Social justice and the movies
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Social justice and the movies

Teaneck International Film Festival brings people and causes together

Paula Eiselt films Omari Maynard, whose partner died soon after giving birth.
Paula Eiselt films Omari Maynard, whose partner died soon after giving birth.

You know what happens when you try to mix paint. You put vibrant colors on top of each other, and pretty soon you get a gross brownish sludge. You start with beauty and end with ugliness.

Diversity is not that.

It’s not quite the opposite, because there’s nothing ugly about it at all. It’s when you take bright, vibrant threads and knot them together. You end up with bright, vibrant threads in an indissoluble knot.

Jeremy Lentz’s Teaneck, and the Teaneck International Film Festival that he oversees, is sort of like that. Many bright colors bound together.

Take Mr. Lentz’s own story.

He was born in 1980 and grew up in New City, the grandson of two Holocaust survivors and two native New Yorkers, and he was shaped by all of them, he said.

His mother’s parents, Phil and Anna Rosenkrantz, were born in Poland; his grandfather survived Buchenwald, and his grandmother stayed alive in two slave labor camps, in two Polish towns, Skarżysko-Kamienna and Czestochowa. They met in a DP camp after the war, got married, and emigrated to the United States in 1950. Anna Rosenkrantz was pregnant on the ship that took them from Europe; Mr. Lentz’s mother was born soon after her parents began their new lives in Brooklyn.

Jeremy Lentz today.

He didn’t really know his grandfather, Mr. Lentz said; he died young. But his grandmother was another story.

So now picture a fairly little boy, a seven-year-old, whose parents had driven him to Canarsie, where his grandmother lived, so he could get on a bus with her. Anna Rosenkrantz didn’t drive, she was dressed for comfort rather than style, and she probably looked older than she was because the hell she’d been through tended to be aging. And little Jeremy was so very excited. It was the start of the first of a series of glorious summers.

“I’d spent my summers in the Catskills, in the Pleasant Valley bungalow colony in South Fallsburg, with pretty much all Holocaust survivors,” Mr. Lentz said. “They’d make a fuss over me, and I’d sit with them and largely the summer would revolve around stories of the Holocaust. I did that every summer until my early adolescence.”

It wasn’t that anybody made him do it, he added. “I have an older sister, Gena, who didn’t go. It wasn’t her cup of tea. But I loved it. It was the late 80’s and early 90’s. The glory days of the Catskills were ending, but there was still something very special about it. “My grandmother was amazing,” he said.

There weren’t many other kids there, but he didn’t care. He had fun with his grandmother, and he amused himself. “She did lots of cooking,” he said. The bungalow colony had a swimming pool, I could bring up a little scooter — and everyone would fuss over me. We would walk into town every day; we’d go to the kosher butcher, or to Kosher Socks” — Mr. Lentz is sure that he remembers that name correctly — “for pizza. Kosher Socks was like a general store. It had everything.

“South Fallsburg also had a movie theater, with one screen, and on Saturday nights, after Shabbes, we’d go. It was a big deal. It would get a new movie maybe once a month. Or maybe we’d walk to one of the hotels and see a show or an event there.

“Being with that community gave me a strong sense of self,” he said.

Mr. Lentz’s other grandparents were different. “My grandmother, Ronne Lentz, was born in Williamsburg, and my grandfather, Nathan Lentz, was from the Lower East Side. They were very modern assimilated American Jews.

Young Jeremy with his grandmother Ronne Lentz

“My grandmother was women’s lib before women’s lib was created. She worked at a time when women didn’t work. She was a secretary on Wall Street and worked 9 to 5.

“Before that, she worked in Forked River, New Jersey — she called it Fork-ed — but by the time I knew her she was retired.

“She was very active in the arts, she was an avid theatergoer, and she was extremely active in Hadassah; she would always get service awards for the work she did.

“I remember going door to door with her as she collected money for various causes. She was very active, and she was ahead of her time. She was unique in the sense of exposing me to everything that New York City had to offer, good, bad, or indifferent. She would take me to see things that were potentially controversial, and my parents would always get a little wary.” What shows? “Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing,’ and ‘Jungle Fever.’ These were films that dealt with a lot of mature themes.”

Both sets of his grandparents lived in Canarsie, Mr. Lentz said; his parents, Toby Rosenkrantz and Jonathan Lentz, met at a dance there. His two sets of grandparents “were friendly with each other, but there was always a sense of superiority” coming from the Lentzes. “My mother’s parents were greenhorns. My mother’s mother didn’t drive, wasn’t active in causes, had wrinkles all over her face. She looked very basic and Eastern European.

“My mother always talks about what it was like growing up the daughter of survivors. How challenging it was. There was no therapy then. All of that came much later.”

What all this meant for Mr. Lentz was that all the themes that have marked his adult life — his passion for the arts, and his equal passion for social justice, his deep sense of Jewishness, his understanding of how those things join, and also his eye for sociological detail — had their roots in his childhood.

Two stills from “Breaking Bread,” an Israeli film.

Jonathan Lentz was a New York City public school teacher “who taught high school English in some very tough neighborhoods,” his son said. “My father didn’t get drafted in the Vietnam war because he taught in Franklin K. Lane, a school on Jamaica Avenue in Queens that was so tough that they really needed teachers.” The Lentzes moved from Forest Hills to Riverdale and then to Rockland County; soon after their two children were born, Jonathan Lentz stopped teaching.

He founded a college prep business that’s now called Lentz and Lentz SAT Prep, when his son joined him; the business now is in five states, and “it’s my main gig now,” Jeremy Lentz said. Toby Lentz “was the company’s administrative bulwark,” her son said; now they’re both retired, and he is the only Lentz in the business.

(To be accurate, he has two full-time jobs, although only one of those jobs comes with a paycheck. Mr. Lentz is one of those people who seems to pack more hours into a day than most of the rest of us can manage.)

Mr. Lentz went to public school in New City, and then to McGill University in Montreal. “I was a cultural studies major,” he said. “McGill had a robust Jewish studies department, and when I was there I documented my grandmother’s Holocaust narrative, with the support of the department and of McGill’s Holocaust archive.”

That was the first time that he’d sat down with his grandmother and asked her to tell him her story; until then, he’d gathered it piecemeal. “English wasn’t her first language, so it was not an easy task,” he said.

Sixteen years ago, Mr. Lentz moved to Teaneck. He fell in love with the town, and he is in love with it still. “There was a community,” he said. “And I liked the fact that I could walk to Cedar Lane, to the movie theater and restaurants and shops, and also there is easy access to the city.”

Moreover, Mr. Lentz is gay; he worried about fitting in but was assured — correctly, it turned out — that he would. He did. He does.

“I moved onto my block, and there was the welcome wagon,” he said. “And it was completely diverse. Everyone, from Dominican to Jamaican to Italian to Irish to Orthodox to Israeli. Everyone came out to welcome me to the neighborhood. What’s really interesting about living in Teaneck is the sense of community involvement. I’d never lived in a place before with such a strong sense of community.

“When I moved to Teaneck, I was a fish out of water,” he continued. Everything was new. “I needed to learn about it, so I wanted to volunteer with something related to the arts. I was directed to the Puffin Foundation,” the Teaneck-based nonprofit that “was founded by socialist Jews to provide funding to marginalized artists,” Mr. Lentz said.

In 2006, the foundation had an arts festival, led by Jackie Kates, the former Teaneck mayor and social activist. “They scooped me up as a volunteer,” Mr. Lentz said. “It was like I went to a meeting, and Jackie said that I was going to be the programming coordinator.” Ms. Kates is not someone with whom a newcomer would argue.

The arts festival lasted only for one year, but Puffin also started a film festival. Its first executive director retired about 14 years ago. By then, the festival “had built itself up and was becoming a nice community event,” Mr. Lentz said.

“The foundation reached out to me and said, ‘Will you take over the film festival?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. I can’t run a business full time and also do the festival. I don’t have time. Furthermore, I don’t have the background.’

“But they were very persistent.

“That was in 2009,” Mr. Lentz said, half ruefully, half joyously. “This is my 13th year.”

Soon after taking over the festival, Mr. Lentz realized that it needed something. Some kind of hook. “There hadn’t been a permanent theme, but I thought, okay, what’s the draw here? What will draw people to Teaneck, this bedroom community five miles west of the Upper West Side?”

“Breaking Bread” is about Israeli Jews and Arabs cooking and eating together.

He found it, by looking no farther than his own backyard. “The theme is activism. Making change.” That’s true every year.

“We are not an industry-driven festival, the way most are,” he said. “This is a community-driven festival, showing social-impact films supported by community-based organizations to raise awareness about issues, and we hope it will have a ripple effect. We showcase the rich diversity of Teaneck.

“We’re not just drawing from Teaneck, though,” he continued. “We are an international film festival. People fly in from other parts of the country. We have developed an audience.”

He can manage his two jobs, Mr. Lentz said, because “I have an exceptional group of volunteers, most of whom have been with it since the beginning. We have a township of 40,000 people, and a suburban film festival has thrived here for 17 years and has been supported by the community. This is not a one-man show.”

This year, the festival includes 19 films, each with a talk-back session. It’ll be hybrid; some will be screened online, some in person.  As always, many of the films will be serious, thought-provoking, and occasionally upsetting, but “people have the misconception that it’s all heavy and grim,” Mr. Lentz said. “We also have some lighter fare. For example, this year we have a film about a transgender comedian, a senior citizen who happens to be a New Jersey resident and got her big break on America’s Got Talent.” That film is called “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way.”

The centerpiece film, “Breaking Bread,” will be shown on the Saturday night of the festival. It is sponsored by the Jewish Standard. The evening will begin with wine and hors d’oeuvres, Mr. Lentz said. “It is about food; it follows Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Muslim woman to win Israel’s Master Chef. She is on a quest to make social change through food.

“She founded the A-Sham Festival, a food festival in Haifa that pairs Arab and Jewish chefs to collaborate on various dishes.

“The film is about hope and synergy, and how food brings us together.

Paula Eiselt and a cinematographer work together.

“You are going to laugh, you are going to cry, all the chords will be touched,” he added, facetiously but seriously too. “It is about bringing people together.”

The last film at the festival, “Aftershock,” was codirected and coproduced by Paula Eiselt of Teaneck and Tonya Lewis Lee. “It premiered at Sundance this summer, and it won the Special Jury Award: Impact for Change award,” Ms. Eiselt said. Disney’s Onyx Collective and ABC News Studios acquired it, and Hulu released it this summer.

“‘Aftershock’ tells the story of the U.S. maternal mortality crisis through the lived experiences of people affected by the crisis,” Ms. Eiselt said. “I was drawn to the topic both as a mother and as an artist who does impact-driven work.

“I had very traumatic birthing experiences with each of my four children. I was not seen and not heard. I was dismissed.

“But it wasn’t until 2017, when a slew of articles in Pro Publica, a series called ‘Lost Mothers,’ came out, that I realized that it was systemic, and that the United States is the most dangerous place in the industrialized world to give birth.”

Black women are three times more likely to die as a result of being pregnant, giving birth, or during their postpartum period as white women are, and that’s got nothing to do with socioeconomics, Ms. Eiselt said. Well-educated, well-off Black women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth at a rate five times higher than “a white woman living under the poverty line.

“I saw those articles, and I was shaken to my core,” she said.

Ms. Eiselt saw a “call to action” put out by Shawnee Benton Gibson, whose 29-year-old daughter, Shamony Gibson, died 13 days after giving birth, a result of avoidable complications. “I immediately got in touch with her,” Ms. Eiselt said, and through her she met Shamony Gibson’s partner, Omari Maynard, “who co-created the event. He had a men’s circle come together to talk about maternal health.” Mr. Maynard and two other survivors are at the heart of “Aftershock.”

This team helped make “Aftershock.”

Although Black women are most affected by the rise in maternal death rates in the last 25 years in the United States, they are not the only women; in fact, everyone giving birth runs a much higher risk of being ignored, developing a life-threatening condition, and even dying.

“This affects Jewish women too,” Ms. Eiselt, who is Orthodox, said. “I would say that at least 75 percent of my friends in the community have a story. The bar is so low that you think that if you survived and have a healthy baby, you had a good birth. But you deserve a dignified birth and a healthy baby.

“Women are forced to be induced. They are forced to have C-sections. They have to fight not to be induced or have  C-sections.

“I don’t know the maternal morbidity rates in the Jewish community, but I do know that the Jewish community, and especially the Orthodox community, is based around child-bearing,” she continued. “We have wonderful doctors, but our system is flawed. No other system in the Western world is like ours, and every woman, including every Jewish woman, should be speaking out about it.

“Remember Shifra and Puah,” Ms. Eiselt said. (They are the midwives who saved Moshe when his mother, Yocheved, gave birth to him in great secrecy, as we are told in the book of Exodus.) Today, American women do not have access to midwives, as women in other Western countries do; that means that they do not have access to a less medicalized way to give birth. (Those women also have access to hospitals and physicians, should anything go wrong.) “Those midwives saved our people, but ironically we don’t have respect for midwives today, as we were taught to have for Shifra and Puah.”

And most basically, “fighting for justice is a Jewish value.”

Both Mr. Lentz and Ms. Eiselt are working on many new projects. Mr. Lentz and Sheryl Lee Ralph, the actress, director, and producer with whom he frequently works, are among the producers of “Ohio State Murders,” the new Broadway production starring Audra McDonald.

Ms. Eiselt is working on a short film, due out soon, about the response to the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade, the decision that allowed women access to legal abortions. The film focuses on the lawsuits that Jewish groups have brought challenging the new ruling. And, she said, she’s also working on something lighter. “It will be fun,” she said.

To learn more about the Teaneck Film Festival, including the times, dates, and venue for all the films, and how to get tickets for them, go to its website, www.teaneckfilmfestival.org. The festival runs from November 13 to November 20.

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