From the Israeli television series “Mary Lou”
From the Israeli television series “Mary Lou”

‘By the time I visited Israel, I had seen 500 Israeli films.’

I was raised in a New York labor union Jewish family, and from my childhood through my teens my parents sent me to a commie Quaker camp, so I missed out on summers working on a kibbutz. My engagement with Israel transpired through celluloid images as an audience member of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival beginning in the early 1990s. By the time I first visited Israel, I had already seen at least 500 Israeli films.

Among the most memorable scenes from those films: the exchanges between the African-American high school students from Bedford-Stuyvesant and the young kibbutzniks who worked the land near the Syrian border in “Black to the Promised Land”; a Sephardic Jewish family’s struggle for survival in the turmoil of British-occupied Palestine in “The House on Chelouche Street”; and the expressive face of Gila Almagor — Israel’s first lady of stage and screen — in “Under the Domim Tree,” the autobiographical film about Gila’s childhood in a youth village for war orphans. These films provoked questions and left a deep imprint.

As I continued my Israel education through film, I discovered the incredible diversity of Israeli society, the multiple narratives of Jewish refugees from Arab countries, from Africa, from Europe — as well as Israeli culture, art, music, theater and landscape. I navigated the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the provocative works of Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers, impressed at their ability to put forward critical perspectives in groundbreaking and award-winning films.

I absorbed the early TV series “Florentine,” directed by Eytan Fox, set in the hip Bohemian district in South Tel Aviv and distinguished for the first gay kiss on Israeli TV; “Mary Lou” featuring Meir, a young man who performs in a Tel Aviv nightclub as a drag queen enacting a story based on the songs of Israeli pop legend Svika Pick; and Sayed Kashua’s raucous and irreverent voice that introduced us to Amjad, a Palestinian journalist and Israeli citizen with biting and satirical humor in “Arab Labor.”

When I finally visited Israel in 2012, it was as the executive director of the Jewish Film Institute, to meet with film industry leaders and to discover films for the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I attended the Haifa Film Festival, where the organizers rolled out a red carpet and announced our names as we entered the theater on opening night. We traveled from Haifa to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to the Sapir film school in Sderot. Flashes of film memories reappeared connected to each place.

One day in Tel Aviv we stopped for lunch after a visit to the Cinematheque and the glamorous Gila Almagor joined us. She recounted one of her fondest memories, as a guest at the 1988 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival with her film “Summer of Aviya.” In the film, she played her mother, a Holocaust survivor and partisan who settled on a kibbutz after the war. Her mother acted so erratically that no children came to Gila’s 10th birthday party. Gila mentioned from the Casto Theatre stage that she’d never had another birthday party since then, and shared that her birthday happened to be that day. The entire Castro audience, without missing a beat, spontaneously burst into a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

I’ve learned about Israel for years through the prism of Israeli cinema refracted back to me in Bay Area theaters, surrounded by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival community. As Israel marks its 70th anniversary amid a renewed sense of turmoil in the region, I know that its cinema will continue to be a crucial medium for excavating these issues, and that the Jewish Film Institute will continue to discover and present it.

Lexi Leban

Lexi Leban is executive director of the Jewish Film Institute.