Yiddish street performers, African-American Jewish activists and more. ... Jewish artists, activists and musicians from diverse backgrounds and communities are defying norms and expressing their Jewish identities in unconventional ways."

They had me at "Hassidic punk rockers."

"Tonight's film is wonderful because it really pushes the boundary of what people think Jews, being Jewish and Judiasm are," said Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of JFilm, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. "It's a film about young Jews and what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. But it's a universal message, and that plays into what our mission is. I asked the filmmakers on the way Downtown today what is the message of the film. They said, 'Freedom.'"

That bit about JFilm's "mission" is important. As Ms. Spitz Cohan said, "JFilm, which is the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Forum, presents movies and guest artists from around the world on a year-round schedule for the purpose of exploring and celebrating Jewish culture. A broad range of offerings is designed to reach people of all races, religions, ages and abilities, and collaboration with other organizations brings in new audiences and expands JFilm's reach."

Based in Oakland, the group uses the medium of motion pictures to create a movement of information and understanding.

"We used to just be the annual film festival when I came on board in 2001," Ms. Spitz Cohan said, "but slowly and surely we've grown into a year-round programming organization. It became official in 2009, when we changed our name."

"Punk Jews" is part of JFilm's Red String series aimed at young adults. But next month there will be four short films -- by a native Pittsburgher now living in New York -- intended for all ages.

In April, there is the annual film festival, followed by a short-film competition in May.

"While this is all going on, we have a school program, September through May, that brings in 3,000 students," Ms. Spitz Cohan said. "Most people have only heard about the film festival. But there are all these other things."

The focus on film is vital, she said, because it's such an effective way of communicating.

"We especially see this in our teen screen program, which is our program for schools," she said. "Film is a very important educational tool, especially in this day and age because young people are so attuned to watching film and video. It's a medium kids identify with, and we find the impact can be greater than what they learn in a textbook. As an educational tool, the power of film really can't be beat."

JFilm sets out to do more than have students watch the films. Part of the goal is to inspire and grow the next generation of filmmakers. That's why the men involved with "Punk Jews" agreed to speak to classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Point Park University while they are here.

We checked out the blog written by Jesse Zook Mann, who directed tonight's documentary.

"'Punk Jews' pushes buttons," he wrote. "Whether it's a critique on racism, feminism, offending someone's religious values. ... After we screen the film, there are usually some intense feelings brought up in the question-and-answer period afterward, and we like that. We LOVE that. The film is a journey for us as it is for the viewer. ... We sure don't have the answers, or actually I don't claim to have any answers, but what you see in the film is an authentic representation of our thoughts, and feelings, and the adventure that Evan and I went on. And that journey freaks people out. That's good and fine."

The screening begins at 8 p.m. at 477 Melwood Ave. Admission is $5 for people ages 21 to 44. It's $15 for those 45 and older.

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If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at or 412-263-1456.This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to:


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