Isaac Artenstein: Telling frontier Jewish stories

Isaac Artenstein from Bettina Hanna on Vimeo.

By Mimi Pollack

Mimi Pollack 2015

SAN DIEGO — 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; whereas, other immigrants are also part of the history. 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, Arizona [Tucson], and El Paso, Texas. 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 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”.

Isaac Artenstein

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. Artenstein said, “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 represents the five strands or waves of settlements that have come, including the “converso” Jews escaping the Spanish inquisition 400 years ago, the German Jewish pioneers  of the Santa Fe trail in the 1800’s, the scientists who came in the 1940’s to Los Alamos, the counterculture youth of the 1960’s, and the Jews of today. It also shows the special influence New Mexico has had on its Jewish community. There will you find bakers who mix green chilis into the challah dough, producing a hybrid and delicious bread, and rabbis who wear talliths with Navajo designs.

San Diego’s 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. Victoria Jacobs was a teenager who lived in Old Town. She wrote of her daily life. At that time, Jews were well integrated in the fabric and society of San Diego. There was even an alley parallel with San Diego Ave. and Juan St. called “El Callejon de los Judios” or “The Alley of the Jews,” It provided easy access for many Jewish merchants in Old Town.

However, after the railroad was built and more Anglos arrived in San Diego, the climate towards the Jews began to change. The insiders became the outsiders. By the 1940’s and 1950’s, 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 UCSD in 1960. The head of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Roger Revelle, served as a point man for the UC Board of Regents.  He made it clear that if UCSD was going to open in La Jolla, he wanted all the professors to be able to live nearby.

The 1960’s and UCSD brought in brought a new renaissance of influential Jews to San Diego such as virologist Jonas Salk, digital communications specialists Irwin Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi, and poet Jerome Rothenberg. This renaissance was scientific, entrepreneurial, and cultural. Jews had become insiders again.

Artenstein interviewed diverse people for the documentary, including Jewish historian Joellyn Zollman, San Diego Jewish World publisher Don Harrison, actor/writer Salomon Maya, Jonas Salk’s son Peter, and current and former members of Congress Lynn Schenk and Susan Davis. He learned from Zollman that 20% of the Jewish community in San Diego is foreign born and there are Jews from Mexico, South Africa, Israel, and Russia here. Thus, the Jewish community in San Diego is 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 next February’s San Diego Jewish Film Festival. His goal is to complete all four documentaries or Frontier Jews by the end of 2018.

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Reprinted with Permission of L’Chaim Magazine.  Pollack, a freelance writer based in La Mesa, may be contacted via [email protected]

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