30th Annual Virginia Festival of Jewish Film wraps

by | Mar 30, 2023 | Other News

The Virginia Festival of Jewish Film, presented by Alma & Howard Laderberg, wrapped up its 30th anniversary on Wednesday, March 1, with Farewell Mr. Haffmann at Virginia Beach’s Beach Cinema Alehouse. The French film, distributed initially as Adieu, Monsieur Haffmann, was the fifth film presented for the festival’s milestone year. The thrilling Holocaust drama, which has won multiple audience choice awards at some of the nation’s most prominent Jewish film festivals, was the perfect film to bookend a successful week of Jewish cinema in Tidewater.

The festival began on February 23 with a screening of the Israeli film Karaoke. An additional film screening had to be added due to increased ticket sales. Karaoke wasn’t the only film to sell out—audience members waited outside the theater before Mr. Haffmann began on March 1, hoping to find an extra seat.

The festival’s annual Big Saturday Night Celebration of Jewish Film on February 25 featured the film iMordecai, a delightful love letter to friendship, growing older, and the city of Miami. Following the screening, Mark Robbins, the festival’s screening committee co-chair, led a panel discussion with actor Nick Puga and the film’s director, Marvel Samels. Robbins presented Puga and his wife, Fernanda, with Virginia is for Lovers baseball caps, which the titular character, Mordecai (Judd Hirsch), wears throughout the film. Robbins noted that the hat has become a topic of conversation among Tidewater’s Jewish community since the trailer was shared on the festival’s website.

While Puga was unsure how the cap ended up in the film, Robbins followed up with Samels, who noted, “There are three symbols of Mordecai’s resistance to change—his phone, his Jeep, and his hat. I wanted an ‘I [heart] NY’ hat…but we were unable to secure the license. Thankfully, the kind Commonwealth of Virginia was happy to oblige.” The post-film discussion was followed by a reception with desserts by Shari Berman of Cater 613, champagne, and live klezmer music by local band Bagels & Fraylox.

One of the festival’s most anticipated films was screened on February 26 at Norfolk Academy. The Levys of Monticello tells the uniquely Virginian story of the Jewish Levy family, who acted as stewards of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate from 1831, eight years after his death, through 1923.

“I learned so much and appreciate the way that the stories of the Jewish experience and slave experience were woven together,” said one moviegoer. “The film was a reminder that we must be ever vigilant about creeping antisemitism and racism and be visible in standing for what’s right.”

Levys was followed by a panel discussion with the film’s associate producer, Lisa Stark; Marc Leepson, author of Saving Monticello and one of the historians interviewed in the film; and retired United States Navy Vice-Admiral Herman Shelanski, who lives in Norfolk and is featured in the film. Shelanski is also vice president of Congregation Beth El, which partnered with the festival to bring the film to Tidewater.

The festival’s penultimate film was the 1976 classic by Paul Mazursky, Next Stop, Greenwich Village. Rabbi Michael Panitz introduced it in honor of the late Mal Vincent on February 27. The film was the last chosen by Vincent for the festival before his death in 2021 and starred the young faces of Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum, among others. Panitz auctioned off an original poster for the film before the showing.

The Festival Screening Committee will reconvene this summer to begin screening films for next year. For more information on how to get involved, email Hunter Thomas, director of Arts + Ideas at the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, at

Photography by Mark Robbins

Hunter Thomas