The creative and artistic contributions of the Jewish people, their history and cultural traditions are at the heart of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, now in its 35th year and opening July 23. Those themes are also at the heart of the SFJFF documentary “Raise the Roof,” which offers a fascinating account of the remarkable recreation of a historic wooden synagogue’s roof and ceiling for a museum exhibit in Poland.
There were once more than 200 wooden synagogues in historic Poland, which the film reminds us was home to 3.3 million Jews for more than 1,000 years. The chapter of Jewish history in Poland that most people are familiar with, though, is the Holocaust, which resulted in not only the Nazis’ annihilation of the Jewish people in Poland but also the wholesale destruction of almost all of the wooden synagogues.
“Raise the Roof” follows Rick and Laura Brown, who are sculptors and teachers, as they assemble a team of students and craftspeople to reconstruct one of the most magnificent of the lost synagogues, Gwoździec, which was completed in 1731, and do so while employing the same types of tools, supplies and artistic methods the original builders used.
Like the other wooden synagogues, the exterior of Gwoździec helped it blend in with architectural landscape of rural Poland, but the interior walls and ceiling of the synagogue were a brilliantly creative interplay of symbolic animals, flowers and medallions, as well as Hebrew liturgical texts.
“The wooden exterior is drab, but when you go inside, it’s like walking into a whole different world,” Rick Brown says. “When I look at the synagogues as wooden structures, I see them as elegant.”
The Browns faced several challenges, including carving logs, painting panels, accurately recreating Hebrew scriptures, and assembling wooden pieces during the summers of 2011 and 2012.
The synagogue’s roof was slated to be installed at the new POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, but bureaucratic red tape and delays in the museum’s completion kept the roof waiting outside in the elements for two years.
“The museum people came from the environment of Communist Poland, which contributed to delays,” says Cary Wolinsky, the film’s producer. “But as a longtime photographer with National Geographic, I had experience in dealing with Soviet bloc ways, so that helped resolve some of them.”
The Gwoździec synagogue roof was finally unveiled at the museum Oct. 28 and has contributed to a revival of interest in Jewish studies in Poland, as well as interest among many Jews who were hitherto reluctant to revisit a painful period of history.
“None of my Ashkenazi Jewish friends knew anything about this chapter of history, and many of them didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Rick Brown says. “Now, whole congregations want to go to Poland.”
Dough: The opening night feature is a British comic drama about a struggling kosher bakery whose fortunes revive after a Muslim apprentice’s pot-imbued formula for challah proves to be a commercial hit, and how the baker and his young apprentice develop a friendship that transcends religion, culture or age. (6:15 p.m. July 23, Castro)
Famous Nathan: The documentary is a textbook feel-good story of Nathan Handwerker, who emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1912 and started his eponymous eatery Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island, N.Y., which has satisfied the frankfurter-driven cravings of generations of Americans ever since. (12 p.m. July 25, Castro)
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict: The documentary focuses on the Jewish-American heiress and socialite Peggy Guggenheim, who as a liberated woman of her generation helps cultivate the careers of artists such as Kandinsky, Dali, Pollock and others while amassing a splendid collection of their works. (4:30 p.m. July 26, Castro)
The Armor of Light: Abigail Disney’s centerpiece documentary follows a Jewish-raised pro-life activist and evangelical minister who questions whether his position is consistent with being pro-gun and then finds a striking and troubling parallel between rising gun violence and the Holocaust. (6:30 p.m. July 28, Castro)