The following films were shown at the 13th New York Sephardic Film Festival, cosponsored by the American Sephardi Federation/Sephardic House and the Yeshiva University Museum. The festival ran at the Center for Jewish History. The films were reviewed by Judith Gelman Myers. Look for them in your neighborhood festival or theater.
In spite of expert filmmaking—the A-list acting is superb, the mise-en-scène top-notch—this film never rises above its characters, a family of greedy, self-centered Moroccan Jews gathered to observe the official period of mourning. Like My Mexican Shiva, this nonnarrative tale crosscuts between family members and their individual crises, but the script, cowritten by Ronit Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi, is so wrapped up in the family’s pain that it never lets its actors do anything but hurt. Even Moshe Ivgy and the fabulous Elkabetz come off more tedious than tragic. Les Films du Losange (www.filmsdulosange.fr).
About Sugarcane and Homecoming
When the Inquisition followed Sefardic Jews to Brazil, many converted to Catholicism but practiced their Judaism in secret. Today, their descendants are openly reclaiming their Jewish heritage. In Israel, they are meeting opposition, as the Orthodox rabbinate is insisting that they formally convert back to Judaism. The Brazilians consider this mandate from the Holy Land a slight to their honor—but, more important, to the honor, memory and suffering of their exiled ancestors. Ruth Diskin Films (www.ruthfilms.com).
Shmuel Beru, an Ethiopian Israeli, wrote and directed this film with a loving eye toward his community, which many white Israelis view as full of crime, poverty and superstition. Although screenwriter-director Beru had neither written nor directed a film before, his devotion to the project, and the passion he inspired in his largely Ethiopian cast and crew, make the film pulse and glow with energy. Beru is most certainly a talent to watch for. Transfax Productions (www.transfax.co.il).
A Matter of Time: From Tripoli to Bergen-Belsen
How tragic that Libyan Jews interned in the Jado concentration camp near Tripoli or sent to Bergen-Belsen had to prove their “Holocaust worthiness” to their European-born Jewish brethren, who rejected the Libyan experience out of hand—a horrifying example of Holocaust denial within the Jewish state. This fascinating documentary retells both the history of the Axis domination of North Africa and the Ashkenazic Israeli hegemony over the Holocaust experience. Filmakers Library (www.filmakers.com).
To spite a rabbi opposed to the teaching of Jewish mysticism, Yemenite kabbalists trumped up false charges against the rabbi’s grandson and delivered him to the Muslims, who imprisoned the boy and threatened to convert him to Islam. The child grew up to become Reb Yosef Kapach, the world’s leading authority on Maimonides, who won an Israel Prize and thrice rejected the post of chief Sefardic rabbi of Israel. His wife, Bracha, won the Israel Prize for her work with the poor. The Kapachs are treasured in this documentary lovingly made by Reb Yosef’s granddaughter, Einat (www.go2films).
Tree of Life
Not everyone is a filmmaker. Had Hava Volterra stuck to telling the story of her illustrious Jewish-Italian family tree, which includes a famed 18th-century mystic, the first Jewish prime minister in the Western Hemisphere, and Fiorella LaGuardia, this documentary would have been both educational and entertaining. Instead, Volterra, an engineer by profession, burdens the narrative with uninspired and unnecessary exposition about herself. Still, she deserves kudos for her footage of a rabbi singing “Had Gadya” in an ancient Italian dialect (www.thetreeoflifemovie.com).
Assaf Bernstein directs the always fabulous Gila Almagor as a former Mossad agent forced to revisit a mission gone bad 40 years earlier. But the acting is also superb in the flashbacks, as the young Mossadniks struggle to maintain their sanity when they are directed to kidnap the Butcher of Birkenau and serve as his caretaker until they can transport him back to Israel for trial. With the Holocaust at their backs and the honor of the State of Israel on their shoulders, they must listen as the Butcher muses aloud, “Why did we need only four guards to lead a thousand Jews to the gas chambers? What made the Jews so easy to kill?” Evanstone Films (www.evanstonefilms.co).
Under the Bombs
In the summer of 2006, a day after the fighting in Lebanon between the Israeli Army and Hezbollah stops, an upper-class Lebanese woman hires a taxi in Beirut to drive south in search of her missing 6-year-old son. The odyssey takes her and the scruffy taxi driver to devastated villages and their grieving Arab Christian families, whose anger is directed at both Israel and Hezbollah. The award-winning feature film is directed by Philippe Aractingi. Rhamsa Productions, distributed by Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com). —Tom Tugend
Adam Stein, the premier magician, clown and clairvoyant in pre-Hitler Berlin, survives a death camp as personal entertainer to the Nazi commandant and later finds himself in a strange Israeli rehabilitation center for Holocaust survivors. Jeff Goldblum gives a bravura performance in the tormented title role. Bleiberg Entertainment (www.bleibergent.com). —T.T.
When Leah, a young Hasidic woman, suddenly loses her husband, an unlikely romance develops between her and her brother-in-law, Jake, a secular and charismatic cardiologist. Their levirate marriage develops into a true relationship as Leah and Jake discover each other’s worlds. At times tender and romantic, the film misrepresents Hasidic life as overly rigid. While Leah’s modesty seems real, her sudden transformation is questionable. Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions (www.hallmark.com ). —Sara Trappler Spielman
Naf: A Street Kid
Thrown out of his haredi parents’ house at 14 because he cut his sidelocks and wore jeans and a T-shirt, Naf lives on the streets of Jerusalem, smoking—and occasionally selling—dope and trying to make it as a rap artist. Angry and cocky, Naf claims to represent hundreds of other street kids in their struggle for aid against what they see as oppressive social structure. Moshe Alafi’s documentary, which is neither pretty nor upbeat, follows Naf for two and a half years. It’s certainly not the picture of Jerusalem the Golden seen in travel brochures. Ruth Diskin Films (www.ruthfilms.com ). —Renata Polt
As You Go on Your Way: Shacharit–The Morning Prayers
Debbie Friedman brings her singular sound to Shacharit in 34 easy-to-sing, original melodies and traditional renditions of classic texts from “Modeh Ani” to “Aleinu.” Settings both soothing and catchy offer listeners and singers a new way to serenade God on a daily basis (www.debbiefriedman.com ). —Rahel Musleah
Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs
Bikel’s inimitable renditions of Yiddish songs like “Lomir Alle Zingen,” “Dona Dona” and “Az Der Rebbe Zingt” evoke the East European Jewish family and society with humor, vigor and nostalgia. This second of a series of three Yiddish recordings from early in Bikel’s 50-year career has been reissued by Hatikvah Music. (www.hatikvahmusic.com ).
Mimi Sloan Sings Moishe Oysher Classics
Yiddish radio and stage artist Mimi Sloan (part of the Feder Sisters duo) often performed with the great cantor Moishe Oysher; her stirring renditions of his Yiddish and liturgical pieces are flawless reproductions of his style, delivered with her own verve. Twelve classics reissued by Hatikvah Music include “Haggada in Song,” “Sheyiboneh Beys Hamikdash,” “Mein Shtetele Belz” and “Amar Amar (Rabi Eliezer)” (www.hatikvahmusic.com ). —R.M.
Artist Tobi Kahn brings his inventive, Modernist and Jewish spirit to ritual objects and paintings marking the flow of time. The present surrounds the past as new forms of ceremonial objects from amulets to etrog boxes encircle an outmoded card catalog inspired by the display space. Paintings evoke dusk, death and other passages. Through June 30 at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (www.jtsa.edu ). —R.M.