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Filmmaking and Identity

Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility February 2005. For more information about Sh'ma, please visit .

I'm learning to make food that my grandmother's grandmother's grandmother made so long ago, and it's kind of like all this pressure to carry on, this tradition. If I don't do it, then my kids won't know how to do it, and that's it. I break the line, I break the Jewish tradition…
- Sixteen-year-old Ukrainian immigrant in the New Jewish Filmmaking Project's (NJFP) documentary As Old As Our Eyes

I'm Jewish on my mother's side and Latino on my father's side. I never knew my father, so my Jewish side is more important to me in a lot of ways . . . But I never really participated in the Jewish community before. I've been to synagogue only a few times . . . I can feel people looking at me and thinking, "What is he doing here?"
Eighteen-year-old Latino Jew in the NJFP video diary This Year in Jerusalem

The New Jewish Filmmaking Project helps teenagers tell stories, in their own voices and images, about the things that are most important to them. Our program takes stock of Jewish cultural diversity while emphasizing storytelling craft and professional film production skills. Such an approach ensures that the films reach thousands of people through festivals, schools, and PBS broadcasts. These films provide a glimpse of how Jewish culture is changing in today's America: all of our teen collaborators identify as Jewish (though many have a non-Jewish parent); most of the teens don't participate in organized Jewish life.

Engaging these teenagers demonstrates the permeability of Jewish identity to different ethnic and cultural identities: "I used to identify more with being Latina because I thought it was cooler than being Jewish. But now I call myself Judia Latina," says a nineteen-year-old Chilean-American Jewish girl in Not Another Jewish Movie (called a "well-crafted gem" by The New York Times' Arts Monthly).

Because the question "who am I?" is foremost in the minds of young adults, ideas of Jewishness and fundamental questions of religion come to the fore even when project participants are exploring relationships with friends and loved ones. Here is a sixteen-year-old ostensibly talking about her older sister: "I always had problems understanding God; then one day Sara said, 'I see God in people.' And I realized that the relationships I have with my sisters are God, the relationships are God." -- From one of Four Short Films About Love (Golden Gate Award, San Francisco International Film Festival)

A rabbi might not exactly accept this girl's definition (we sense it is provisional anyway), but most viewers sympathize with the young person's struggle to understand and define divinity for herself. That search is expressed in the imagery she chooses. A door is cracked open and beyond it, we see three fuzzy shapes. Cut to sisters in golden light, on a Sunday morning, cuddling in a cozy bed, teasing each other and beating each other up, "but not like boys do... Talking to my sisters feels like talking to myself," says the girl, who narrates a visual love poem.

Not surprisingly, dating is a recurring theme. The wide range of attitudes in this sound bite montage is typical:

* I'm not going to stop myself from dating non-Jews, but I have found that everyone I've dated has been Jewish. I like that we can talk about Jewish things.

* My girlfriend comes from an Irish background; there really isn't any similarity between how she acts and how women in my family act. And I think that's one of the things I like about her.

* My mom and dad would both like for me to date and eventually marry a nice Jewish Russian boy.

* Honestly, I don't want to marry someone Jewish. Or maybe I do, but I don't want to marry someone's who's, like, super-Jewish.

* I think it's important for Jewish people to have Jewish kids just to keep the line going. As far as the race, they can be half-Chinese, half black, half anything.

* What does being Jewish mean? It's like… I don't know. It varies from one person to another. It's like being inside of a joke.

Viewed collectively, these teens' stories and inside jokes help us see Jewish identity from the perspective of a new generation.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Sam Ball

Sam Ball is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, whose work has been shown around the world at film festivals, museums, and on television. The New Jewish Filmmaking Project, a program of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, is produced by his company, Citizen Film ( ).

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