Toronto Jewish Film Festival returns June 1 with films from 20 nations

Israel at 75: Now in its 31st year, festival features comedies, documentaries, dramas and even the occasional ‘I didn’t know they were Jewish’ discovery

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The National Post has been celebrating the modern state of Israel ahead of its 75th anniversary on April 26, telling the remarkable story of its rebirth and resilience against all odds.

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“It’s not a film festival for the Jews. It’s a Jewish film festival.”

That’s Helen Zukerman, founder and artistic director of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF), which kicks off its 31st edition on June 1 this year. She’s walking me through what the festival is, what it isn’t, and why it should matter even to those outside the community to which it holds up a mirror.

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“Did you know that Wyatt Earp’s wife was Jewish?” she asks, referring to the Old West lawman. “And Wyatt Earp is actually buried in a Jewish cemetery? Well, I found that out last year.”

She adds: “There are lots of people that are Jewish that nobody knew were Jewish.” In 2015 the festival presented a retrospective on Rod Serling. “And everybody who called to buy tickets said: ‘I didn’t know Rod Serling was Jewish!’ So there are interesting discoveries.”

This year, the festival will present a free event, An Afternoon with Saul Rubinek, featuring the Canadian actor/writer/director in person at Innis Town Hall. The 74-year-old was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1948, and immigrated to Canada that year. His career has encompassed stage, television and film, and included roles in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the new Canadian film BlackBerry, and SHTTL, a single-shot, Yiddish-language (with subtitles) drama set the day before the Nazi invasion of Ukraine.

SHTTL is also playing at the TJFF this year, one of 77 offerings from 20 countries. The festival will open with The Man in the Basement, a psychological thriller about a Parisian couple who unwittingly sell the basement apartment in the building they own to a Holocaust denier. French director Philippe Le Guay will be in attendance.

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The festival lineup spans the genres to include biographies – Queen of the Deuce tells the story of Greek immigrant Chelly Wilson, who built a porn cinema empire in New York’s Times Square in the 1960s and ’70s – as well as documentaries and even comedies. That category includes My Neighbour Adolf, in which a Holocaust survivor, living in Colombia in the 1960s, becomes convinced that the blue-eyed, left-handed, art-loving German man who just moved in next door is none other than the former Fuhrer of Nazi Germany.

And in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the state of Israel, the TJFF is offerings a selection of recent Israeli films, perhaps the most timely being Hope Without Boundaries, a documentary about a group of Israelis who establish a field hospital near Lviv in Ukraine, treating patients who have lost almost everything in the war.

Zukerman says festival organizers made their way through almost 800 submissions this year before deciding on their lineup, which includes four films by Canadian directors. One of those, the world premiere of the musical-comedy Less Than Kosher, has been described as Shiva Baby meets The Jazz Singer.

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“Before COVID we did 100 films, we didn’t do 77 films,” says Zukerman. “But we’re trying to make our way back.”

Because of its late-spring timing, the TJFF was one of the first big festivals to be affected by the pandemic in 2020, but it’s been coming back, and this year has several online screenings as well as a majority of in-person events. There’s also J-Flix, the festival’s year-round, free (in Canada) streaming service of past festival offerings.

“Our job, what we’ve been trying to do for the last 30 years, is open people’s eyes to what being Jewish is,” says Zukerman. “What’s a Jewish film? That’s a discussion I have with everybody. And my answer is, well, I can’t exactly tell you, but I know it when I see it.”

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival runs from June 1 to June 11. Tickets and more information at

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