fbpx
Thursday, October 1, 2020

Film About Porto’s Jewish Community Raises Questions About Its Funding

You may not have heard of Artur Carlos de Barros Basto, but when you watch “Sefarad,” a new 90-minute feature produced by the small Jewish community of Porto, Portugal, you’ll understand why he has been called “the Portuguese Dreyfus.” Like Dreyfus, Barros Basto was stripped of his army officer status because of unjust accusations. 

“Sefarad’s” opening four-minute scene takes place at the end of the 15th century. Thousands of Jews who were ejected from Castile in 1492 descend on Portugal, including the city of Porto. It’s a colorful medieval cityscape with surprisingly lush production values. Hundreds of extras — merchants, beggars, blacksmiths, rabbis, all dressed in period clothing — interact with one another, speaking in Portuguese and Hebrew.

But danger lurks. The Portuguese king has decreed Jews cannot stay. While Jews gather to pray, mobs, waving crosses, force the Jews to flee Portugal, just as they had left Spain.

The film then takes a 400-year leap to 1923 in Porto, where Barros Basto, then in his mid-30s and an active military officer, is the leader of the Jewish community, which has (again) swelled − this time because Eastern Europeans have converged on Portugal in hopes of continuing west to North or South America. The rest of “Sefarad” focuses on Barros Basto’s triumphs and setbacks as the driving force of the small Porto Jewish community.

In recent days, however, it’s not Barros Basto’s compelling story that has drawn the attention of Jewish press in the U.S. and Israel; it’s the opening four minutes with its large number of extras in period costumes. These four minutes apparently led The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) to report that “Sefarad” cost more than $1.2 million to make and is “likely the costliest production by any European Jewish community.” Ha≠aretz,  the Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post all echoed JTA in pointing out that this was a huge amount for a small Jewish community to spend on a feature film about its own history.

“There is a lot of romanticism around crypto-Jews and sadly, the story is not the happy fairy tale some people make it out to be.” 

— Dara Jeffries 

More scathing was JTA quoting an anonymous source — a “former member” of the Porto Jewish community — who said the funds to make the film came from money the community had received for vetting applications for Portuguese citizenship from those who claimed Sephardic/Portuguese roots.

When asked about this, Dara Jeffries, a Porto community member who divides her time between Portugal and Miami, defended the Porto Jewish community’s actions.

“When we were quiet in our corner, nobody bothered us,” Jeffries told the Journal, “but now that we’re visible, people question our motives … . I hate to say this, but people tend to be lashon harah [evil speech; gossipy] … . I have no idea who was JTA’s source. Maybe it’s a former porter who was dismissed or someone like that. The community provides a very important service [by vetting applicants who claim Sephardic roots], and it works with the Ministry of Justice in Portugal, but it’s completely separate from the film, [which was] privately funded.”

Jeffries gave no additional details on the source of funding, but added the Porto Jewish community uses its funds to carry out “an incredibly broad public service mission. It’s opened a museum recently and [“Sefarad”] is shown in the museum. We have thousands of students and visitors every year, and we have an enormous goal in explaining Judaism, the history of Jews in Portugal … . So the film is also for that purpose, to tell people our story.”

It’s quite a story. Barros Basto led the Porto Jewish community from the 1920s until his death in 1961. During the course of the film, we learn he didn’t find out about his Jewish background until he was 17, when his dying grandfather told him about his ancestors. As an adult, he studied with rabbis in Morocco, converted to Judaism, married a Jewish woman and made it his life’s work to give new life to Portugal’s disappeared Jewish community.

“The idea [for the film] was my husband’s,” Jeffries said. “He was a former president of the community.” The community discussed the idea and thought it would be a good idea to make a film.

The screenplay credit doesn’t go to an individual or even several people, but to “The Oporto Jewish Historical Society.” Jeffries conceded there was one person who structured the story and spearheaded most of the drafts. “I don’t think he wants to be particularly known, [and] a lot of it was a group decision.”

In the film, we see Barros Basto on horseback ride out to remote villages, where he finds pockets of crypto-Jews (previously called Marranos and now referred to as anusim), who have carried out secretive versions of Jewish-like rituals for hundreds of years. They are surprised when Barros Basto tells them there are other Jews in the world. Barros Basto is determined to merge these crypto-Jews with Porto’s traditional Jewish community, but some Jews resist his struggle to include them.

“There is a lot of romanticism around crypto-Jews,” Jeffries said, “and sadly, the story is not the happy fairy tale some people make it out to be … . There was a lot of opposition from some quarters, and the Marranos themselves weren’t so keen on it. Initially, [folding them in] seemed like a good idea, but for logistical and religious reasons [it didn’t work out]. Some did convert, many did not, and there are no crypto-Jews left in Portugal as far as I know.”

One of the most dramatic sequences in the film occurs in 1937, when Barros Basto’s military superior receives an anonymous letter accusing the Jewish captain of homosexuality. The charge is dismissed, but the investigation leads to the discovery that Barros Basto has supervised circumcision of crypto-Jewish men. Circumcision is legal in Portugal in 1937, but it is against military regulations for Barros Basto to be involved in it, so he is stripped of his military rank and status. 

There is a subsequent scene, where Barros Basto’s accusers are held accountable. His supporters in the Jewish community excommunicate their fellow Jews for having written the anonymous letter accusing Barros Basto of homosexuality, of having committed the sin of lashon harah, which caused him so much harm. 

It is ironic that lashon harah, a harmful anonymous comment, is a major plot point in the movie, since it’s also how Jeffries characterized some Jewish media’s reaction to the film.

“Sefarad,” directed by Luis Ismael and written by the Oporto Jewish Historical Society, currently is streaming on Amazon Prime and will be released Dec. 15 on iTunes.

Did you enjoy this article?

You'll love our roundtable.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

Israeli President Calls Swastika Graffiti in Britain on Yom Kippur ‘Shocking’

"Words of condemnation are not enough. We need #Holocaust education and remembrance."

Coastal Roots Farm’s Creates Drive-Thru Sukkot Event

This year, the farm's Sukkot Harvest Festival will look a little different because of COVID-19.

‘The Keeper’ Features a Soccer Star, a Rabbi and War Guilt  

It is fitting that “The Keeper,” set post-World War II when people and nations across the globe were groping for a new normalcy, is opening in the Los Angeles area in the virtual format that has become our new reality.

The Sukkahs in Our Midst

The sukkahs in our midst are a visible reminder of the formerly invisible homeless.

An Adventurous Rosh Hashanah for the Books

Sometimes it’s possible to show up with an open mind, not knowing what you’ll find, and to discover exactly what you need. 

Democrats’ Proposals Are the Latest Threat to Checks and Balances

The genius of our Constitution is the concept of checks and balances. The President, the Supreme Court, and Congress each limits the power of the other.

1 in 5 British Universities Have Adopted IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism, Survey Says

Eighty universities said they weren't going to adopt it.

Barrett’s Nomination Tests Both Sides

Who will be more motivated in the closing weeks of a presidential campaign taking place with the backdrop of a historic Supreme Court nomination debate?

Culture

Coastal Roots Farm’s Creates Drive-Thru Sukkot Event

This year, the farm's Sukkot Harvest Festival will look a little different because of COVID-19.

‘The Keeper’ Features a Soccer Star, a Rabbi and War Guilt  

It is fitting that “The Keeper,” set post-World War II when people and nations across the globe were groping for a new normalcy, is opening in the Los Angeles area in the virtual format that has become our new reality.

AJU’S Brandeis-Bardin Campus Provides Weekend Getaways for Sukkot

As Jews continue to navigate celebrating the holidays, American Jewish University (AJU) is creating unique, family-friendly, socially distanced getaways.

Nefesh Community Explores How to Become an Anti-Racist

Organizers say this is part of an ongoing dialogue about anti-racism, in tandem with the Tikkun Collective, the wing of the Nefesh community working with other organizations around specific campaigns and social issues.

My Not-so-Typical Jewish Mother

My mother was not adept in the kitchen. There was always a ruckus of noise before dinnertime — a cacophony of clanking and clattering. I remember...

Latest Articles
Latest

Israeli President Calls Swastika Graffiti in Britain on Yom Kippur ‘Shocking’

"Words of condemnation are not enough. We need #Holocaust education and remembrance."

Coastal Roots Farm’s Creates Drive-Thru Sukkot Event

This year, the farm's Sukkot Harvest Festival will look a little different because of COVID-19.

‘The Keeper’ Features a Soccer Star, a Rabbi and War Guilt  

It is fitting that “The Keeper,” set post-World War II when people and nations across the globe were groping for a new normalcy, is opening in the Los Angeles area in the virtual format that has become our new reality.

The Sukkahs in Our Midst

The sukkahs in our midst are a visible reminder of the formerly invisible homeless.

Hollywood

‘Dirty Dancing’ Sequel Starring Jennifer Grey Announced

It’s official: A “Dirty Dancing” sequel is coming, and it’s starring Jewish actress Jennifer Grey, who played Frances “Baby” Houseman in the 1987 original.

Roy Moore’s Lawsuit Against Sacha Baron Cohen Over Being Pranked Can Proceed, Judge Rules

By the time the episode aired, it was widely known that Cohen was punking public figures.

Podcasts

Pandemic Times Episode 91: Gaining Strength During Holidays

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. How Jewish holidays offer ideal "timeouts" for healing and growth. How do we manage our lives during the...

Pandemic Times Episode 90: Yom Kippur in a Pandemic Can Be Our Most Meaningful

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. Reflections from Rabbi Mordecai Finley on going deep on Judaism's holiest day. How do we manage our lives...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

x