The Sephardic Reach, Through Cinema

Pramila (Esther Abraham), left, the first woman to win the title of Miss India, and Egyptian film star Leila Mourad.

The first Jews in New Amsterdam, as New York City was once called, were Sephardim from Brazil who had escaped the dangers of the Inquisition in the New World by heading north to the more tolerant air of the Dutch colony. They had knowingly recapitulated the trajectory of many Sephardic Jews before them who had found refuge in the Netherlands. Consequently, the first synagogues in North America followed the traditions established in Spain and Portugal before the Expulsion in 1492.

The descendants of those pioneers also set a more unfortunate precedent, assimilating into the non-Jewish communities they found in the soon-to-be United States. When the larger waves of Ashkenazim arrived on American soil, the country they encountered was an industrial nation with nascent mass media; eventually they ended up as the dominant strand of Jewish-American culture.

Over the past 30 years, aided in no small part by renewed immigrant communities both here and in Israel and, unsurprisingly, the presence of ever-larger media empires in the U.S., Sephardic Jews have re-asserted themselves with considerable success. That trend is nowhere more evident than in the continued growth of the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, which opens for its 19th year on March 10.

Appropriately, one of the key elements of this year’s event is a reminder of how ubiquitous Sephardic cultures have been. One could argue, with some justification, that their presence has actually been more widespread geographically than that of the Ashkenazim. Consider a few of the festival’s offerings from this year’s calendar:

The first woman to win the title Miss India (in 1947) would go on to enjoy a highly successful career in Bollywood films under the name Pramila. She had been born Esther Abraham and had broken with her staid Jewish family in Kolkata at 17, eager to go into the theater. It seems somehow appropriate that she earned her fame playing bad girls in films like the 1950 musical melodrama “Beqassor,” which will be shown in this year’s festival. Nor was she the first Jewish woman to conquer Indian cinema; Sulochana (born Ruby Meyers) starred in several proto-feminist Indian films in the 1930s. (In addition to the screening of “Beqassor,” which will be introduced by Kenneth X. Robbins, a prominent historian of India’s Jewish communities, the Center for Jewish History is hosting an exhibition “Baghdadis & the Bene Israel in Bollywood and Beyond,” which is on display through April 1.)

Leila Mourad, one of the greatest stars of Egyptian film and popular music, was also a Jew, with both Sephardic and Ashkenazi roots. Mourad’s 1950 musical blockbuster, “Shore of Love,” directed by one of the central figures of Egyptian film, Henry Barakat, will be shown as part of the festival. Barakat prided himself on the elements of romantic realism that raised his films above the norm, so “Shore of Love” should make an interesting parallel to “Beqassor.”

Speaking of Leila Mourad, in the early days of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Friday afternoons were reserved for telecasts of Egyptian musicals and melodramas, and that programming became a source of warm nostalgia for Israeli transplants from the Arab world. “Arab Movie” by Eyal Sagui Bizawe and Sara Tsifroni is a delightfully fresh hour-long documentary that hearkens back to that cultural phenomenon with real affection.

Solomon Nunes Carvalho was an unlikely candidate for activism and for adventuring, but he enthusiastically took on those joint roles as a product of his artistic zeal. “Carvalho’s Journey,” directed by Steve Rivo, is a spirited retelling of the all-but-forgotten story of the Baltimore-based painter and daguerreotypist, a Sephardic Jew who was probably the first professional photographer of his faith, and the man who documented Colonel John Fremont’s quixotic fifth expedition across the American West in 1853. Rivo cleverly opens his film in the middle of Carvalho’s story, with his decidedly urban protagonist agreeing to go into the wilderness with Fremont for a one-of-a-kind journey. It sounds like the scenario for a Jewish remake of “The Revenant,” and there are more than a few passing similarities, but the spiritual and cross-cultural odyssey involved is more benign and more fruitful. Rivo tells the story briskly, with immeasurable assistance from Robert Shlaer, a modern-day practitioner of the daguerreotype who has been recreating Carvalho’s trajectory.

The 19th annual New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, presented by the American Sephardi Foundation, takes place March 10-17 at the Center for Jewish History (15 W. 16th St.). For information, go to or call (212) 294-8350.


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