On The Hunt For Jewish-Inspired Screenwriters
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On The Hunt For Jewish-Inspired Screenwriters

Not your Larry David: New incubator program hopes to help bring more nuanced Jewish content to the big screen.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Pxhere CC/Mohamed Hassan
Pxhere CC/Mohamed Hassan

The search for a homegrown “Shtisel” has begun.

While the Netflix drama about a family of charedim in Jerusalem continues to make a splash here and abroad, a competition to find and hone a new generation of Jewish-inspired screenwriters launched in the U.S. last week.

Coined the Jewish Writer’s Initiative, the project — a national, year-long program to incubate commercial, Jewish-themed scripts for mainstream film, television and digital media platforms — is a first-of-its-kind symbiosis between Jewish philanthropy and the arts. Funded by the Maimonides Fund in partnership with Crystal City Entertainment, a film production company, up to 15 selected screenwriters will receive a one year, $36,000 stipend to develop scripts with industry professionals.

“The goal is to bring Jewish-themed content to the forefront,” said Paula Eiselt, a 33-year-old filmmaker who will serve as the initiative’s creative consultant. Eiselt is best-known for her recent documentary “93Queen,” which chronicles the launch of an all-female EMT corps in the charedi neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

“93Queen” filmmaker Paula Eiselt to serve as creative consultant on new screenwriting initiative. Courtesy of Shira Lankin Sheps

“There are a lot of Jewish creators, but not many films that tell a nuanced story about Jewish identity,” said Eiselt. “People know about Larry David and Mrs. Maisel — those are film’s ‘Jews,’” she said. “But, in reality, that’s just a tiny portion of who we are as a community.”

To push past Hollywood’s stereotypes towards fresh narratives, Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, a foundation that primarily supports educational projects in North America and Israel, said the Initiative will select scripts that “make people grapple with Jewish values.”

For the Maimonides fund, the project is the first of its kind — few Jewish philanthropic ventures have yet to enter the modern film space, he said. “Education is about moving ideas,” he said. “There’s hard to find something more powerful at shaping minds than media.”

The project is modeled after the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, the Israeli development studio that found and helped incubate the “Shtisel” series.

“We’re looking for content that’s not all black and white,” said Charendoff, acknowledging the pun. “We tend to stereotype population groups — ‘they’re all like this’ or ‘they’re all like that.’” Film has the potential to “break those stereotypes. We’re looking for content that puts the breaks on our human tendency to judge someone or a group without knowing anything about them.”

Eiselt said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the outpouring of positive feedback following the initiative’s announcement last week.

“For artists passionate about Jewish content, this is groundbreaking,” she said. “People are hungry to tell their stories. Film is the way to do that.”

Though the first year will focus on screenwriting with “commercial appeal,” Eiselt is hopeful that the initiative will expand to cover different multimedia forms, including documentaries and film shorts. “This is just year one,” she said.

 

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