Israel-trip pals reunite to create winning documentary

Sacramento teenager Jonathan Karsh didn’t know a soul when he joined the summer expedition to Israel of the East Bay’s Jewish federation.

“I was resistant and I wasn’t really interested in meeting a bunch of new kids,” Karsh recalls some 15 years later. “I was more interested in staying with my friends and playing basketball all summer.”

By the end of the six-week trip, however, he’d made a batch of friends — including one with whom he’d link up years later to produce a documentary garnering two awards at the Sundance Film Festival.

“My Flesh and Blood,” the film that took Karsh to Park City, Utah, last January, profiles a remarkable Fairfield woman and the 11 equally remarkable children with various illnesses and special needs whom she adopted.

Unexpectedly funny, deeply moving and resolutely unsentimental, “My Flesh and Blood” won the Best Documentary Direction Award and Audience Award for best documentary at Sundance. The film opens Nov. 28 throughout the Bay Area.

One of the friends Karsh made on his Israel sojourn was Jennifer Chaiken from Lafayette. Even after they both migrated to the East Coast for college and careers, respectively in television and film, they kept in touch.

Karsh hosted shows for ABC News and the Discovery Channel, while Chaiken produced the documentaries “Family Name” and “Naked States” and the indie features “Big Eden,” “Restaurant” and “I Love You, Don’t Touch Me!”

“We were both in the media world,” Chaiken recalls, “and not many other people we knew were.”

Eventually, the two gravitated separately back to the Bay Area. Chaiken continued to develop various film projects and Karsh signed on as the host of KPIX’s “Evening Magazine.”

While taping a segment for the show, Karsh encountered Susan Tom and her spirited bunch of children. Xenia, a jaunty 13-year-old Russian girl born without legs, soared fearlessly on a trapeze — and teased Karsh about being too chicken to join her.

“I was always pretty unsatisfied creatively doing three-minute stories,” Karsh says. The Tom family, he realized, might be appropriate subjects for a larger canvas. Still, “I was thinking for a while about making a documentary about the Toms and I wasn’t sure how to go about it,” he says.

He gave Chaiken a call, and she promptly jumped onboard as producer. In a whirlwind conflation of events, Karsh’s contract with KPIX was expiring, he had just gotten married and the Tom clan was about to embark on a six-week road trip.

With his wife’s blessing, Karsh and a small crew joined the Tom family vacation, and a year of filming commenced.

“I think those stories find you,” Karsh says. “You don’t find them.”

Karsh is currently shooting a piece for MTV about the things college students will do for pay, and an AMC show on celebrity lookalikes.

“I come from a family of doctors,” Karsh confides with amusement. “It’s a very nontraditional career I’ve chosen in terms of my pedigree. I’ll have four films on television [next] year and my family is just starting to realize it’s a real career.”

For her part, Chaiken says, “My Jewish upbringing, and the influence of my parents, I am sure has had an influence on the films I’ve done.”

Her parents, Donald and Carole Chaiken, were involved with the construction of the original Contra Costa Jewish Community Center, as well as the addition to the school at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

Jennifer Chaiken credits them with “the idea of offering something, if you’re in a privileged position. There’s a responsibility to community.”

And that trip to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay? Plainly, it was a breeding ground for achievers.

“It was not ‘go hang out and party in Israel,'” Chaiken recalls. “It was a much meatier trip than that.”

“My Flesh and Blood” opens

Nov. 28 in San Francisco, Marin, Berkeley and Palo Alto.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.