Isaac Artenstein

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; 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 called Frontier Jews, which covers Jews of the Southwest, including New Mexico, San Diego, Arizona [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 elementary 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,” he said. This love of art led to photography and later to 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 and 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 about the story of these Jews. 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,” he said of the process.

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.

“For Challah Rising in the Desert, Sergio [Ulloa, my director of photography] and I realized that the New Mexico landscape was also a character in our film as it is so diverse and beautiful. [The composers] worked on very different music for each documentary, too.”

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 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 chilies into the challah dough or Rabbis who wear tallit’s with Navajo designs.

The San Diego-focused 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 about their personal Jewish story and family’s history in San Diego. Although the videos are separate works, the collaboration was the catalyst for the documentary, which he began shooting concurrently while working on the History Center’s films.

In his research, Artenstein was particularly intrigued by a detailed diary written by Victoria Jacobs, a Jewish teenager who lived in the area we now call Old Town. 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 all the Jewish merchants in Old Town.

However, after the railroad was built and more Anglos arrived in San Diego, the climate toward the Jews began to change. The insiders became the outsiders. 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 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 1960s and the opening of UCSD brought in brought a new renaissance of 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; Jews had become insiders again.

Artenstein interviewed diverse people for his documentary, including Jewish historian Joellyn Zollman, publisher Don Harrison of San Diego Jewish World, actor/writer Salomon Maya, Jonas Salk’s son Peter, and Congresswoman 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 in our community. His documentary seeks to tell their stories.

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 the film for consideration to the next San Diego Jewish Film Festival. His goal is to complete all four documentaries for Frontier Jews by the end of 2018.

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