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The 26th Annual Hartford Jewish Film Festival brings back in-person screenings, March 24 – April 10

The Mandell Jewish Community Center had just opened its 2020 Jewish film festival when the COVID-19 pandemic hit…and screenings came to an abrupt stop as the whole world went online. 

Now, however, the 26th Annual Hartford Jewish Film Festival, scheduled to open Thursday, March 24 and run through April 10, will feature 22 films that, once again, may be viewed as in-person screenings at the Mandell JCC at 335 Bloomfield Avenue in West Hatford, and virtual offerings. 

“In-person community events like the film festival have been profoundly missed, and we couldn’t be more enthusiastic about welcoming film lovers back to the Herbert & Evelyn Gilman Theater,” says David Jacobs, the JCC’s executive director. “In addition to amazing technology, our HVAC system in the theater has been completely replaced with high-quality filters, which was a critical and necessary upgrade during the pandemic, providing our patrons with the comfort and security to feel safer gathering in person.” 

COVID safety protocols will be strictly adhered to during the festival, with all persons entering the JCC required to show proof of vaccination. Masks will be worn while in the theater. 

Back for a second year as the film festival director is Jennifer Sharp. 

“Our festival line-up this year is simply outstanding. We have stories reflecting the human spirit and survival, against all odds, stories of fascinating history, documentaries dedicated to the fight against antisemitism and classic films that remind us of past eras. Additionally, several of our films will be complemented with a Reel Talk program, featuring panelists who help to enrich the cinematic experience with background, opinions and interpretations.” 

Persian Lessons

The opening film on March 24,  Persian Lessons, is a World War II Holocaust drama inspired by true events. Giles, a Jewish prisoner, survives in the camp by posing as a Persian non- Jew and then enters a terrifying, high-stakes bargain to teach Farsi to a German officer who dreams of opening a restaurant in Persia (Iran) after the war. To hide his true identity and escape certain death, Giles must invent an entire language to maintain the charade. 

The years’ centerpiece films, featuring REEL Talks, are Plan A, Out of Exile: The Photography of Fred Stein, Automat, Blue Box, and A Tree of Life

The documentary A Tree of Life by award-winning filmmaker and Pittsburgh native Trish Adlesic, which focuses on the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, is sponsored by “Friends of Pittsburgh” — a group of West Hartford area residents and natives to Pittsburgh. The screening will be followed by a Reel Talk program featuring Pittsburgh Jewish community leaders Meryl Kirshner Ainsman and Brian Schreiber. 

The community’s commitment to Holocaust education and the fight against antisemitism is reflected in several documentaries. 


IRMI is a deeply personal film made by a daughter inspired by her mother’s story. It explores the way in which unexpected events and chance encounters can both shape a life and reveal its true nature. Using Irmi’s own memoir, it is beautifully read by actress Hanna Schygulla, enhanced by a richly emotional score by composer Todd Boekelheide.

I Am Here is the heartwarming personal story of Ella Blumenthal, a native of Poland who survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and spent five years in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Ella tells of her Holocaust survival and the journey that brought her to her present-day life in South Africa. 

Hartford area resident Irene Berman is interviewed in Passage to Sweden, a documentary about the efforts of the Scandinavian countries during World War II. 

Love it Was Not tells the tragic love story of a young Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz and a Nazi officer. 

Also in Festival’s line-up of films:

The Adventures of Saul Bellow, which examines the Nobel Prize winning author’s influence on American literature and how he dealt with the key issues of his time, including race, gender, and the Jewish American immigrant experience. 

They Ain’t Ready for Me

They Ain’t Ready for Me tells the story of Tamar Manasseh, an African-American rabbinical student who is combating gun violence on the South Side of Chicago with magnetic, self-assured energy through her organization MASK, or Mothers Against Senseless Killings. 

The Levys of Monticello tells the remarkable story of the Jewish family who bought Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home after the former president died in 1826, leaving behind a mountain of personal debt which forced his heirs to sell his beloved home. The story of the Levy family, who carefully preserved Monticello for nearly a century, intersects with the rise of antisemitism that runs throughout the course of American history. 

The award-winning Making Trouble celebrates six of the great female comic performers of the last century — Molly Picon, Fanny Brice, Hartford’s own Sophie Tucker, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, and Wendy Wasserstein. 

The award-winning documentary Passage to Sweden illustrates how ordinary citizens in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark worked to save the lives of their Jewish countrymen when the Nazis closed in. 

Hester Street

A new 4K restoration of the much-loved film Hester Street (added to the National Film Registry in 2011), a classic story based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, tells of the assimilation of an Ashkenazi couple in New York’s Lower East Side. 

Molly Picon, the irrepressible queen of the Yiddish musical, stars in the classic Mamele, a comic melodrama filmed in 1938 in the Polish city of Lodz and digitally restored with new English subtitles. 

Saviors in the Night is a dramatic feature based on the book Retter in der Nacht, in which Marga Spiegel describes how courageous farmers in southern Munsterland hid her family from Nazis. 

In The Dinner, Russian immigrants Emma and Gregory find out it’s a small world, with big lies, when they attend a dinner party at Alon and Yael’s house. 


In Neighbours, two families on the Turkish-Syrian border help each other out over the course of 40 years.

For technophiles, the festival pairs Astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman’s journey in Space Torah with Desert Tested, the story of Israel’s Susita: the car a camel would eat. 

The festival curtain closes with Wunderkinder, a feature about three musically gifted children in 1941 Ukraine who become close friends despite their different religions and nationalities, but their hopes crumble when Germany and Russia enter into war.

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