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News from the AJS Film Committee 

The Yiddish Jazz Singer, Saul Bellow, and a Diverse Cast of Israeli Shorts in This Year’s AJS Film Program

Olga Gershenson, Dalit Katz, Daniel H. Magilow, and Catherine Portuges 

At the forthcoming AJS conference in Chicago, the Film Committee will host the annual film program and pedagogical session. As usual, filmmakers and scholars will introduce the screenings, which will take place during the first two days of the conference. 

The first evening of the film series offers a program of five award-winning short narrative and documentary films presented in partnership with the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest and the Office of Cultural Affairs in New York. Drawn from the NewFilmmakers Los Angeles Israeli Cinema Film Festival “In Focus” (co-hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) and curated by Catherine Portuges for the AJS Film Committee, the program celebrates diversity, inclusion, and region, and highlights emerging and acclaimed talent onscreen and behind the camera. Deputy Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Dr. Daniel Aschheim will introduce the program.

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Dawit Tekelaeb, left, and Daniel Gad in White Eye

Shot in a single continuous take, Tomer Shushan’s Academy Award-nominated White Eye examines anti-migrant prejudice through the lens of a stolen bicycle in Tel Aviv, while Nir Berger’s In Touch follows a teenage girl who trolls her classmates online. Image of Victory takes a critical look at Israeli perceptions of war and heroism through the experience of a wounded IDF soldier visited by high-profile Israelis while recovering in hospital. In Elinor Nechemya’s Our Hearts Beat Like War, nine-year-old Sinai’s surreal dream mixes storybook images with the harsh testimony he overhears from an Eritrean child at a refugee center. The Promise presents a collage of archival materials drawn from director Roni Azgad’s own family holidays, exploring the meaning of rituals. Producer Nevo Shinaar, whose documentary Stay Close was shortlisted for the 92nd Academy Awards, will be present for Q&A. 

The program continues with a screening of an outstanding Yiddish drama, Overture to Glory, directed by Max Nosseck in 1940. Based on the true story that inspired The Jazz Singer and starring the legendary, real-life cantor Moishe Oysher in his most iconic role, Overture to Glory will be presented in a brand-new restoration. Filmed in the thick of the Second World War, the film’s extensive cantorial segments read like an elegy for a disappearing world. Featuring perhaps the most convincing scenes of synagogue life in any fiction film, Overture to Glory begins during the morning service on Rosh Hashanah and ends at Kol Nidre, making the story a kind of redemptive journey. Overture to Glory is part of Kino-Lorber’s Blu Ray compilation The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema, with commentary by film critic Jim Hoberman, musician and scholar Eve Sicular, and the Yiddish actor, director, and translator Allen Lewis Rickman. Most familiar to audiences from the Cohn Brothers film A Serious Man, Rickman will join us for a virtual Q&A after the screening.
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We conclude with the first-ever documentary on Saul Bellow, the legendary author and one of the most acclaimed chroniclers of post-war American Jewish life. The Adventures of Saul Bellow (2021) by renowned filmmaker Asaf Galay (The Muses of Bashevis Singer) interweaves a chronological study of Bellow’s oeuvre with an intimate portrait of the writer’s inner life and relationships. What emerges is a rich exploration of Bellow's revolutionary impact on American literature and his identities as a writer, polemicist, “serial husband,” father, Chicagoan, Jew, and American. Along with interviews of Bellow’s family members, the film features insights from scholars such as Dan Miron and literary giants such as Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, and Martin Amis. The filmmaker Asaf Galai will be present after the screening for a virtual Q&A.

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This film program is a culmination of our year-long curating and planning. As members of the Film Committee, we negotiate with distributors for the privilege of screening free of charge the most exciting new features and documentaries relevant to AJS audiences. Public performance rights can be quite expensive, and we are grateful for distributors’ cooperation in waiving fees in exchange for promotion of their films through our screenings. We hope that the films in the series will be useful to you, whether for your research, teaching, or public programming. The printed conference program will include distributor contact information—please ask your libraries to order the films, or you can contact distributors directly. Your responses to our program will help us secure cooperation from distributors in facilitating free screenings at future AJS conferences. 

The Film Committee also brings you a pedagogical session, Teaching through Film, which this year will focus on the theme Online/Offline. The coronavirus pandemic has presented us with unprecedented opportunities and challenges born of remote instruction. In this panel, we explore insights into pedagogy that this extreme situation has generated. We will ask questions about using film in online teaching: which methods or tools worked well? What can we take with us to the post-pandemic classroom? Elliot Ratzman (Earlham College) will discuss teaching HBO’s Angels in America and other Jewish films during the pandemic. Rachel Harris (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) will share her experiences of teaching a course on Holocaust film online in an asynchronous format. Daniel H. Magilow (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) will offer reflections on teaching documentary film online. And Olga Gershenson (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) will present the strategies she developed while teaching online that contribute to student collaborative learning even in the in-person classroom post-pandemic. 

We look forward to seeing you at the screenings and at the pedagogical session. Together, they celebrate the importance of cinema and media in scholarship and teaching. We value your feedback and appreciate your thoughts on films and formats you might like to see included in future conferences. See you at the movies.


Dalit Katz, Chair, is adjunct professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, founding director of the Center for Jewish Studies, and founding curator of the 15th Annual Ring Family Wesleyan University Israeli Film Festival. She has participated in and chaired AJS pedagogical panels and has published about films in The Journal of Higher Education Hador and Hed Halupan Hachadash. She served as judge for the Lighthouse International Film Festival (documentary category), June 6-9, 2019, Long Beach Island, New Jersey.


Olga Gershenson is professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, and of Film Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her most recent book is The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe (2013). She is currently working on a book about Israeli horror films. For more information, see her website at


Daniel H. Magilow is professor of German in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and coeditor-in-chief of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He was the Pearl Resnick Postdoctoral Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2005-2006 and currently serves on the Academic Council of the Holocaust Education Foundation of Northwestern University. Dr. Magilow’s research centers on photography and film and their intersections with Holocaust Studies, Weimar Germany, and postwar memory. He is the author, coauthor, editor, or translator of six books.


Catherine Portuges is founding director of the Interdepartmental Program in Film Studies, founding curator of the Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and professor emerita, Program in Comparative Literature/Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. She is a frequent lecturer at international conferences, an invited programmer, curator, juror and consultant for film festivals and colloquia, and a delegate to international film festivals. Continue reading.