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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: March 9, 2016

Documentary ‘Touchdown Israel: Tackle Football in the Holy Land’ kicks off the Maine Jewish Film Festival

Written by: Ray Routhier
Maine Jewish Film Festival

A scene from the documentary “Touchdown Israel: Tackle Football in the Holy Land” which will be shown on the opening night of the 19th annual Maine Jewish Film Festival on Saturday. Screenings will take place in Portland, Lewiston, Waterville and Brunswick. Image courtesy of Maine Jewish Film Festival

But when he first read about Jews, Arabs and Christians crunching into each other during American-style football games all over Israel, he was more than a little intrigued.

So much so that he decided to make a documentary film about Israeli football, even though he spent much of his working life selling bedding and had never made a film before. He had taken a film course and wanted to make films, and this seemed like the perfect subject.

“I am Jewish, and I know all the Jewish stereotypes about Jews and sports. When I first read about this I thought it didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Hirschberger, who lives in Los Angeles. “But what appealed to me was the power of sports to bring people together, the fact that the league was promoting this to everyone, Jews, Arabs, Christians.”

Hirschberger followed through on his curiosity to make the documentary film “Touchdown Israel: Tackle Football in the Holy Land.” The film be shown around southern Maine on Saturday, as the opening night event for the 19th annual Maine Jewish Film Festival.

Watch the trailer

One screening will be at the Nickelodeon Cinemas on Temple Street in Portland, with a pre-film “tailgate” party at the nearby Portland House of Music. Afterwards the film festival organizers will host an after-party at the Press Hotel on Exchange Street. The Portland opening night will be hosted by Lee Goldberg, sports anchor at Portland TV station WCSH.

Other screenings of “Touchdown Israel” Saturday night will take place at the Olin Arts Center at Bates College in Lewiston, Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville and Frontier in Brunswick.

Unlike baseball, which is played by kids in Japan, Korea, Mexico and the Caribbean, American football is mostly a U.S. thing.

The rest of the world calls soccer football, so maybe the problem is people in other countries can’t wrap their minds about two very different kinds of football.

But in Israel, the seeds of football were planted in the 1980s by American ex-patriots who missed the sport of their youth, with the creation of an organization known as American Football in Israel (AFI).

Over the years the organization grew to include some 90 contact and non-contact flag football teams.

Then in 2005 AFI established the Israeli Football League, with teams playing full-contact American-style football.

The league attracted the interest of Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. Kraft built a dedicated football stadium in Jerusalem (most other league fields were built for soccer) and he now sponsors the entire league.

In a letter he sent to the Maine Jewish Film Festival, Kraft said that promoting the IFL has “allowed me to merge both of my affections for the state of Israel as well as football” while “providing a source of unity for the Israeli community.”

The 85-minute film features an interview with Kraft, who Hirschberger says tries to limit his financial contributions to the league because he wants it to be self-sustaining.

The league in any given year has about 10 teams and some 400 to 500 players, who are amateurs and have other jobs.

The season ends each year with teams vying for a championship in the Israel Bowl.

Hirschberger and his camera followed the league and its players off an on for parts of two seasons about four years ago.

His film includes a lot of game and practice footage, with players in uniforms and equipment they bought themselves.

“I tried to show the obstacles they face, from having to learn the sport from scratch to paying for their own insurance and taking bus trips across the country,” said Hirschberger, 62.

Hirschberger thinks part of the reason American football is catching on in Israel is because it’s a very “strategic” game. Football teams practice complex plays where every player has a precise role to fill. Mapping out a football game plan is sometimes compared to drawing up a military battle plan. Israel’s military has been key to its survival in the region.

But even more than that, Hirschberger thinks football, with its violent full-body, full-speed collisions, is a structured outlet for anger.

Hirschberger said he talked to one Arab who “is kind of an angry guy” and knows that football is a healthy outlet for him.

“He sees things he feels are injustices and discrimination, and this is a more acceptable way for him to get out some of that anger,” Hirschberger said.


WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Saturday; film starts at 8 p.m.
WHERE: Nickelodeon Cinemas, 1 Temple St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $40 includes opening night “tailgate” party before the film, at 6 p.m. at Portland House of Music, 25 Temple St., Portland; $10 tickets for the film only will be available, on a limited basis, about 20 minutes before the screening.
WHAT ELSE: The film, which kicks off the annual Maine Jewish Film Festival, will screen at other locations Saturday as well:
Olin Arts Center at Bates College, 75 Russell, St., Lewiston, 7 p.m. with a pre-film party in Pettingill Hall, 5:30 p.m.; $18 for film and party
Railroad Square Cinema, 17 Railroad Square, Waterville, 7:30 p.m.; $10
Frontier, 14 Maine St., Brunswick, 8 p.m.; $10

Interested in reading about more of the festival’s films? Check out this week’s Indie Film column.

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