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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Celebrating 18 years of film: Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival runs Feb. 17-27 at the Garland Theater

Since the number 18 signifies good luck in Judaism, perhaps it will be a fortuitous run for the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival. The 18th annual festival, which commenced Thursday, is expanding dramatically, going from a weekend event to a 10-day stretch of films and Q&A sessions.

For the first time, events will be virtual and live. “After last year when we were only online, we thought, ‘Why not do it both ways in 2022?’ ” said Neal Schindler, the festival’s director.

Diversity is the word at the festival. The festival is much more than typical Jewish film topics, which tend to focus on the Holocaust and the war between Israel and Palestine.

“We try to mix it up,” Schindler said. “There’s nothing wrong with showing films about the Holocaust, but there are so many films about the Holocaust. I don’t want it to be seen as the only thing that’s important about being Jewish. I think we’re presenting a good mix of films.”

“Kiss Me Kosher,” which does touch on Israel-Palestine issues, is a quirky comedy in which all of the main characters take an amusing drubbing. The film is the first LGBTQ+ film in festival history.

“Wet Dog” is a drama based on the remarkable story of a teenage Iranian-Jew who moves with his family to Berlin. The protagonist initially fits in, but when a peer discovers his Star of David necklace, life becomes complicated. There are some terrific performances by the young actors, who walk the fine line of love and inexplicable hate in a predominately Muslim neighborhood.

“A Jew Walks Into a Bar” is a 24-minute short that’s the must-see experience of the festival. David Finkelstein, an orthodox Jew from a secluded Brooklyn sect, is inspired to become a comic. Virtually everything about life as a comic is opposed to his religious beliefs. Nevertheless, Finkelstein, who is an amusing amateur with potential, follows his gut and gives standup a chance.

“Neighbors” is a period piece set in a Syrian border village in the early 1980s. A child attending school for the first time is taught by a teacher who preaches hate of the Zionist enemy: the Jews. The protagonist is confused since his longtime neighbors are a kind Jewish family. There are moments of levity in this dark drama, which was inspired by the director’s personal experiences.

Past and present meet upon the discovery of an old photograph connecting Christian and Jewish students in search of the truth in “A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto.” While trying to unravel the mystery behind the portrait, the boys embark on a journey through a night of horror that can’t be forgotten: the raid of the Roman Ghetto.

Dani Karavan was a revered Israeli sculptor who passed away at 90 last May. Karavan created nearly 100 environmental installations across the world and won international art awards. However, his structures are deteriorating, and the impactful documentary “Maintenance” captures how he felt about the state of his work, the political climate in Israel and the political and artistic conflict over his latest commission.

“Mazel Tov Cocktail” is a short about a Russian-Jewish teen in Germany who offers a comedic take on modern Jewish life. “Pops” is a short about siblings dealing with their father’s last wish, which is to spread his ashes in a very eccentric place.

“With Slight Steps” is a short focusing on a 97-year-old high priestess of Israeli folk dancing who has been flying back between Israel and her home in Germany, where she continues to teach. She and her grandson embark on a journey following the loss of her “Israeli Dream.”

That’s quite an array of content for a city that has a very small percentage of Jews. According to Schindler, there are 1,000 to 2,000 Jews in the Spokane area. “So we’re somewhere in the half-percent of the population,” Schindler said. “That might not be accurate, but it’s a good guess. There are about 2,000 Jews, counting those who are non-affiliated (with a synagogue).

“Congregation Emanu-el is growing. But this festival should extend outside the Jewish community. This is a region that has a history of white supremacy. There is a lack of knowledge about Jewish people here. People can learn from the films, which are a great place to start to learn about the Jewish community.”

The numbers are rising for the Jewish Cultural Film Festival. According to Schindler, the average attendance from 2010 to 2019 was 198. The average attendance for 2020 jumped to 321, and when the event went virtual, 506 households paid for admission in 2021. “If we can build on last year’s numbers, that would be great,” Schindler said. “We just want to keep building for the future of this festival.”

There was a silver lining of the pandemic. Since there were no shows in theaters, the festival used the money they saved on venues to add more films in 2022. And then there is the use of a tool that became commonplace during COVID-19 to keep everyone connected. The festival jumped on that concept in 2020, which placed them ahead of the curve.

“We were trying to work with a director in 2020 coming in from New York who couldn’t make it to Spokane,” Schindler said. “I said, ‘There’s a software you have might not have heard of called Zoom.’ She (Valerie Thomas) was able to introduce her film ‘Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,’ which became our most popular film in the history of our festival.

“Zoom is huge for us. It costs a fortune to put up a filmmaker from New York or Hungary. Now, we can just do a Zoom for a Q&A. It’s getting better for our festival, which is a nonprofit interested in putting together the best work and entertainment here in Spokane.”