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Teens Take On the Jewish Holidays in Short Films

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of JVibe, the magazine for Jewish teens with the title, "Three New Traditions: Teens take over the director's chair in Holidaze." Reprinted by permission.

Some Jews claim that the holidays are just a time to get together with family and friends and eat good food. While this holds some truth, there's a lot more to it than that. Like, what about teens with divorced parents who need to have two very different seders? What about the holidays your family doesn't celebrate? And, while you may think the sun shines out of her spatula, what about all the cool Jewish foods your mom doesn't already know how to cook?

Holidaze teen directors
Young directors of Holidaze hard at work: Karni Semel, second from left and Andrew Herwitz, right. Photo: Citizen Films.

In Holidaze, a new collection of short films that debuted at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last summer, three Bay Area teens collaborated with professional filmmakers to explore how holiday traditions play into their conception of themselves as Jewish teens. Being part of a family--for better or worse--means that holiday memories are often complicated.

Andrew Herwitz, a 16-year-old from Pacifica, Calif., who believes in "bagels and knishes, Woody Allen and Groucho Marx … maybe even Barry Manilow--just not God and the Torah," co-directed "Breakfast Burrito." The film follows Andrew on a memorable Yom Kippur when he joins his more religious friend, Josh, who hates praying and thinks bringing Andrew along to services will make them more bearable. The boys pull out their black yarmulkes like revolvers on the mean streets of San Francisco as though they're in an Al Pacino movie, and it's on.

And then it's nap time. After all, they're fasting, so they pass out at Josh's house during their slow-motion game of Monopoly. The sun eventually sets on these partners-in-crime with a break-fast of burritos on the sidewalk and the yarmulke safely in Andrew's pocket. But as he takes that first bite, a small but significant force propels him to place the yarmulke back on his head. He's not sure he'll keep it on, but "it's always there."

In "More Than a Jelly Doughnut," 15-year-old Karni Zemel from San Francisco shares her story of learning to make sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) for Hanukkah with her mother and sister. "I've always felt like there's a bit more to me than being a Jewish Californian," Karni says. What the rest of this short and sweet film explains is that being a member of her family is one of the things that sets her apart. "Everything is so much more wonderful when my mom and my sister are around," she says, before sitting down with them to dig into the Hanukkah treats.

In the last short, "A New Cup of Wine," anyone from divorced parents can relate to the struggles of 17-year-old Doria Charlson from San Mateo, Calif. What used to be

scene from Holidaze
A scene from the movie Holidaze. Photo: Citizen Film.
her favorite holiday is now a confusing and depressing experience of splitting her time between her mother and father. While she describes her family's pre-divorce holidays as "picturesque," she now attends her mom's seder one night, which is bubbling with first-time seder-goers, and her dad's the next--a quiet and "lonely" night.

When Dad's the one with the prayers and Mom's the one with the party, how can either seder appropriately mark the holiday? Doria learns that it may be time for her to step up to the plate in ways she never considered. What she learns is that "traditions and people and families are adaptable, and that's a really empowering feeling--knowing that you can get through everything because of your traditions."

But the question still remains: What do these teens know about filmmaking? The most important ingredient for any intriguing story is a captivating character. The teens that created these films--Andrew, Karni and Doria, along with Stephanie Uchino, Anna Vignet and Sivan Rachmany--have stories to tell; not just a holiday memory to share, but an investigation of their identities.

Holidaze was created by the New Jewish Filmmaking Project and was produced by Citizen Film. With the help of some seasoned filmmakers who were invested in the project and the teens, these shorts don't look like they were shot on a camera phone. Smooth transitions and endearing moments make the stories thought provoking without taking themselves too seriously. And best of all, after the complications are sorted out, they end with food, family and friends.

For more information on where to see this film, go to sfjff.org. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is launching a New Media Initiative to make films available through an online service.

A Hebrew term for a doughnut, often eaten in Israel during Hanukkah. They are usually filled with jelly and covered in sugar. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Lindsey Silken

Lindsey Silken is the editorial director of InterfaithFamily and lives in Brookline, MA, where she and her fiancé enjoy lots of homemade New England ice cream...and lots of fitness.

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