Occupation: Director, the AJC Seattle Jewish Film Festival
What’s on her mind these days: “Where the Arab spring may be…turning into an Arab fall. Jewish film festivals more and more are receiving subject matter that addresses those relationships and how you represent it in a real changing moment.”
Lucky for Seattle filmgoers, Pamela Lavitt caught the theater bug in college.
“I was a science kid, studying zoology and pre-med track. That was really my focus for most of my life,” says the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival. “I decided, when I graduated from college, to pursue the arts initially before I went to medical school.”
Pamela left her parents’ home in Rockland/Westchester County, N.Y. for San Francisco and began acting semi-professionally with several theater troupes there. But she grew restless.
“I didn’t want to be in the theater anymore, I wanted to study it from an academic perspective,” she says.
Pamela never made it to med school, but she did enter a doctoral program at New York University. She has yet to finish her dissertation, but she hopes to once her twin daughters finish elementary school.
She had originally intended to study the connection between science and art, interweaving women’s experiences throughout. The science fell out of the equation and Pamela shifted toward Jewish folklore and Jewish women in vaudeville.
To this day, Pamela is seen as an expert on women in vaudeville. But as the saying goes, that and $4 will get you a cup of coffee. Her graduate program and a fellowship that took her to Chassidic communities in upstate New York to study Jewish folklore gave her a newfound love of work on public projects. Academia, she realized, was not the right fit.
“I decided I really liked the contact with people,” she says.
In the meantime, Pamela got married, and a dozen years ago she and her husband Rob came to Seattle. It was a hard move — she had to give up singing with several klezmer groups and her all-Yiddish coffee klatches — but she landed then where she is now: As a curator at SJFF. Given her field of study, “it was sort of easy to parlay theater into film,” she says. “The connection between the folklore, even the science of film and the theater — it was all very connected.”
Then one of Pamela’s mentors in New York got her the position of oral historian for Seattle’s contribution to the Jewish Women’s Archives’ three-city “Weaving Women’s Words” project. The project profiled 30 women who had been instrumental in building not just the area’s Jewish community, but its greater community as well.
“When I was doing this, I was very much in the archives by myself each day, but I quickly understood who the players were,” she says. “Not only did I get 15 bubbes or abuelas in my life…they became my role models.”
Pamela returned to the film festival in 2005 and became its director a couple years later. But her immersion into the culture of Judaism, as well as the desire to allow her own children to make informed choices about their religious beliefs, has her currently training to become a Bat Mitzvah in a group ceremony this coming summer.
“It’s funny to think my Jewish learning is beginning at 40-something,” she says.
As for the film festival, directing an arts nonprofit in difficult economic times is something of a double-edged sword, she admits, especially with the need to balance the mission of the festival’s parent organization, the AJC. One way she has done that has been to open up the selection process to a wider array of community members.
“It would be naïve for me to think that I could just stay at home in my office casual — known as pajamas — and watch 300 films and program the festival,” she says.
But there’s no question she loves her work. Despite her frantic schedule and acknowledging that she’s lucky to actually be working in such a tough climate, Pamela always comes back to this: “Most people’s reaction when I tell them what I do is, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so cool! Wow, you get to do that?’ I have to just hold onto that and be grateful,” she says. “I could be an academic somewhere in Idaho right now.”