What does it mean to be Jewish today? What viewpoints and political outlooks are truly Jewish and who gets to decide?

The filmmakers at a theater

Filmmakers Snitow and Kaufman at the Castro Theater in San Francisco (Photo: Snitow-Kaufman Productions)

This dilemma sets Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman’s 2011 film Between Two Worlds off on a wide-ranging journey through modern Jewish culture. This journey begins at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The oldest and most popular festival of its kind, its tradition of showcasing diverse viewpoints drew intense controversy from the festivals decision to screen Rachel (2009); this documentary chronicles the life and death of activist Rachel Corrie, whose life ended when she was crushed under an Israeli bulldozer. Conservative groups lambasted the Festival for being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel and demanded the film be canceled. At the screening, attempts to show both viewpoints resulted in a tense shouting match.

If the Jewish organizers of the largest Jewish film festival can be accused of being anti-Israel, despite showing more Israeli films than any other event, then there is clearly a great deal of controversy about what it means to be a Jew. Can you wear that name and still criticize Israel? Do Jewish beliefs in overcoming oppression and tolerance apply only to the Jews or to all oppressed people? The film takes us from Birthright’s efforts to breed more Jews and the controversy over plans for a “tolerance museum” on the site of a Islamic graveyard in Jerusalem to a conservative radio show host who sees diversity of opinion as endorsement of secret Muslim agenda.

1930s Communist Parade Float

1930s-era Communist Float Parade Float

The film is also intensely personal, drawing from the filmmakers’ family history. An intimate look at Kaufman’s conservative father and Snitow’s communist-turned-Jewish activist mother show both the historic diversity of Jewish political belief and the universal struggle to accommodate change and the generation gap. Wonderful archival footage and family photos draw the viewer deeper into the story and make it far more personal.

Between Two Worlds is moving and thought-provoking — not only about Jewish identity and politics but about the meaning and value of dissent in any culture. You  can find out more at Between Two Worlds.