A Second, Quieter Festival Explores the Sephardic Journey


It’s hard to describe the pull of nostalgia. I left Casablanca, Morocco, when I was 8, and grew up in Canada and the United States. I’m a proud U.S. citizen and I love my country. When I travel overseas, I skip over Morocco and usually go right to the Jewish homeland of Israel, which I also love.

So, how do I explain my nostalgia for Morocco, an Arab-Muslim country? How can I be attached to a country that feels so foreign, so distant?

It’s true that with the passage of time there’s a tendency to romanticize our past. The very idea of romanticizing feels Moroccan to me. The mystical deserts where Jewish holy men are buried; the souks of Marrakesh; the drama of Tangiers; the French flavors of Casablanca; the Arabic music I still love; the Arab expressions my mother still uses — all of those things dance in my mind as I try to make sense of my attachment to the country of my ancestors.

But there’s something else — the “Moroccan Judaism” I grew up with. This is a Judaism that elevates celebration, aesthetics, holiness, neighborliness and tolerance. I didn’t grow up with the trauma of the Holocaust. I grew up dreaming in the deserts and beaches around Casablanca. What I most recall about our Jewish neighborhood was cozying up with family and neighbors during Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

It was an intimate and happy Judaism — one you could touch, feel and smell. We were Jews in a non-Jewish land, and we had to hug our Jewish rituals and each other to feel alive and whole.

Are my memories idealized? Probably. But here’s the thing: They feel real to me. The pull of my Moroccan past feels genuine.

This pull of nostalgia is one of the areas explored in the Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, which runs Nov. 5–12. While the buzz in the city will be around the larger and more established Israel Film Festival — which we feature in this week’s cover story — it’s worth paying attention to this other festival, especially if you enjoy the story of wandering Jews.

In a way, it makes sense that both festivals are happening simultaneously, because there’s one place where they clearly intersect: Israel. The Jewish state has played a major, even transformational, role in the recent history of Sephardic Jewry. In fact, the film premiering at the Sephardic festival, “Back to Casablanca,” could well have been featured at the Israel Film Festival.

The film tells the story of Ze’ev Revach, an Israeli actor and director born and raised in Morocco. As described on the festival’s website, “He sets out on a journey back to Casablanca, in search of a Moroccan actor to star alongside him in his next film, which he dreams that he’ll be able to distribute around the Arab world. He connects with his mother tongue, discovers the commonalities between the two cultures, but his mission is not a simple one.”

Another film, “Journey from Tunisia,” deals with “the upheaval of centuries of roots for Jews and their Arab neighbors in North Africa, and the forming of new roots in Israel, soon after its rebirth as a nation.”

And then there’s “Why Do They Hate Us?” — a must-see from French-Jewish filmmaker Alexandre Amiel, who hails from Morocco. Shortly after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks, Amiel was shaken by his 11-year-old son, who asked, “Why do they hate us Jews?” His response was to produce a series on racism and anti-Semitism in France. It aired on French television and will be presented at the festival.

While the film festival is sure to attract Sephardic Jews, it’s also an opportunity for Ashkenazi Jews to learn more about their Sephardic brethren. This learning can’t happen as easily in religious institutions like synagogues, because most of us are attached to our religious customs, our style of prayer, our denominations and so on. Having said that, I know several Ashkenazi synagogues that now offer Sephardic services to their members. A great example is at Valley Beth Shalom, which you can read about in this week’s Journal, where Sephardic musician Asher Levy leads Middle Eastern-style services based on his Syrian roots.

A cultural event like a film festival is an ideal way to learn about different Jewish stories. Culture doesn’t ask us to change our ways, it just invites us to open our eyes and ears and hearts and experience a moment.

Although I’m deeply attached to my Sephardic roots, I have spent a good part of my adult life exploring Ashkenazi traditions, religiously and culturally, for the simple reason that I’m fascinated by the story of my people.

As with the story at Valley Beth Shalom, I’m noticing a similar interest among many of my Ashkenazi friends. Last Friday night, for example, after we sang the Ashkenazi version of “Shalom Aleichem,” one Ashkenazi guest asked, “What’s the Sephardic melody for that song?”

Singing that melody pulled me back to my childhood in Morocco. It’s ironic that an Ashkenazi Jew made me sing it, but that’s emblematic of our generation. We’re pulled by the nostalgia of our own past, but we’re fascinated by the past of other Jews we meet. After centuries of living apart, we’re discovering new Jewish stories, new Jewish melodies, new Jewish traditions, right here in Los Angeles. That’s something I could never taste in my Casablanca neighborhood, as much as I miss it.

+