Life & Culture

Fast food film frenzy

The UK Jewish Film Festival starts next week, and there are a few tasty (if tiny) morsels to see.


At a long table in a California branch of burger chain, Wendy’s, 15 senior citizens are making kiddush. They sing the blessings, passing round challah and sipping their wine from disposable plastic cups. Each element of the ritual is completed — albeit the Shabbat candles are electric battery operated — before they tuck into their meal.

The celebrants are the stars of short film, Wendy’s Shabbat, one of the 85 films featured in this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival. The main focus is on Roberta Mahler (87) who tells us she is a traditional Jew, and has always enjoyed the ritual of Kiddush. “Am I religious? No. But I’m traditional” she says. Mahler, a widow of nine years, who lives with her 13 year old poodle, meets the others at the temple of fast food.

“We sit and schmooze for an hour up to two hours. It’s a hoot” says fellow Wendy’s Shabbat celebrant, Sharon Goodman, whose husband, Michael, is one of the founders of the weekly ritual.

A large group, including Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, age 97 (“I’m probably the oldest practising rabbi in the United States today”) tuck into chilli, burgers, fries and other traife treats whilst they catch up on the week’s gossip. “I sometimes have a ‘son of baconator with some well-done French fries; other times I have a baked potato with chilli, because — I want to tell you something — Wendy’s chilli is outstanding” smiles Lou Silberman, clearly amused by the contradiction between the celebration of a Jewish ritual and their far from kosher venue.

Ninety-one year old Silberman takes care of the logistics, calling ahead to reserve the table that Wendy’s staff member, Winston Bannister is only too happy to sort out. “They remind me of my grandparents” he says smiling. “They order specifically…they want their things in a certain way.”

For lonely Mahler, this is the highlight of her week “Living by yourself and having a group like this gives you a feeling of belonging. ”

For me, it was the highlight of the three food-related movies I previewed. It may not be kosher, but it’s fabulously feel-good and worth a watch.

My second favourite short film, Homemade, took me to a very different sort of fast food — and another character of advanced years. Motti Maabari spends his days cooking and serving falafel at the tiny shop he founded in Jerusalem in 1976.

Maabari also initially seems a lonely character, as we share his early morning rituals and commute to work. He hasn’t shared a home with his children since they were tiny, living alone. But when he arrives at the tiny falafel stand, he and the screen come to life. Bright red tomatoes and green cucumbers are finely diced and swept into containers; raw potatoes chipped by hand and huge quantities of chickpeas are squeezed through a machine from which they emerge as smooth chickpea ‘worms’, ready to be mixed with fresh herbs and seasoning and turned into hot, crisp falafel balls. His recipe is a Yemenite one passed down by his father.

Son, Eyal, sporting payot, works alongside his father. “He has improved the recipe” says proud Maabari. They have a mutual admiration society going on — “He’s the spirit of this place” explains Eyal.

It certainly seems that way as Maabari is seen joking and trading banter with a steady stream of customers. It transpires that 14 years ago, Maabari survived a suicide bomber detonating his explosives inside the shop. By some miracle, the only casualty was the bomber. “His blood is still on some of my pictures” says Maabari, pointing out the various members of his family all over the walls. He explains that on every anniversary of the bombing he gives thanks for the fact that they survived.

Homemade is a snapshot of a million tiny falafel joints as well as the dramas of everyday life that Israelis brush away.

The final film is a window into a more outlandish world, as #Work_in_Progress shows a series of meetings between Israeli YouTubers and social activists. The opening shots are pure Israel — the people, the places, the music. In the first clip Yair Kochavan, kippa-wearing musician and founder of a restaurant called The Mizrahi Culture Bar shoots the breeze with actress, Ma’ayan Rubin, whose on screen persona is Noa Filter — in Kochavan’s words, a “bimbo”. In the next clip, 28 year old Or Ben Uliel, a gay pastry chef with his own YouTube channel, visits 38-year-old Orthodox mother of six, experiencing abuse from the ultra-Orthodox of her neighbourhood. They cook syrup-soaked noodles called debla together and distribute them in an attempt to bridge boundaries between their cultures.

Boundaries, whether religious, cultural or political is a theme throughout. Arab vegan cookbook author, Kifah Dasuki meets Guy Podolich (son of Russian Jewish immigrants) who lives with his mother and makes popular YouTube content. They talk about how she feels to be an Israeli Arab and the prejudice she faces daily, while shopping for ingredients at his local store, and then as she cooks him up a vegan dish in his mother’s kitchen.

Not all the films are foodie, but several involve interesting dishes I’d never previously come across. Israel’s melting pot in action. A thought provoking festival.



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