Yael Luttwak never expected she would be an artistic director, curating a program of contemporary Jewish films and music groups. Yet, since September, when she became artistic director of JxJ, the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center’s film and music department, she has gone full force, programming 50 screenings of 30 films and six live musical performances.
This year’s 10-day JxJ D.C. Jewish Film x Music Festival runs from May 11 through 21, at locations in the District, Bethesda and Fairfax, and features films, music and post-screening talks that represent Jewish life all over the world. Through documentaries and narrative stories, Luttwak worked to capture a sense of the ever-evolving Jewish zeitgeist.
A graduate of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, Luttwak has long been a filmmaker with a focus on elevating women’s stories and voices. Among her works, the documentaries “A Slim Peace,” sharing the stories and developing relationships of a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who embark on a weight-loss program, and “Guest House,” featuring three women acclimating to life and battling addiction after incarceration.
On coming out from behind the camera lens, Luttwak said, “I was very much focused on making films for so long, which was great. I never thought of being a programmer or an artistic director. But this role is very meaningful. It’s a dream job … it combines everything I know.”
With JxJ’s professional team and volunteer council, Luttwak screened “hundreds and hundreds” of submitted films from as close to home as student-created short films from the District and Maryland suburbs to films from Israeli directors and from filmmakers representing France, Germany, Canada, Ukraine, Sudan, Argentina and dozens of other countries, all in some way reflecting Jewish content and themes.
“Just eight months ago,” she said, “I never could have imagined that this job would feel even more urgent and meaningful because of everything going on around us and around the world.”
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Jewish film festivals are “essential,” she said, “because there is a lack of Jewish formal education, people are not connected and aware of how the power of storytelling is the soul of our culture, the soul of who we are.”
This year, Luttwak continued, “For a variety of reasons, we need [these visual stories] more than ever … to connect and learn about [Jewish] culture.” She noted that film in particular is a powerful medium to share Jewish culture and build bridges between the Jewish community and other communities. “Unfortunately,” she acknowledged, “it is also more urgent than ever, because of the rise of antisemitism and hate crimes and the scarcity that people feel in their lives as they look to the future.” Films — and music — are a palpable way to share Jewish stories within and beyond the community.
She pointed out that the founder of what was initially known as the Washington Jewish Film Festival, District-based filmmaker Aviva Kempner, has been an important influence on the Jewish film industry. Luttwak lovingly recalled the “beautiful connection” she has had with Kempner, a long-time family friend.
“Aviva is someone who I’ve known pretty much my whole life; a documentary filmmaker, I grew up watching all of her films. I’ll never forget seeing ‘The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.’ The legacy and the things that you learned from the people that came before you is so special.”
In her new role as curator and director of one of the largest Jewish film festivals in the country, Luttwak said she is happy to share her latest discoveries. While she won’t pick favorites, about the scope of the films this year she said: “There is a lot of exceptional talent … talent that doesn’t always have the same shot, because it’s an independent film. I also see a real othering going on where we feel the need to connect emotionally, the need to connect to people who are not like us, the need to connect with someone that you might love. There’s a real effort in a lot of these films to connect. They’re beautiful and funny and, in some cases, tragic. But they all very, I’d say, inspiring and illuminating.” ■
Lisa Traiger is WJW’s arts correspondent.