Homegrown NJ film aims to ‘celebrate complexities of people’
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Homegrown NJ film aims to ‘celebrate complexities of people’

Rachel Harrison Gordon explores ‘mosaic of identities’ in first film

Filmmaker Rachel Harrison Gordon: Her film explores “ideas of race expectations and self-discovery.”
Filmmaker Rachel Harrison Gordon: Her film explores “ideas of race expectations and self-discovery.”

Among the works being screened as part of the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival’s first-ever Afternoon of Shorts on Sunday, March 22, is a true homegrown offering. “Broken Bird” is a narrative about Birdie, a biracial suburban Jersey girl, and her struggles with her dual identities as she prepares to become bat mitzvah. The filmmaker, Rachel Harrison Gordon, set and shot virtually all of her semi-autobiographical first film on her home turf, including at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.

Now living in Brooklyn, Gordon grew up in Millburn with her mother, who still lives there, and was the third generation of her family to belong to Oheb Shalom, where she became bat mitzvah in 2002. Gordon is biracial — her father is African-American — and, she said in an emailed conversation with NJJN, the synagogue was “a place where I didn’t always feel comfortable”; she credits “Cantor Riki” — Erica Lippitz — as her “biggest ally,” providing “guidance and love” as Gordon made her way through her studies, her bat mitzvah, and beyond and who, she said, continues “to be a supporter of my passions, including this relatively new one of filmmaking.”

Gordon attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her B.S.E. in mechanical engineering in 2012 and where she met Alon Gur, who is originally from Israel and whom she married in 2018. Her resume is teeming with achievements in the field of data analytics garnered through journalism and government service, including an award-winning stint as manager of Mobile Analytics at The New York Times and as a Presidential Innovation Fellow under the Obama administration, where she explored the experiences of veterans upon their return to civilian life.

It was her husband, said Gordon, “who convinced me to see myself as an artist … and kept encouraging me to put myself in places where I could learn a new part of myself. While I was good at learning about people and systems through quantitative data, I realized I was most interested in the stories I heard between those information points.”

“Birdie” prepares for her bat mitzvah at Oheb Shalom, from “Broken Bird.”

Gordon is now a dual M.B.A./M.F.A. candidate at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Tisch School of the Arts. She has also worked as a producer of student films and in post-production on documentaries.

With “Broken Bird,” she said, she aimed to explore “ideas of race expectations and self-discovery, including the distance we can feel to our heritage and family.” She is grateful to both her mother, Terri Harrison, and father, Anthony Gordon, “for letting me incorporate aspects of memories into this film. It was important to try to depict both Birdie’s love for her mom and curiosity about the other components of the mosaic that make up her identity.”

At the time of her bat mitzvah, in 2002, Rachel Harrison Gordon stands with her mother at the bimah in Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.

One important component is Birdie’s relationship with her father. As for Gordon’s own father, she said they weren’t always close, “but the small moments — similar to the day Birdie spends with her father — over the course of my early life, grew into the beautiful and deep relationship we have now.”

Regarding portrayals of black Jews, Gordon said it seems to her they are “tokenized and fetishized as something strange or for comedy.” In her personal interactions, she said, she has “learned to re-interpret this ‘strangeness’ as uniqueness,” leading to a key lesson of the film: “to embrace each part of your identity, as well as the beautiful whole the parts create.”

If you go

What: “Broken Bird,” part of New Jersey Jewish Film Festival’s Afternoon of Shorts
When: Sunday, March 22, 1:30 p.m.
Where: JCC MetroWest, West Orange
Tickets: $12
Information: jccmetrowest.org/njjff

Filmmaker Rachel Harrison Gordon will address the audience following the Afternoon of Shorts screenings.

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