When Becky Tahel Bordo Ben David, KLN ’08 (she/her), and Erin Davis, KLN ’07 (she/her), first started creating their documentary, American Birthright, Ben David asked herself the question, “Why marry Jewish?” After filming for several years and still not finding a satisfying answer, Ben David began to ask herself a different question; “Why be Jewish?”
In the almost two years that American Birthright has been in the film festival circuit, it has won Best Documentary as chosen by the audience at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival and the Indie Spirit Award for Best Documentary Director at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema. The film has also been screened in Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Columbus and, most recently, Philadelphia.
Though Ben David and Davis both studied communications at Temple University and were only a year apart, their paths never crossed while they were in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until they were both living in Los Angeles and Ben David needed an editor for her vlog that the duo met after mutual friend Jarryd Meyer, FMA ’07, connected them.
After collaborating on the vlog series, Ben David and Davis began to go back and forth on an idea the former had to create a documentary about them driving across the country in an RV. When Ben David’s sister got engaged to someone who describes himself as “loosely Christian,” Ben David discovered the question that this documentary would explore.
“It brought up a lot of internal struggle and strife in me,” Ben David said. Ben David and her family moved to the United States from Israel when Ben David was 7 years old. Although she had a rather secular upbringing, something about her sister’s engagement did not sit well with her.
When Ben David found that no documentary had explored the question she needed answered, she called up Davis, who had experience making documentaries, and the duo began their filmmaking journey together.
Ben David and Davis started the American Birthright journey in Grenada, where Ben David’s sister was in medical school. There, they shot the trailer for the film.
After several years of fundraising and filming interviews and testimonials all over the U.S., Ben David was not any closer to answering her initial question. “My sister had got married and clarity had not come,” Ben David said.
When Ben David and Davis sat down to reevaluate the direction of the film, Ben David realized that in order to answer her question, she needed to first ask a different, much bigger one, “Why be Jewish?”
And where better to explore that question than the holiest city in Judaism and Ben David’s home country? In January 2018, Ben David went to Jerusalem, Israel, to study Torah and explore her Jewish identity. By April, she was ready to have Davis join her overseas so they could finish their project.
“It was so powerful, and so crazy, and the movie says it all,” Ben David said of the two weeks they spent together in Israel.
Davis, who is not Jewish, advised Ben David not only on documentarian best practices, but was also there for Ben David as she went through her personal evolution. Both women agree that the post-production process was the most difficult part of the journey. It took Davis about two years to edit their 150 hours of footage down to their final, hour-long film. “It was a tough edit,” Davis said.
“We lost our minds four times, we became best friends and we cried a lot,” Ben David said. “As we journeyed through making this project together, we also became very, very close friends.” They were each a bridesmaid at the others’ weddings, and now they each have baby daughters that are already becoming best friends.
While Ben David and Davis were students at Temple, they both met Sam Sero, FMA ’07 (he/him). It was Sero who introduced Ben David to Meyer, so without him, the pair may never have crossed paths out in Los Angeles.
“They’re really an amazing duo,” Sero said. “I’m really proud of both of them. I’m proud that their documentary is picking up steam.” Though Sero is in Los Angeles, Davis is in Philadelphia and Ben David is finishing her cross-country RV trip, the three still collaborate through their respective production companies.
Ben David and Davis will continue to screen American Birthright at festivals across the country, and Ben David is on tour speaking to audiences about her journey. For now, the pair will be spending time with their husbands, who are both named Nathan, and hope that their daughters will one day be as close friends as their mothers are.