San Francisco Jewish Film Festival co-directors Deborah Kaufman and Janis Plotkin in 1991 on the balcony of the Castro Theatre. (Photo/File)
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival co-directors Deborah Kaufman and Janis Plotkin in 1991 on the balcony of the Castro Theatre. (Photo/File)

Wilder, Abzug, Vishniac: How we covered S.F. Jewish Film Fest headliners over the years

Full coverage of the 43rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

In the past hundred or so years, Jewish notables quite often have passed through San Francisco. And when they’ve set foot in our fine city, we’ve written stories about them.

While Gene Wilder, Bella Abzug and Roman Vishniac are long gone, these Jewish luminaries each will make a local appearance in two short weeks, when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival puts them on the big screen as the subjects of documentaries in this year’s festival, July 20 to Aug. 6.

These famous Jews have been featured in our pages before. In 1979, we wrote about Wilder’s “The Frisco Kid,” a thoroughly Jewish road trip comedy he starred in with Harrison Ford.

The movie “will never go down in Hollywood annals as a blockbuster,” reporter Peggy Isaak wrote in the Jewish Bulletin, “but its positive Jewish content was a first in filmland, according to the film’s technical advisor, Rabbi Stephen Robbins of Beverly Hills.”

An article about "The Frisco Kid" from our Dec. 14, 1979 issue.
An article about “The Frisco Kid” from our Dec. 14, 1979 issue.

Robbins had come to San Francisco to visit and tell anecdotes, including that the tallit used by Wilder in the film was the same used by Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer.”

“Though other films of Jewish content have given audiences important messages, ‘The Frisco Kid,’ Rabbi Robbins said, was the first such film where the Jewish main character had a positive image,” our story continued. “Harrison Ford, who played Wilder’s sidekick in an unlikely role as a bank robber and ladies’ man, admitted during the filming that he, too, is Jewish.”

For Wilder, “‘Frisco Kid’ was ‘a joy,’ and the Jewishness of it was important to him,” Robbins said.

In a return of sorts in this year’s festival, the film “Bella!” will reintroduce the irrepressible political fighter and women’s rights advocate to film festival audiences. Because of her political activities, Abzug often appeared in our pages; in 1973, she was visiting the Bay Area on a speaking tour. We ran a Q&A headlined “Bella goes to bat for Jewish women.”

When the writer Jeffrey Gale asked Abzug about the role of women in the synagogue, she said, “When I was a kid I used to come to the Oneg Shabbats and listen to everybody make speeches and often thought I’d like to be up there. Well, now I get invited, to the bima of course, to make speeches, and I consider that a breakthrough.”

An interview with Bella Abzug appeared on the "Women's World" page of our March 30, 1973 issue.
An interview with Bella Abzug appeared on the “Women’s World” page of our March 30, 1973 issue.

When asked if she’d like to see Israel change its laws to admit openly gay Jews (at the time they were excluded under the right of return), she said, “I think it would have to be, if Israel wants to reflect reality.”

Another documentary subject who appeared in our pages was Roman Vishniac, the photographer best known for capturing a 1930s European Jewish world that was destroyed forever by the Holocaust.

The Russian-born biologist studied in Berlin, and in the mid-1930s was hired by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to travel through Europe with his camera. A collection of his images resides now at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley.

In 1947 we mentioned the publication of his book “Polish Jews: A Pictorial Record.” Note the strangely disengaged tone of the description below, even though the war had ended a mere two years before and many Jews in the Bay Area had immigrated directly from Eastern Europe:

“The pictures … show Polish Jews in their meager stores, in their synagogues, walking down the street. Present are the Hassidim in their frock coats and wide-brimmed hats and the little boys with ear-locks and large, limpid eyes.

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“Though their ways were far removed from those of American Jewry, the reader cannot help but feel a pang of recognition for this civilization that is now gone. For most American Jews have forebears who lived this way or looked this way sometime in the dim past.”

Vishniac came to speak in the Bay Area in 1984 when he was 87 (he died six years later). Announcing the event, we pointed out that “of the 16,000 photographs he managed to take secretly and under difficult circumstances, Vishniac was able to rescue only 2,000. He sewed some of the negatives into his clothing when he came to the United States in 1940; most he left with his father in a village in France for the duration of the war.”

Laurie Fink reported on his talk, in which he told his Bay Area audience how he captured Jewish life through a hidden camera under his coat, operating it with a cable.

“‘Only a hidden camera can get the proper expression,’ Vishniac said.”

The work was hard and dangerous: “During ‘Kristallnacht,’ the Night of Broken Glass,” we wrote, “he dressed as a Nazi and witnessed the looting and destruction through the tips of his fingers resting on his hidden camera.”

Not all of the films in this summer’s festival are serious documentaries, of course. Also on the schedule is an anniversary screening of the animated Passover film “The Prince of Egypt,” made in 1998 by DreamWorks and the Hollywood power trio of Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg.

Before the film was even released, the hype was building for the movie that some were calling “The Zion King,” and we reported on the significance of the work.

“To avoid being taken as a preachy religious tract, the Moses saga is being promoted in advance as the ultimate action-adventure, pitting Moses against Pharaoh Ramses,” correspondent Tom Tugend wrote in this paper.

The film is considered a fan favorite now, much loved by the generation who grew up with it and the music of composer Stephen Schwartz. But in 1998, our reviewer Michael Fox was lukewarm on the production, calling it “bland.”

“The film’s primary audience is teenagers and preteens, and possibly fans of Broadway musicals who don’t mind bloodshed as long as it’s not too realistic or traumatic. For ultimately ‘The Prince of Egypt’ is a cartoon, strewn with inoffensive but uninspiring songs,” he wrote.

Despite this mild pan, more than 300 clergy and scholars from various denominations signed off on the film, and it went on to be considered a classic. The same can be said for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, an institution with a wide-ranging influence and a classic in its own right after more than 40 years.

Back in 1983, when the festival was just in its toddler years, reporter Isaak caught up with co-founder Deborah Kaufman, who said the success of the program was “fate.”

“I had a feeling that proved true, that there was a desire by young American Jews to experience their community through events which are upbeat and different, like with films. Now we have an ‘inter-generational’ audience … people bring their parents, grandparents and kids.”

It seems history proved her right, as the festival is still going strong, even as those kids have become parents themselves, introducing a new generation to the evolving world of Jewish film.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.