Tovbis was born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union. As a young boy, he moved to New York City, and now he lives and works in the District, directing the 23rd Annual Washington Jewish Film Festival. The festival started Jan. 3 and runs until Jan. 13.
Do you consider yourself to be of a specific faith?
I don't consider myself religiously of a faith, but I am certainly culturally Jewish, and that's why I'm here. I'm very interested in the arts that come out of Jewish culture, which obviously can't be and shouldn't be separated from the religious aspect of it. But I don't attend temple or synagogue, so in that way I'm not religiously faithful.
Tell me about the film festival. What are you hoping to achieve?
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It's one of the biggest Jewish film festivals in the world. It's our 23rd year, my first to run it, and this year it's quite a large-scale event. We have 55 films and 14 venues, and it's an 11-day festival. The point is really to be all over town and sharing the multiplicity and the different aspects of the Jewish experience, whether that means history or culture or education, and also with unique stories you might not expect to be told about Jews. We have a lot of what people might not expect: We have four romantic comedies, and we have a film about the history of vodka-making. I think some people think of a Jewish film festival as all very heady, heavy documentaries, and we certainly have our share of that, but we're really running the gamut.
Has watching Jewish films forced you to grapple with the religious aspects of Jewish identity?
Because my identity is definitely cultural, viewing the films sort of always changes my relationship with Judaism because I'm constantly learning more about it. There are times I think when you do struggle with the fact that as nice as it is to call yourself a cultural Jew, it is still for many people an important religious identity. And so as I view films about more religious communities and more orthodox, I often ask how is it that I have an appreciation for the spiritual element for it but I've never been pulled to a more institutional form of religion. There's certainly a spirituality that you can gain outside of the synagogue, outside of the holy text, that is and can be partially culturally based and that verges on religious. To some people, that's a form of religion. But again it's very different from attending on a weekly basis some form of community that gets together to practice religion.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
I guess as it pertains to the festival, I have a firm belief in the power and necessity of the arts to bring people together. It's a form of communication; it's a form of community-building. I think there's a real purpose for it in a world where you see so much hurt -- whether you're talking about Israel and Palestine, or the recent events in Connecticut -- as a place where people can connect and have a dialogue that's safe and accessible.