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’s working on a four-part series of documentaries, “Frontier Jews,” which covers Jews of the Southwest, including New Mexico, San Diego, Arizona (specifically, 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 the different aspects of Judaism, which has 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 filmmaking. He studied painting and photography at University of California Los Angeles and earned his filmmaking degree at the California Institute of the Arts. His filmmaking is complemented by his artistic eye.
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, being 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 10 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,” Artenstein said. “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’s still storytelling.
He knows that the visuals, lighting, mood, and music are important for each documentary, so he surrounds himself with talented people. His films’ co-composers are Jaime Valle and Alan Phillips, who composed very different music for each documentary. 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.”
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,” or converted 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.
The film 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 “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 through May 2018.
Artenstein was commissioned to produce a series of standalone video capsules for the exhibit. To do so, he interviewed various people in the community and, 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. The teenager lived in Old Town and wrote about the daily life. At that time, Jews were well integrated into 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 ’40s and ’50s, 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 University of California San Diego (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 UCSD brought in 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.
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 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. 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 to the next San Diego Jewish Film Festival. His goal is to complete all four documentaries, or “Frontier Jews” by the end of 2018.
Isaac Artenstein by Bettina Hanna
Reprinted with Permission of L’Chaim Magazine.