By Mimi Pollack
Filmmaker Isaac Artenstein likes to tell good stories, especially unknown ones, and if those stories inform and entertain others, even better. He feels that the Jews of the Southwest have an untold story as the narrative has been mostly about the Anglo westward expansion. He wants to show one of the missing pieces of the puzzle.
To that end, he is working on a four part series of documentaries, Frontier Jews, which covers Jews of the Southwest, including New Mexico, San Diego, Tucson and El Paso. The documentary on New Mexico, Challah Rising in the Desert, has just been completed and the one on San Diego, To the Ends of the Earth, is near completion.
Artenstein was born in San Diego and grew up as a child of the border. He went to school in Tijuana and high school in Chula Vista. Fluent in both English and Spanish, he moves comfortably between both worlds. In addition, with an Ashkenazi father and Sephardic mother, he was also exposed to the different aspects of Judaism, all of which served him well while making the documentaries.
Early in life, Artenstein told his stories by painting. “I can remember drawing and painting since I was very young”. This love of art led to photography and later filmmaking. He studied painting and photography at UCLA and filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts where he got his degree. He uses his artistic eye as a filmmaker.
After years of people asking him where he was from and not understanding that Artensteins could be Mexican, he decided to make a documentary on the Jews of Tijuana. He started by interviewing his own family and went on to interview other families and individuals who were all part of Tijuana’s history. The documentary Tijuana Jews came out in 2005 and was well received. It was shown at many Jewish film festivals.
At the Tucson film festival, he was given a book, “Pioneer Jews” by Harriet and Fred Rochlin, which piqued his interest in learning more. He spent the next ten years fundraising to accomplish his goal. “As I traveled and interviewed people in Tucson, El Paso, and New Mexico, I realized that the stories were very similar to those of the pioneer Jews in San Diego whose lives were centered in Old Town. At the same time, each place had something unique”.
Artenstein also has a methodical side to go along with his creative one. In preparing for each documentary, he likes to interview a wide array of people to find a dramatic structure and a theme. Although he is making a documentary, he feels it is still storytelling. He knows that the visual, lighting, mood, and music are important for each documentary, so he surrounds himself with talented people. His director of photography is Sergio Ulloa. As Artenstein says, “For Challah Rising in the Desert, Sergio and I realized that the New Mexico landscape was also a character in our film as it is so diverse and beautiful.” His co- composers are Jaime Valle and Alan Phillips. They composed very different music for each documentary.
The first documentary in the series, Challah Rising in the Desert, explores the history of the Jews in New Mexico. The braided challah bread represents the five strands or waves of settlements that have come, including the “converso” Jews escaping the Spanish inquisition 400 hundred years ago, the German Jewish pioneers of the Santa Fe trail in the 1800s, the scientists who came in the 1940s to Los Alamos, the counterculture youth of the 1960s, and the Jews of today. It also shows the special influence New Mexico has had on its Jewish community. Only there will you find bakers who mix green chilis into the challah dough, producing a hybrid and delicious bread.
San Diego’s documentary To the Ends of the Earth came about from a collaboration between Artenstein and Bill Lawrence, the executive director of the San Diego History Center, for the “History and Heritage of San Diego’s Jewish Community” exhibit, which is running until May 2018. Artenstein was commissioned to produce a series of standalone video capsules for the exhibit. He interviewed various people in the community. Although the videos are separate, this collaboration was the catalyst for the documentary. Artenstein shot the capsules concurrently while shooting for the documentary.
While doing research, he was particularly intrigued when he discovered and read a detailed diary by Victoria Jacobs, who lived in Old Town as a teenager. She wrote of her daily life. At that time, Jews were well integrated in the fabric and society of San Diego.
However, after the railroad was built and more Anglos arrived in San Diego, the climate towards the Jews began to change. By the 1940s and 1950s, there were restrictive covenants in certain areas of town where blacks, Mexicans and Jews were not allowed to live. La Jolla was one of them. Although these covenants were illegal, they still existed. This changed with the opening of UC San Diego in 1960. The head of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Roger Revelle, served as a point man for the UC Board of Regents. He made it clear that if the university was going to open in La Jolla, he wanted all the professors to be able to live nearby.
The 1960s and the university brought internationally influential Jews to San Diego such as virologist Jonas Salk, electronic engineers Irwin Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi, and poet Jerome Rothenberg. This renaissance was scientific, entrepreneurial, and cultural.
Artenstein interviewed diverse people for the documentary, including Jewish historian Joellyn Zollman, San Diego Jewish World publisher Don Harrison, actor and writer Salomon Maya, Jonas Salk’s son Peter, and Congresswoman Susan Davis. He learned from Zollman that 20 percent of the Jewish community in San Diego is foreign born and there are Jews from Mexico, South Africa, Israel and Russia. The Jewish community in San Diego is truly rich in diversity.
Challah Rising in the Desert will go to general distribution in September. To the Ends of the Earth will be completed by the end of the summer, and Artenstein plans to submit it for the next San Diego Jewish Film Festival. His goal is to complete all four documentaries or Frontier Jews by the end of 2018.
Mimi Pollack is an English as a Second Language teacher and a freelance writer. This article is reprinted with permission of L’Chaim Magazine.