Two Jews are dispatched to assassinate Hitler during the height of World War II.

Acting on a tip, they hide outside his home one evening, waiting for him to appear.

A half hour goes by. Nothing.

An hour passes. Still nothing.

Two hours. No Hitler.

“Gee,” one Jew finally says to the other, a look of concern clouding his face. “I hope nothing happened to him!”


Welcome to “The Last Laugh,” an 85-minute documentary that asks and offers a variety of answers to the seat-squirming question, “Can humor be found anywhere in the Holocaust?”

Wednesday marks the 20th rollout of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, which over the next two weeks will screen more than 30 films – dramas, documentaries, comedies, shorts, you name it – at venues in Portland, Brunswick, Lewiston and Waterville.

Never been? Well, considering the headlines these days, there’s no time like the present.

Last week, in an alarming sign of the times, another wave of bomb threats targeted Jewish Community Centers and day schools in six states.

Here in Maine, a threat laden with anti-Semitic slurs emptied the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine back in January – one of nearly 150 such acts of cowardice that have traumatized Jewish populations throughout the United States and Canada since the start of 2017.

“I think that in fact we see ourselves as an antidote to that,” said Barbara Merson, executive director of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, in an interview at her Portland office last week. “Because generally speaking, anti-Semitism is very often based on a lack of knowledge. And our films are about the global Jewish experience. So if you come and watch them, you will be entertained, but you will also learn something about Jewish communities all over the world and issues that resonate in Jewish communities.”


It all started back in the mid-1990s with a few videos shown on a TV screen at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland.

That eventually led to a weekend of screenings at The Movies on Exchange Street in Portland, recalled David Connerty-Marin, the festival’s co-founder and first executive director.

“We sold out every single one,” said Connerty-Marin, who now lives in Washington, D.C., but will travel to Portland next weekend for opening night. “And we knew that we were filling a need.”

They still are. Nothing gets people talking, after all, like a good movie.

The cornerstone of this year’s festival is “The Women’s Balcony,” a provocative, often humorous tale of an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem where one day the women’s balcony collapses during a bar mitzvah.

The accident leaves the rabbi’s wife in a coma, which in turn renders the shocked rabbi unable to perform his duties.


Enter new, young Rabbi David with his unexpectedly fundamentalist views, including the notion that the women’s immodesty contributed to the collapse. Thus, much to the shock of the women in the congregation, the newly repaired synagogue includes no balcony – banishing the women to an anteroom.

Good luck with that plan, Rabbi David.

The documentary “Freedom Runners” focuses on a group of students in Israel, all African asylum seekers. They came under the wing of a young Jewish teacher in Tel Aviv, who helped them form a competitive running club.

The runners excelled all the way to national Israeli competitions. There they hit a brick wall: Their lack of Israeli citizenship prevented them from receiving the trophies and other honors they so clearly had earned.

Merson screened the film recently for the high school track team in Lewiston, which includes a number of African immigrants.

“The situation really resonated,” she said.


Then there’s “An American Tail,” the 1986 animated film about the Mousekewitzes, a family of Jewish mice emigrating from Russia to religious freedom in the United States.

Merson has showed that film in Lewiston, too. And while that audience also was far from all Jewish, she said, it hit home.

“The idea of coming over on a boat and being in a strange place – that resonates with a lot of people,” she noted.

“Bogdan’s Journey” is the true story of Bogdan Bialek, a Catholic from Poland who persuades people in the Polish city of Kielce to confront an ugly chapter of their past: the pogrom, or organized massacre, of 40 Jews seeking refuge there in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Bialek, along with the film’s co-directors, will attend the preview of the film at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the CTN studio on Congress Street in Portland. The trio will participate in a panel discussion after the film – one of many such post-screening discussions throughout the festival.

The list goes on: “For the Love of Spock,” created by Adam Nimoy, son of the legendary Leonard Nimoy; “Freedom to Marry,” a timely look back at the struggle for marriage equality through the eyes of Evan Wolfson, founder of the group Freedom to Marry, and Portland civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto; the Oscar-nominated documentary “Joe’s Violin,” about a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who donated his violin to a 12-year-old girl from the Bronx and thus changed both of their lives.


For the complete lineup of films, tickets, show times and locations, go to

And if you’re still wondering whether a Jewish film festival might be worth a few hours of your time, consider your options over the next couple of weeks.

You can sit by yourself, night after night, in front of the mind-numbing cable news on your living room TV.

Or you can take in something truly different with a roomful of fellow Mainers. And then, even better, linger for a while to talk about it.

“We provide a common experience,” said Merson. “It’s a way of having civil discourse on potentially difficult issues.”

And just maybe, now and then, a good chuckle.


UPDATE: Let’s hear it for late-winter thaws.

Back on Feb. 23, I wrote about Robert Banks, a disabled Maine veteran who was en route from one federal job to another when President Trump’s federal hiring freeze kicked in and left Banks unemployed.

Thanks to the dogged work of Kate Simson, who works in the Portland office of Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Banks is headed for his new job after all at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island.

He starts a week from Monday.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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