Hundreds attend 1st Jewish film festival in Casablanca


Nearly 500 people attended the first Jewish film festival of Casablanca, which was organized in the Moroccan city by a Sephardic Jewish woman from Atlanta.

The three-day event, which ended Wednesday at the offices of Casablanca’s SOC club, featured three films about the “consequences of the emigration of the Jews from the fabric of Moroccan society,” the organizer, Vanessa Paloma, told JTA on Thursday. Each screening drew about 150 viewers, she said.

One of the two fictional features screened was “Aida,” which was also Morocco’s submission to the Academy Awards for best foreign language film, about a Paris-based Jewish music teacher’s battle with cancer.

The other was “Midnight Orchestra,” a 2015 production about the son of a Jewish musician who left Morocco amid racial tensions spurred by the Yom Kippur war.

Reactions to the festival were overwhelmingly positive, said Paloma, a singer of Judeo-Spanish music and a researcher on identity and the arts in Moroccan Judaism. She has lived in Casablanca since 2009 with her Moroccan-Jewish husband, Maurice Elbaz, who helped her produce the festival on a shoestring budget that sufficed because the filmmakers waived their fees.

But the event also provoked negative reactions in Morocco, which despite being one of the Muslim world’s few countries where Jewish heritage is celebrated openly, nonetheless has a vociferous anti-Israel lobby that at times resorts to anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Jaouad Benaissi, an author and former member of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces party, complained on Facebook about the festival’s theme, writing that “man-made artworks have nothing to do with religion,” and therefore the Jewish theme was inappropriate – a message similar to that of Abdelilah Jouhari, a journalist who accused Paloma of “trying to make business with religion,” as reported by the news site Le 360.

“My response was that Jewish is not necessarily religious but also cultural, and that in the tradition of Jewish film festivals which exist around the world, we want to start this dialogue around Moroccan history, culture and traditions of Jews as presented on the silver screen,” Paloma told JTA.

In 2013, 200 Islamists demonstrated in Tangier against the screening of a documentary about Moroccan Jews because it mentions Israel.

Sfenj: Tough to pronounce, easy to eat


This recipe is my little Chanukah gift to all my Ashkenazi friends, who never got to wake up on Sunday mornings in Casablanca to the smell of the world’s greatest doughnuts — my mother’s sfenj. You won’t find these hot, doughy marvels at Krispy Kreme or any of those trendy new doughnut joints. For one thing, how would they market a doughnut pronounced “shfinz”? 

Sfenj are a ubiquitous fried pastry in North Africa. The name is based on the Arabic word for “sponge,” not because they soak up oil, but because a perfect sfenj — my mother’s — is light and springy.  

The doughnuts really make their star appearance in Jewish homes around Chanukah, when foods fried in oil take center stage. They are the perfect complement to Ashkenazi latkes — a culinary model of Jewish unity.

Thanks to some help from my cousin Sydney Suissa, who did grow up with me in Morocco, the recipe below includes a few “tricks” gathered by my mother over 50 years of making the same item. If you follow the instructions, your sfenj will be so delicious, you can tell your kids it’s their Chanukah gift.

SFENJ (Moroccan Chanukah doughnuts)

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cups water (105 to 110 F)
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Powdered sugar for sprinkling 
  • Honey for dipping

 

Mix together flour, yeast, salt and granulated sugar. Add oil and egg, mixing lightly. Add the water slowly, using your hands to work it into the mixture.

Knead the dough gently; shape it into a ball. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

Wet hands slightly, then roll dough into small balls. Flatten, then create a hole using your finger, and stretch the dough gently. 

In a deep pot, heat oil to 350 F. Drop sfenj carefully into hot oil. When lightly browned and crusty, turn and finish frying.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve warm with honey for dipping. 

Makes about 20 sfenj.

Jews and the birth of Film Noir


The 1942 classic “Casablanca” follows a complicated love story between two star-crossed lovers, played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. But it’s also about refugees fleeing their home country for safety. It’s an apt metaphor for the experience of Jews escaping Nazi Germany, and that’s no coincidence. Almost everyone who worked on the film was an immigrant.

“It’s as much an exile film as it is a romantic drama,” said Doris Berger, curator of “Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950,” on display at the Skirball Cultural Center from Oct. 23 to March 1. “In Rick’s Café, where everyone comes to but everyone leaves and has to go someplace else, it’s a transitory space in itself.”

Detail from “Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks,” illustrations by Dan Christensen and story by Jaime S. Rich, 2014, in “The Noir Effect” at the Skirball Cultural Center.

“Casablanca” is among the better-known films included in the exhibition, which begins with the outbreak of World War II and ends with the congressional anti-communist hearings and the Hollywood blacklist.

Jews held prominent positions in Germany’s film industry when the Nazis came to power. Their stories are described in a concurrent show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), “Haunted Screens,” running from Sept. 21 to April 26. German Expressionist films such as Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” employed strange camera angles, dark shadows and mythical figures, the visual touchstones of what became film noir.

“Since our show focuses on the 1920s and the years leading up to the rise of national socialism and World War II, we’re really thrilled that the Skirball exhibition will pick up right where we leave off, and trace the achievements of émigré filmmakers here in Hollywood and show some of those aesthetic connections, but also those biographical links,” said Britt Salvesen, curator of the LACMA show.

The Nazis forbid Jews to work in the movie business. Prolific comedy director Henry Koster left Berlin for Budapest, where there was still a German-speaking film market. Billy Wilder went to Paris, and Lang absconded to London. Many went directly to the United States. 

An estimated 800 German-speaking Jews emigrated and worked in Hollywood during World War II, from below-the-line crew, like tailors and prop designers, to major figures in Hollywood who fought to save German Jews from death, including Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, director Ernst Lubitsch and talent agent Paul Kohner.

The Skirball exhibition highlights one film genre specific to the time: the anti-Nazi film. It wasn’t until well into the war and the systematic genocide of Jews in Europe that a strong Nazi critique became apparent in American cinema.

“Some studios, like Warner Bros., really tried to make films that were critical toward the Nazis, since 1934, but couldn’t get it through the censorship board for five years,” Berger said. “So it took them until 1939 to make the first anti-Nazi film.”

The chief censor of the Hollywood film industry in the late 1930s was Joseph Breen, a notorious anti-Semite. Breen specifically warned Hollywood producers to avoid tackling the Nazi mistreatment of Jews altogether, saying, “There is a strong pro-German and anti-Semitic feeling in this country … and while those who are likely to approve of an anti-Hitler picture may think well of such an enterprise, they should keep in mind that millions of Americans might think otherwise.”

One side effect of the censors was that directors had to discreetly slip in risqué jokes. The phrase “the Lubitsch touch” is used to describe the Jewish director’s very subtle style of comedy. “You heard things behind the doors,” Berger said. “You didn’t see them, but you could imagine them.”

A strange irony is that one of the few roles available for German immigrant actors, because of their strong accents, was as a Nazi soldier. Martin Kosleck was not Jewish but was strongly opposed to the Nazis, yet he portrayed an SS trooper and a concentration camp officer, and played the role of Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, in five films.The first anti-Nazi movie, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” an example of film noir, is contrasted in the Skirball exhibit with Lubitsch’s comedic satire “To Be or Not to Be.” The Jewish émigré sensibility, combining humor and sorrow, molded the comedy films of that time. “They are funny, but they’re not only funny,” Berger said. “Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry about something. It kind of sticks in your throat.”

Wilder’s 1948 romantic comedy, “A Foreign Affair,” stars Marlene Dietrich as an ex-Nazi cabaret singer struggling to survive in the rubble of Berlin. Dietrich chose to wear the same dress in the movie that she wore while entertaining U.S. troops overseas, another subtle act of resistance. That original dress is featured in the exhibition, alongside photos of her wearing it for American soldiers.

Film still from “A Foreign Affair” (1948) © Paramount Pictures, courtesy of  Photofest

Hollywood Jews socialized together, in salons organized at various movie moguls’ homes, where they would discuss current events of the U.S. and Europe. But not all émigrés had a rosy relationship. Director Lang collaborated with poet Bertolt Brecht on “Hangmen Also Die!” but they clashed over Brecht’s struggle to write for the screen. It was his first, and final, script for a Hollywood film.

The Skirball also examines the cultural assimilation of Jews in Hollywood. Kohner sent Christmas cards every year to his associates, including fellow Jews. Nicola Lubitsch, who was interviewed for the show, remembers her father as a completely non-practicing Jew. “It was part of his identity, but it was never spoken of,” she said.

In Rick’s Café in “Casablanca,” the camera focuses on the tears in the immigrant actors’ eyes — an example of reality and fiction merging together. Hollywood — which has always been an exporter of American culture to the rest of the world — became a vehicle in the 1930s and ’40s for Jewish immigrants to tell their own stories. 

“That is, of course, the great accomplishment of the émigrés,” said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “As a group, they, not consciously but through their own experience, did have this influence.”

A second exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, “The Noir Effect,” examines the cultural influence of film noir on the following decades of American culture, from films such as Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive, to photographer Cindy Sherman, painter Ed Ruscha and the imagery of graphic novels, children’s books and video games such as “L.A. Noire.” It’s further proof that the legacy of Hollywood’s Jewish émigrés lives to this day.

“Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés  in Hollywood, 1933-1950,” and “The Noir Effect,” Skirball Cultural Center, Oct. 23-March 1. www.skirball.org.

“Haunted Scenes: German Cinema in the 1920s,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Sept. 21-June 4. www.lacma.org.

Scroll of a Lifetime


“Imagine your congregation gathered to witness the first strokes of the Scribe’s quill on new parchment… Feeling a real connection to the shape of the letters, the texture of the parchment, the concentration of the Scribe, holding his quill, preparing to write the name of G-d.”

This is how my friend Rav Shmuel Miller, who passed away suddenly last week during Rosh Hashanah, described on his Web site his lifelong passion for enscribing Hebrew letters on holy scrolls.

He devoted much of his working life to the shape of these letters, the texture of parchment, the holding of a quill, with the concentration of a man always prepared to write the name of the Creator.

I first met Rav Miller when I moved to Pico-Robertson about seven years ago. I had just started writing my column, so I was making the rounds of the different shuls and rabbis of the neighborhood. I had heard from my French buddies about this unusual French-speaking rabbi (his friends affectionately called him “R’bbe Shmuel”), who had a little shul in his backyard.

As I got to know him better, I started to understand why he was so unusual.

For one thing, he looked like he came from another century. He had a glorious, regal look about him. He was tall and always stood up straight, ready to greet you properly. His eyes were dark and soulful, but with a mischievous sparkle. He wore his beard perfectly trimmed, framing a face ready at any moment to light up in laughter.

At home, he often dressed in jelabas and baboushes, much the way I remember my grandfather dressed in Casablanca.

As I wrote in 2007, Rav Miller would have looked right at home on the set of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Although he was an expert in Hebrew letters, he had a lifelong fascination with Arabic and became an expert in that language as well.

His interest in Arabic, he once told me, started because he wanted to study the writings of Maimonides in his original text. This is what I wrote at the time:

“He says this [knowing Arabic] gave him a deeper, ‘more palpable’ understanding of Jewish ideas. For example, the word in Arabic that Maimonides uses for the Hebrew daat (knowledge) is eidrak, which refers to a knowledge that you ‘apprehend’ or ‘take in.’ It is a union between the modrak, the one who understands, and the modrik, the one who is understood.

“Whereas the Hebrew daat denotes something external and impersonal, the Arab eidrak defines a knowledge that is more personal and contemplative, one that ultimately becomes part of you.”

 

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Rav Miller was an intellectual who seemed to know a lot about everything. When he gave classes at my house about the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, he would weave in sources from the Talmud, the Midrash and the prophets, as well as the Zohar.

For years, he was my go-to person for anything Jewish. We would meet early mornings at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Wilshire Boulevard, and I would pepper him with questions on a subject I was writing about. Usually, before I would finish my question, his face would light up with a big “Ah!,” as if to suggest he had a few surprises in store for me.

He also loved music.

On Tuesday nights, a group of hipsters would gather in his home for a kind of spiritual Middle Eastern jam session.

“We would sit in a circle and chant Tehilim until gravity no longer had any effect on us,” is how my friend Maimon Chocron, who played the bendir (north African snare hand drum) during the sessions, described it.

He had a small but intense following. He didn’t get much press, nor did he seek it. His home and shul became a gathering place for the eclectic Jews of Pico-Robertson.

For all the bohemia that surrounded him, there was a precision to everything Rav Miller did. Although there were stretches in his life where he experienced hardships, both personally and financially, his dignity never suffered. His thoughts and movements were always refined and meticulous, just as when he held his quill to shape letters on holy scrolls.

These scrolls are now read in countless synagogues on Shabbat, every time a Torah is opened. The letters in those scrolls are his personal legacy to our community.

His life itself, you might say, was a like a holy scroll. It had the Old-World texture of parchment, the sharpness of brilliant ink, and the permanence of great ideas.

In his distinguished, regal way, he spent a lifetime preparing to meet God.

From L.A. to Casablanca and back again


On May 16, 2003, a series of suicide bombings struck Casablanca. The target: Jews. Luckily, the suicide bombers were not particularly savvy, and the Jewish targets they struck were empty for Shabbat. Although no Jews were killed, nearly 30 Muslims died as a result of the blasts. In response to the bombings, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI staged a rally to demonstrate his support for the Jewish community; this was right in the middle of the Second Intifada. That’s Morocco for you — a country that in turn enchants and surprises, according to the Jewish-American singer Vanessa Paloma. When Paloma visits Los Angeles this week to perform with Noreen Green and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, she’ll be bringing a musical taste of the country she loves and now calls home.

“I moved to Morocco in 2007,” Paloma said, speaking on the phone while sitting under a tree on the campus of Indiana University, her alma mater, on a warm spring day. Paloma, who’d just finished performing, recounted the journey that took her from a mostly secular life in the United States to an observant Jewish one in Morocco. 

The impetus for her journey, she said, was the time she spent in Los Angeles after college, when she founded a musical group, Flor de Serena (Siren’s Flower), which performed Sephardic music. As she dug deeper into the music, she started to see that “maybe there’s actually something a lot deeper going on here.” After spending some time in Israel, she said, she decided it was time “to make my life more whole, to practice what I was singing, in a way.” And so she applied for and received a Fulbright Scholarship and headed off to Morocco.

The first thing you have to understand about Casablanca, she said, is that “it’s a huge city. Casablanca is really a metropolis. … There are about 7 million people.” And sprinkled among those millions of Moroccans is a small but thriving community of Jews. “It’s a city that has kosher restaurants, many synagogues, three Jewish clubs and four Jewish schools,” she said.

Nevertheless, Paloma soon found that integrating herself into the Jewish community was harder than she expected. “It’s a pretty insular community,” she said. “Fifty or 60 years ago, there were 350,000 Jews in Morocco, and they existed on all different levels of the society.” Today, the community numbers one-hundredth of that.

Paloma found it easier to be accepted outside the Jewish community. “I have a project that I’ve been doing with a Moroccan woman singer and with a Spanish woman; we do the three … women and three religions, and we’ve performed that all over Morocco. … It’s actually been easier for me to have friendships in the Muslim community and in the foreign community,” she said.

But she didn’t give up. As a feminist, it was hard for her to deal with the fact that “all the communal organizations are completely run by men,” she said, but she soon learned that the women of Morocco held a hidden power. “The women might not have a lot of formal power, but they have a significant amount of informal power. … Many times people try to get to a decision-maker through the female side of [their] family.”

The songs of these Moroccan-Jewish women particularly appealed to Paloma. They apparently had also appealed to the 19th century painter Eugene Delacroix. “Delacroix … stayed in a Jewish house in Tangiers when he came to Morocco,” said Paloma. “He has a very famous painting of a Jewish mother and daughter in Tangiers, it’s this family Ben Shimon, who were a very prominent family.”

Paloma also learned to love her new country despite the difficulties. She told one tale of having to communicate with a blind oud player who only spoke Arabic, and how they eventually learned to make music together. “Even when you have seemingly nothing that can connect you to somebody else, you can actually really communicate in a very beautiful and powerful way.”

Noreen Green, artistic director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and music director of Valley Beth Shalom, plans to put Paloma’s talents and Spanish skills to use during her March 31 performance with the symphony. “We use Sephardic music as a bridge between the Latino population and the Jewish population,” Green said. The concert Paloma will be performing in kicks off a celebration of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s 18th anniversary. 

“We’ve really made a mark on L.A. in the last 18 years, and it’s a wonderful celebration,” said Green. “We’re doing other Mizrahi songs, I have a Persian woman singing some Persian songs and the choir singing some Ladino songs.”

Paloma will also perform a piece about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. “It turns out that the show is on … the anniversary of the signing of the edict of expulsion from Spain,” said Paloma. When Paloma realized the significance of the date, she asked her friend, composer Michelle Green Willner to compose a piece, which will be premiered that night.

Paloma married a Moroccan Jew, and their child attends a Jewish academy in Casablanca. She’s also busy at work trying to build a Jewish music legacy in her new home. “I’m actually in the process of founding a Moroccan-Jewish sound archive in Morocco, because I feel like its very important for Moroccans to have access to these memories, the music and also the oral histories,” said Paloma, who’s simultaneously doing doctoral studies at the Sorbonne.

“I really feel that Morocco can be a very important example for the whole world, not just toward the Arabs, but toward the West to show a different way of understanding Jewish-Muslim relations,” Paloma said. “Any relationship has moments of tension, so I think that realizing that there is a place today where people still live in this coexistence that we always look back to” — the Golden Age of Spain — “we’re still living it in Morocco.”

Opinion: Where would I be now?


It’s amazing the kind of stuff you hear when you just ask. At a family wedding last weekend in Montreal, I caught up with some relatives and heard family stories worthy of a mystery thriller.

Let’s start in Casablanca with my maternal grandmother’s grandfather, a man named Shlomo. Shlomo’s family had a tragic history with childbirth. His mother and wife both died giving birth. His only daughter married at 14 and at 16 gave birth to a baby girl who was two months premature. Sadly, that mother also died. When Shlomo saw the fragile baby — his granddaughter — he was so intent on not losing her that he made a vow to God: If the baby survived, he would move to Israel. This was in 1916.

After some close calls, the baby did survive. By then, Shlomo had gotten so attached to the baby girl that he wanted to take her with him to Israel. The baby’s father, however, wanted to stay in Casablanca. What to do?

They went to the community beit din, and, after long deliberations, the religious court ruled in favor of the father. Because Shlomo could not break his vow to God, he made the heart-wrenching decision to leave his granddaughter and move to the Holy Land, knowing he probably would never see her again (this was before Skype and Facebook).

Eventually, this little fragile girl, Chaya (Hebrew for “life”), married a man named Yamin and had 11 children, one of whom is my mother. Many of the children moved with their parents to Israel in the early 1950s (my family moved to Canada in the 1960s); some even fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The children are all still alive, most living in Israel, with a flock of descendants numbering close to 200.

Meanwhile, Shlomo, who never saw his granddaughter Chaya again, started his new life in Israel and opened a little Sephardic shul near the Kotel. He remarried, to a much younger cousin, and they had four boys. One of those boys had a son, Shlomo, named after the family patriarch.

It was this son, who now runs a garage near New York City, who told me these stories at the wedding. The thought occurred to me: What if the beit din had ruled in favor of my great-great-grandfather, and my grandmother had moved with him to Israel and married someone else?

Hmmm, where would I be now?

On that note, I wanted to know how my grandmother, Chaya, met her husband, Yamin. So I probed my Aunt Helena, one of Chaya’s 11 children, who’d come from Eilat to attend the wedding.

Apparently, my grandfather, who was a Berber living in the Atlas Mountains, had a father who had a reputation for being a “tough guy.” When Yamin was a young boy, as the family lore goes, the father saw an Arab man harassing a Jewish girl and got into a fight with him. Tragically, the Arab man died during the fight, and Yamin’s father, not trusting the authorities, fled to another town. With his father on the lam, Yamin was left alone with his mother, who was not well.

As a young man, Yamin decided to move alone to Casablanca with the hope of finding work so he could take better care of his mother. He located a distant cousin, who offered him work in his spice shop, with one caveat: He couldn’t pay him right away. After several months of working for “free,” Yamin asked to be paid, but the cousin told him he still didn’t have the money to pay him.

Down on his luck, Yamin walked the streets of Casablanca with no idea what to do next. He looked down and saw a gold chain on the sidewalk. He picked it up and, seeing nobody around him, took the chain to a jewelry store and sold it. This gave him enough money to get an apartment for him and his mother — and to open a little candy stand.

So, where does he open the candy stand? On La Rue des Anglais (The Street of the English), where a young girl named Chaya lived. It turns out this girl loved candy and became a frequent visitor to Yamin’s kiosk.

Well, you guessed it: Chaya and Yamin fell for each other, got married and had a burst of procreation that netted 11 children, one of whom being my mother.

As Helena told me the story over the loud music of the wedding, I looked out at the dozens of young and older relatives dancing happily, some of them making the silly gyrations you often see at weddings. Many of those relatives, including my own kids, are direct descendants of Yamin and Chaya.

Again, the thought occurred to me: What if Yamin’s boss had paid him his salary, and Yamin had never taken that long walk and found that gold chain that enabled him to open a candy stand and meet a woman named Chaya, who gave birth to a woman named Suzanne, who gave birth to yours truly in a little village just outside of Casablanca called Berechid?

Where would all those dancers be now?

And whose column would you be reading?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.