Re-Imagining the Jewish World

Friday, March 23, 2012

The film opens in a small village in the Portuguese countryside: “Judeus? Judeus?” The director asks where the Jews live and sure enough, everyone in this village—which seems not to have changed very much since 1497, when Portugal’s Jews were forcibly converted—can identify them. Thus begins Frederic Brenner’s The Last Marranos, a film about the community of anusim, the descendants of forced converts who clandestinely maintained Jewish belief and practice for centuries in their native village of Belmonte in Portugal. The film opens a hidden universe in a way that the most compelling novel or book of serious scholarship never could. Its stark images and candid interviews allow the story of the community to unfold with complexity and richness, leaving the viewer with questions and hungry to learn more. Who are these Jews? How do they fit into a larger narrative of what it means to be Jewish? The film about a small, marginal community forces the viewer to consider the very essence of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.

Jews of all backgrounds need to learn about the experience of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews to understand who they are. Films that focus on Sephardi-Mizrahi themes and experiences are important not only because they can instill pride in Sephardi-Mizrahi Jews about the richness of their culture and history, but also because they allow viewers to think “otherwise” about Jews and Judaism, exile and home, culture and faith. 

Ruth Behar’s documentary about her search for the Jews of Cuba, Adio Kerida, for example, sheds light on the experience of Sephardic immigrants to the Americas, and on life on the communist island for the small yet vibrant group of Jews (most of whom are of Sephardic origin) who live there now. This view of lived experience is in itself a valuable contribution, both interesting and edifying.  However, Behar pushes the viewer further: The film takes on themes of exile, memory and identity. It is a film about leaving Spain for Turkey in 1492; about leaving Turkey for the Americas in the 1920s; about leaving Cuba after Fidel Castro’s communist revolution—and about how these exiles and resulting nostalgias for lost homes inform and shape contemporary Jewish identity. The film is about love and fidelity, family and faith; it is about the ways that Jews with connections to multiple backgrounds—Cuban, American, Sephardic and/or Ashkenazic—navigate and build their identities in our globalized, post-modern world.

The American Sephardi Federation’s New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival is dedicated to showcasing great cinema—from documentaries to feature films—that deals with a wide range of Sephardic and Mizrahi themes. Since 1990, the film festival has been exploring the history and culture of the Sephardic world, enriching the broader community’s appreciation of the Sephardic past, present and future. Many award-winning films had their international debuts at the festival. By creating a forum in the heart of New York City for people from all backgrounds to come and engage with these films, the festival forges a sense of a community of viewers and inspires New Yorkers to attend diverse screenings that challenge their assumptions about what is “Jewish” or “Sephardic.” Audience members leave energized, with an appreciation of the dynamism at the core of the global Jewish experience.

The 16th New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival occurred earlier this March, and its selections boldly engaged with the realities of Jewish life in the Diaspora and in Israel. The closing night’s Iraq N’ Roll looked at the power and the pain inherent in music and memory, as the grandson and nephew of Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti—two of the great musicians of modern Iraq—reclaimed their Arabic musical heritage and recreated it within the context of modern Israel. Free Men (Les Hommes libres), winner of the “Best Director from the Arab World” award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2011, told of the heroic efforts of Parisian Muslims who used their mosque to save Jews in Nazi-occupied Paris. The film demanded from audience members a reconsideration of their assumptions about Jewish-Muslim coexistence. Vivienne Roumani-Denn’s The Last Jews of Libya told the story of Libya’s ancient Jewish community, providing a deeper context for the current headlines of revolution and change in the contemporary Arab world. Films such as Arik Lubetzky’s Little Simico’s Big Fantasy revealed the beauty, joy and humor of the everyday, capturing slices of contemporary Sephardic life.

The best films are not didactic. They show; they illuminate; they reveal the complexities, beauties and mysteries of the Jewish experience. They move beyond the particulars of their stories to explore the great themes of human existence.

Ronnie Perelis, Alcalay Assistant Professor of Sephardic Studies, Yeshiva University.

History’s Ultimate Nomads.  Directed by Shaul Keslassi. 2010.

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