For the last three years, a lot of people around Olympia, including the members of local congregation Temple Beth Hatfiloh, have been visiting a small village in early 20th-century Russia on Christmas Day.
This year for the Christmas holiday evening, members are instead traveling back to the 1960s, on New York’s Lower West Side, to watch one of the most notorious gang wars of the modern times ever filmed: West Side Story.
“We show a Jewish-themed movie on Christmas Day,” said Rabbi Seth Goldstein, spiritual leader of Olympia’s Temple Beth Hatfiloh. “In 2004, we showed Fiddler on the Roof. It was a sing-a-long, and a lot of people dressed in costume. We had a costume contest, and a potluck. It was really successful.”
Each year since then, Beth Hatfiloh has continued what has now become a tradition. It also runs a food and blanket drive at the movie night benefitting the Olympia Food Bank and other local organizations that support the community.
Beth Hatfiloh’s partner, the Olympia Film Society, holds special events and shows art house films in its home base at the Capitol Theatre, a local historical landmark. OFS will host the West Side Story screening. The theater is located a short three blocks away from the synagogue, in downtown Olympia.
“It is still a sing-a-long, but now the only food is OFS’s theater concession stand,” said Goldstein. “We still put the words up using subtitles and have costume contests and prizes. It’s very interactive and a fun way of connecting to the community.”
Temple Beth Hatfiloh formed in 1938 and now has a 190-household membership with over 65 children in its pre-Kindergarten through Hebrew High School curriculum.
When the congregation moved into its new building in 2004, the former Christian Science Church on 8th and Washington, it doubled its space. Once the current construction is done, they will have 6,500 square feet of new classrooms and offices.
What started as a Jewish survival mechanism for Christmas Day, when just about every source of entertainment is shut down, has spread to the general community of OFS members as well as other Olympians.
“This event is a lot of fun, and we’re connected to the larger community,” said Goldstein. “It’s important for us to be part of the larger community.”
Helen Thornton, program director for the OFS, agreed. “It’s for Jewish people, [for] anyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and for people who just want to get away from their relatives for a while,” said Thornton. “It’s become an annual event for almost five years and a high percentage of temple members come.”
Thornton said the family-friendly movie night, which benefits the OFS, has been packed each year, and fills the nearly 500 seats in the movie house.
“I’m hoping that the people who have come for the last three years in a row and the people who love West Side Story will really turn out with the new title,” she said.
West Side Story turned 50 years old this year as a production. The two-and-a-half-hour film, made in 1961, depicts the inner city New York turf war between the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the American “Jets.” The two gangs hold their fire for a presumably brief moment when the two fated lovers representing each group, Tony and Maria, get caught up in the violence trying to stop the senseless fighting.
Directed, choreographed, scored, and adapted into a book by a cadre of well-known and prolific Jewish writers and composers, the original writers of West Side Story based it directly on the Romeo and Juliet story. They originally intended Maria to be Jewish and Tony to be Italian Catholic, according to the film’s official Web site.
They also originally wrote it as happening during the Easter-Passover season on the Lower East Side of New York City, but changed the location and characters at the last minute.
In 1959, while principal writers Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein were each working in Los Angeles, they became fascinated by the drama depicted in local newspapers of the Chicano-American riots raging there at the time.
That’s when the two decided on changing the characters and the location to its now-infamous setting.
“The four principals of the movie, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins were all