Families in flux
BAR MITZVA. The festival opened with ‘Zrubavel,’ the first full-length feature by Ethiopian olim. Photo: Uri Sadeh
For a child, a bar mitzva can be a leap from youth to maturity, with all its attendant responsibilities; but for a family, it can be a time of unsettling transition, when older, aging generations are forced to acknowledge the arrival of the next.
The New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival is using its 13th year to introduce a slate of films that explore how families knit themselves closer together – or, more often, come entirely unglued – in the crucible of change.
From the centerpiece feature about an Ethiopian clan shattered by the pressures of adapting to life in Israel to a series of documentaries about vanishing Jewish communities, the films highlight the strains faced by parents trying to pass on the traditions they once took for granted to children and grandchildren who see them as foreign.
“We don’t start out with a particular theme in mind, but it certainly emerges after you look at enough films. And because it was the 13th year, we started to focus on films about family and generations,” said Lynne Winters, director of programming for the American Sephardi Federation, which sponsors the festival.
Fittingly, the audience for Thursday’s opening-night gala – the New York premiere of the Israeli film Zrubavel, the first full-length feature to be made by Ethiopian olim – ran from white-haired couples to fussy babies who braved a bitingly cold night to see the film.
“I am here! I am here!” exclaimed director Shmuel Beru, who made the film – which won Best Film at the 2008 Jerusalem International Film Festival and Best Drama at the Haifa International Film Festival – to counter the absence of Ethiopian actors from mainstream Israeli cinema and television.
The movie’s narrator, a bar mitzva boy named Itzhak, wanders around his neighborhood armed with a camera and dreams of becoming an Israeli Spike Lee. Meanwhile, his parents split over his newly religious father’s increasing piety, which comes tempered with frustration and outbursts of domestic violence, while his grandfather, his aunt and his young uncle bicker over how to remain Ethiopian while becoming Israeli – even if some white Sabras refuse to accept them.
Ethiopian singer Meskie Shibru-Sivan, who performed before the screening, welcomed the audience by telling the story of how her mother finally joined her in Israel after being thrown in an Ethiopian jail for Zionist activities.
“It is our country,” she declared, flashing a dazzling smile.
THE PERUVIAN olim in Lorry Salcedo Mitrani’s documentary The Fire Within – all grandchildren and great-grandchildren of European Jews who intermarried with Amazonian women while chasing their fortunes during the rubber boom of the early 20th century – articulate a much sharper sense of displacement once they arrive in Israel, after undergoing the conversion process.
One young woman, still much more comfortable speaking Spanish than Hebrew, tells the camera she still has no real friends, years after making aliya; another man, once the head of the Jewish community in the remote Amazon town of Iquitos, leaves his wife and children to return home, where he can tend his parents’ graves and live in his own memories.
Yet other films in the festival, which runs through February 12 at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, celebrate the successes of some communities in bridging the distinct, and distinctly non-Ashkenazic, worlds their parents came from with their lives in Israel.
In Sadia Shepard’s In Search of Bene Israel, which will be screened at the festival on Tuesday, a young Bene Israel Jew returns to Mumbai to marry a woman his parents have chosen for him. He says cheerfully that he will bring her with him back to Israel, where their kin live in Beersheba, Ashdod, Lod, Ramle and Dimona.
“It’s home away from home,” he tells the camera. “It’s a good feeling.”