Growing up in the East Bay, Gregg Rossen knew of Fresno only as the "butt of a lot of jokes." It was the "land of the uncouth or simple farm folk."
But when his parents temporarily relocated there in the early 1990s, Rossen discovered a city with a sizable slice of Jewish history. He decided to capture this history on video by interviewing David Greenberg, rabbi emeritus of Fresno's Temple Beth Israel who had started working there in the early 1930s.
"Tales from Raisin-land" screened publicly for the first time last month when the synagogue dedicated a stained-glass window in memory of Greenberg, who died at age 91 in early 1994 — just a few months after Rossen finished the 21-minute documentary.
Like many aspiring and admittedly struggling filmmakers, 29-year-old Rossen hopes his future has room for longer films and bigger audiences.
But unlike most other young filmmakers, Rossen hopes that his first feature-length film will be a light comedy focusing on a suburban synagogue — much like Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, where he attended Sunday school and celebrated his bar mitzvah while growing up in Moraga.
"I think that young filmmakers who are working with low or no budget should do something that's close to them," said Rossen, who now lives in Santa Monica.
For Rossen, that means focusing on Jewish subjects. As an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, he majored in history with an emphasis on Jewish history and folklore. Rossen then moved from studying story-telling to becoming a story-teller when he enrolled in the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television in 1990.
"Definitely part of Jewish culture is the importance of story-telling," he said. Simply look to the influence of such story-tellers as Isaac Bashevis Singer or Sholem Aleichem.
Rossen believes this penchant for story-telling helped propel Jews into stage, vaudeville and finally Hollywood.
"The film is a natural outgrowth of the folklore," Rossen said.
In addition to "Tales from Raisin-land," Rossen has shot two other short video-documentaries on Jewish subjects.
During a summer stint on a kibbutz in 1991, he shot and edited a seven-minute documentary about the first few hours in Israel for a planeload of Russian immigrants arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport.
The next year, he created a 15-minute video capturing the spiritual lives of Russian emigres in West Hollywood, exploring their reaction to their sudden religious freedom.
During their lives in the former Soviet Union, Rossen said, these Jews knew about their heritage but were prevented from taking part in any religious activity.
"What happens when you're in a society that doesn't care?" he wondered.
He discovered that reactions varied. Some were willing to make a concrete commitment, such as the 40-year-old man who allowed Rossen to film his adult circumcision.
There was also a wealthy couple from Moscow who were sending their children to a Conservative Jewish day school. Perhaps more typical was a poor family from Ukraine who felt a strong Jewish identity despite a lack of any Jewish knowledge.
Despite his interest in Yiddishkeit, Rossen's best-received project strays far from his Jewish roots. "The Grail Guy" follows King Arthur's adventures when he is banished to modern-day Los Angeles. The 26-minute film won first place for comedy in the annual student Emmy competition this spring and has screened at three film festivals.
But Rossen even finds Jewish elements in "The Grail Guy."
"You can say it is metaphoric for Jews. This guy is completely out of his element," he said. "And Jews are the ultimate fish out of water."
The prize for first place — $2,000 worth of film — is what Rossen hopes to use for his feature-length Jewish comedy. Although that's only enough for one-quarter to one-half of a film, Rossen is grateful nonetheless.
Right now, Rossen is trying to peddle two comedy scripts — neither Jewish — in Los Angeles. He will be back in the East Bay in September and October "to pay the rent" by shooting an industrial safety film, spiked with comedy, for Clorox.
Despite his bent for Jewish subjects, Rossen said he would like to quash one myth about Jews and Hollywood once and for all. He acknowledges that Jews are disproportionately represented in the filmmaking industry: About one-fourth of his classmates at USC were Jews.
But when people take the next step and presume there must be tribal back-scratching involved, it frightens Rossen.
"To assume there's a secret network. It's so `Elders of Zion,'" he said, referring to the infamous anti-Semitic "Protocols" tract.
Indeed, Rossen considers himself the proof of the fallacy.
"I'm still very much struggling," he said. "I'd be in a good position if this conspiracy were true."