By T.T. Stern-Enzi

The Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton provides a brief historic overview of the organization on their website (jewishdayton.org), which defines a political and cultural framework for the Jewish presence in society. Often, though, so much of that presence is seen from the political perspective. We should not blindly overlook the inherent necessity of the cultural impact on the overall community. “Judaism,” as pointed out on the site, “is more than a religion; it is a way of life experienced through the kehillah, the community.”

Membership in the community means creating and supporting a system obligated to the needs of everyone, especially those less fortunate – but we tend to neglect the idea that such support extends beyond the material. There continues to be an urgent need to satisfy a cultural and intellectual hunger. It could be argued it is through such connections diverse communities thrive. We need to see and appreciate the cultural contributions of each group in order to form a greater and more cohesive whole.

This means, much like how African Americans strive for more expressions of their experiences on the big screen – rather than narratives dealing with slavery (“12 Years a Slave”), the Civil Rights era (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) and urban dramas depicting senseless attacks (“Fruitvale Station”) – the Jewish experience on film should not be encapsulated in Holocaust narratives alone. No one should be defined by a singular historic event, no matter how seemingly significant a touchstone.

And, so, what better way to kick off the 14th annual Dayton Jewish Film Festival (April 24 – May 18) than with the presentation of “The Zigzag Kid.” Director Vincent Bal’s film – a coming-of-age story about an eager young boy named Nono (Thomas Simon) on the eve of his Bar Mitzvah who longs for adventure and discovers all he could have hoped for when he teams up with a master burglar during a train ride to his uncle’s – corralled large audiences and earned awards (the Young Audience Award at the European Film Awards and the Audience Award at the Montréal International Film Festival) during its festival run last year. Local audiences will have two chances (Thursday, April 24 and Tuesday, May 13) to enjoy this family-friendly tale that sets the stage for a multi-faceted reflection of what it means to be Jewish.

The rise of modern Israel takes the fore in “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” a documentary that examines the birth of the nation from the perspective of Yehuda Avner, the insider who, in a variety of roles, served Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres. The film renders the epic sweep of history in intimate detail, thanks to Avner’s powerfully engaging voice. For an even more contemporary look at the Middle East, “Bethlehem” dramatically showcases the complex dynamic between an Israeli Secret Service officer and his teenage Palestinian informant against the backdrop of the dark moral landscape of human intelligence.

But before you retreat from the harsh dramatic realities of the aforementioned films, make sure you don’t miss “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story” from documentary director Barry Avrich who offers audiences a glimpse into the life and work of the Canadian comic icon with archival footage of Johnny Carson and appearances from Larry Charles, Larry David, Jeff Garlin and a host of others. The Tuesday, May 6, screening of the film, presented in partnership with Hillel Academy of Greater Dayton, will feature a short Q&A with Avrich who will be heading off to the Cannes Film Festival following his appearance here.

Film fans who venture out for this festival program will ideally walk away with not only a greater sense and appreciation for the Jewish experience, but also see how we all come together to form a more unified regional, national and global community.