Going deep to explore Jewish identity at the Jewish film festival

“Above and Beyond” (above left) and “Touchdown Israel” (top) will be screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Katahdin Productions
“Above and Beyond” will be screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

In this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival, people find out who they are in unlikely places and unexpected situations. Weekend athletes learn about themselves and others as they play football in Paul Hirschberger’s “Touchdown Israel” (Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Belmont Studio Cinema; the director will attend the screening). And cocky WWII American pilots discover their heritage as they fly for Israel’s fledgling air force in Roberta Grossman’s “Above and Beyond” (Nov. 11 at 7:15 p.m. and Nov. 12 at 1 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre; the producer Nancy Spielberg will appear at the screenings).

Given its daunting power today, it’s hard to believe that the Israeli Air Force started out with just two rickety Piper Cubs piloted by former US airmen. So begins Grossman’s account of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

The situation brightened when other US pilots smuggled themselves to a Czech airbase to train on old fighters — ironically, Me-109s, the mainstay of the Luftwaffe. With sometimes bawdy commentary from the surviving pilots and with elaborate re-creations of some of the events, “Above and Beyond” offers an uplifting view of the war that does not dwell on the politics or human toll.


Like the Air Force, the Kraft Family Israeli Football League has had an uphill battle from the start. The game features 11 teams of eight men, playing on truncated fields (one of them donated by Patriots owner Robert Kraft) that span 60 yards and don’t include goal posts. It’s been a struggle to win over fans unfamiliar with the format. However, as Hirschberger’s inspirational documentary demonstrates, the League’s purpose is not to fight an enemy, but to bring enemies together.

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Many of those in the IFL are American émigrés who played the game back home. Others are Israelis and Arabs who know nothing about the sport except for the hitting and the strangely shaped ball. One coach claims he first became interested in the game when he watched it played in the 1989 Sylvester Stallone prison film “Lock-Up.”

2014 Boston Jewish Film Festival Touchdown Israel: Yes, thereÕs American football in the Holy Land, an eleven-team league of pigskin-crazy amateurs, who play on too-short soccer fields while wives and parents look on anxiously. The players and coaches represent a cross-section of Israeli society, including Arabs, Christians, and religious settlers; their shared passion creates unexpected friendships. Directed by Paul Hirschberger, 2014. Photo credit: NTL Films -- 02infocus
NTL Films
“Touchdown Israel.”

The IFL’s amenities aren’t much better than those in the movie. Not only do players have to buy their own uniforms, but they sometimes don’t even have locker rooms to change in. Be that as it may, the playoffs and final showdown in the Israel Bowl may be as exciting as an NFL game, largely because Hirschberger has drawn the viewer into the players’ lives and into their sense of team spirit.

When it comes to the team, politics and religion don’t matter. Could this be a key to peace in the Middle East? As one Israeli right-winger says about a teammate, “Who’d have thought I’d have a friend named Saud Kassas? Not me. Not in a million years.”

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Peter Keough can be reached at