How can I explain what the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival is? It’s very name is so local and yet its scope is entirely global. I suppose I could start by explaining what is meant by “Sephardic.” Allow me to generalize. Here in New York City it is pretty common to boil Jews down to one of two stereotypes: the Orthodox and the nebbish. These are Ashkenazi Jews who, thanks to a sordid history of European emigration, took root here en masse around the turn of the 20th century. Ashkenazim are basically the shtetl Jews; the Fiddler on the Roof Jews.
That film is perhaps the ultimate Hollywood pontification on the Jew, an image of a people that is, for better or worse, an accepted truth. Sephardic Jewry, who hail from Spain, Northern Africa and the Fertile Crescent (among other places), have almost no image in American cinema. In fact, in America, little is known of this “other” kind of Jew outside the confines of the Jewish community. Sephardim observe different dietary laws (sometimes), speak a different dialect of Hebrew, observe different customs and have a rich history of art and literature that is speckled with influence from the various cultures in which they have existed. How fitting it is then, that there should be a New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, to both celebrate and educate us on these Jews who perhaps don’t fit the mold of the mainstream. A festival for the other other.
But what about the films? I was only able to see three films from the fest. I would like to tell you about two and the third I will review before it’s snow=postponed screening. The first film I watched was a documentary called Salvador by Nissim Mossek. Stylistically, the film is very weak, which is to say there isn’t much style at all. It is a procedural accounting of a shipwreck that occurred 70 years ago. Salvador achieves its goal of relating the facts to you with interviews, photographs and found footage. Through all of it, a small group of “Salvador” survivors meet and journey, for the first time in over a half century, back to their homeland of Bulgaria.
The tale itself is full of intrigue and adventure. As the Nazis gained power in Bulgaria, it became increasingly difficult for Jews to leave the country. Enter Dr. Confino, an accidental one-man Zionist enterprise. After receiving little help from the Zionist movement, whose resources were stretched thin, he took matters into his own hands to purchase ships and organize clandestine voyages to Palestine, where the Jewish homeland was being built. After many successful journeys, things get a bit hazy depending on how you look at the facts. Confino replaced his best ship, which had trafficked many a Bulgarian Jew, for the “Salvador”, a vessel considered shoddy at best. Intended to take around 100 Zionist youths across the sea, the manifest more than tripled before it left for Palestine, creating a recipe for disaster, which occurred off the coast of Turkey.
About 5 kilometers south of the Turkish fishing town of Silivri, the boat capsized and the struggle for shore began. 238 of the 352 people on board drowned. So harrowing was the event that to this day, local fisherman refer to the waters where the ship went down as “the sea of the Jews.” What’s so amazing is that this is only where the adventure begins. Remember, these Jews who were fleeing from the Nazis now find themselves shipwrecked in Turkey. Many did make it to the Jewish homeland eventually, and the film clearly tells their tale. Early on, one of the survivors proclaims that no one cared about the story back then, and that this film is the first to take on the subject of the Salvador. It’s true; in 1940 a shipwreck in Turkey is but a footnote to the ground-shaking news that came out every day. The story of the Salvador is so riveting it sounds like it would make a great movie. Whether that movie should necessarily be a documentary or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide.
The second film was another documentary called Children of the Bible, by Nitza Gonen. This time we have a vivid portrait of rapper Jeremy Cool Habash, an Ethiopian émigré whose mission is to teach young Ethiopian Israelis about their heritage. The history of Ethiopian Jewry and their introduction to Israeli society could fill volumes, but this film tries to focus in on one man’s mission to teach through music. The short of it is that many Ethiopians feel displaced in Israeli society where some question their Jewish roots. Branded as outsiders, many youths turn to American “gangster” culture; to drugs and violence.
Enter Mr. Habash, who raps in Hebrew and Amharic. He believes that young Ethiopians should celebrate their heritage rather than try to fit into the culture that surrounds them. He teaches kids the meanings of their Amharic names and tells them many stories about what life was like for him in Ethiopia. The film has many moving moments, like watching the kids perform a rap they wrote about how they want to grow up, or seeing Jeremy return to Africa where he acts like a stubborn child to a family not his own. There is footage of a rally to give equal religious authority to the Ethiopian rabbis, called the Kesses. Children of the Bible serves as a really interesting introduction to Ethiopian Jewry for anyone interested.
So there you have it: films for the other other. Perhaps Children of the Bible could be considered a film for the other other other. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see any other films, so I can’t speak for the rest of the festival. Some screenings have been recheduled due to snow, so check out their website to see what is still coming.