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Julius Rosenwald and his students.

Aviva Kempner was born in 1947 to a mother who survived the Holocaust and an American father who’d emigrated from Lithuania decades earlier. Raised in Detroit, Kempner served as a VISTA volunteer, took a master’s in urban planning, then went to law school to work in immigration law. But soon after graduating, Kempner faced a crisis: she failed the bar exam, twice, and, as she tells it, was given the opportunity to change.

And change she did. Long plagued by negative cultural portrayals of Jewish men as nebbishes and Jewish women as overbearing, and preoccupied by the question of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, Kempner was looking for a new direction. Then she came upon the book Image Before My Eyes, a photo essay of Jewish life in Poland before World War II by Lucjan Dobroszycki, on her mother and stepfather’s coffee table. She discovered her calling: to make films about little-known Jewish heroes. This year she comes to town to receive the Seattle Jewish Film Festival REEL Difference Award.

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History Matters

Aviva Kempner (above) built a career on making films about lesser-known Jewish heroes.

In 1986, 10 years after graduating from law school, Kempner released her first film, Partisans of Vilna, followed in 1999 by The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, about the great Detroit Tigers baseball player during a time of virulent anti-Semitism. In 2009 Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, about the television pioneer Gertrude Berg, came out. Kempner’s newest film, Rosenwald, tells the story of Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears who donated millions for schools and other institutions for the African American community.

Though all of her films tell remarkable stories — Gertrude Berg, for instance, stood up to McCarthy during the Hollywood blacklist — Kempner believes Rosenwald is her most inspiring film. “People have told me they’ve learned more about African American history from that film than from any other source. One African American scholar said there were films about slavery and films about civil rights but that this one spanned that. I’m proud of that. I’m making a T-shirt now for Rosenwald that says “History Matters.”

Has she had any false starts — ideas that went nowhere? Kempner laughs. “Of course! I have so many scripts in my head!” As for her next project, Kempner has multiple irons in the fire, including a book titled Middle-Aged Madness, which contains a piece on gun control. She has been to Israel 20 to 30 times, she says, but has yet to make a film about that country. It’s at the top of her list. “In my mind I’m writing a comedy,” she says. “I think we need an Israel comedy right now. I’ve even got a title: No Good Bagels in Israel.

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