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Sephardic Film Festival: Pomegranates and Longing

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Way back in 1492, Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella made two monumental decisions: one was to send Columbus on the voyage that took him to the New World. The other was to summarily expel from Spain all those among its thousand-year-old Jewish community who refused to convert to Catholicism.

Less than 25 % of the kingdom's roughly 200,000 Judios agreed to the un-majestic edict - and some of these conversos actually remained "secret Jews." The vast majority of Spain's Jews - who had played vital roles for centuries in Spanish philosophy, literature, trade, science, finance, medicine and politics - swore continued faith to Judaism and were soon forced into a cruel exile that took them seeking refuge in Portugal, France, and Holland; in Italy, Greece and Bulgaria, to Egypt, Turkey, North Africa, the Land of Israel - and over the centuries to China, India, Iraq, Syria, North and South America and dozens of other lands. Throughout 500 years of wandering, the descendants of these exiled Spanish Jews maintained their beliefs, their traditions, their own music, and even their own language - Ladino - a medieval Judeo Spanish. They also maintained a romantic yearning for the land that had forsaken them, the place they had thought of as "The New Jerusalem," the place they called in Hebrew "Sepharad" - Spain.

This culture and history and modern experience of the Sephardim - so different from that of Europe's Ashkenazi Jews - is cinematically celebrated in a film festival sponsored by New York's very active American Sephardi Federation. The latest, the 14th Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, runs this year from February 4th to 11th at the Center for Jewish History on 15 West 16th Street with some screenings at the Upper Westside's Jewish Community Center.

Many of this festival's films - documentary and feature alike - deal with the amazingly unbroken emotional ties to Spain of its Sephardic descendants. One of the best is the American premiere showing of A New Encounter, a haunting film in both Ladino and Spanish that with music, poetry, testimony and shimmering film work shows how Jews who've scattered the world over centuries still retain an almost magic sense of belonging to the motherland that rejected them, can "still smell the pomegranates that grew in our gardens." The focus is on Northern Spain, especially the town of Leon, which today prides itself on having once been the home of Rabbi Moshe de Leon. He was the 13th century Jewish mystic thought to have been the author of Kabbalah's major tome: The Zohar. Most fascinating is the way the narrator of the film, Margalit Matitiahu, herself daughter of Greek-born descendants of a 15th century Leon family, compares the sayings she heard as a child with similar ones still heard in Northern Spain, or the way an elderly Spanish interviewee speaks of a grandfather who secretly kept the Jewish Sabbath and of a grandmother who "for an unexplained reason" always baked a form of unleavened bread around Passover time.

The musical connection to these roots is followed in Mashala, a powerful documentary that traces Sephardic music, the romanza ballads that speak of passion, of love and of beauty- both natural and physical - with almost psalm-like beauty. It is told by lilting Canadian-born singer Ellen Gould Ventura, a daughter of a Toronto Sephardic mother who discovers her roots, joins forces in Barcelona with a group of musicians from Chile, Morocco, Italy and Venezuela and has become a European hit performing Jewish/Arabic sounding Sephardic music.

Fiestaremos, another documentary, is devoted to musician Judy Frankel, who works worldwide with Sephardic communities preserving their medieval musical treasures and linking them to modern music.

The tragic tentacles of the Holocaust are shown also strangling a Sephardi community in 1940 when an unseaworthy ship crammed with Bulgarian Jews fleeing the Nazi onslaught on the Balkans sinks on its way to Palestine, drowning almost all aboard.

And among the finer feature films of this year's festival: the U.S. premiere of Honor, Israeli director Haim Bouzaglo's drama of two Moroccan Jewish organized crime families (Bouzaglo will lead a post screening discussion on Saturday night February 6th.)

The festival also touches on exotic Jewish communities that, historically speaking, aren't really part of the Sephardi world. Israela Shaer-Meoded's award winning documentary Queen Khantarisha highlights the work of two noted Yemenite women in Israel - one a songwriter and one a poetess - who still struggle with their cultural gifts within the confines of a traditionally conservative community. And for ultimate exoticism, there is Children of the Bible which details the creativity and pedagogical powers of Israel's very popular and talented Ethiopian-Jewish born rapper Jeremy "Cool" Habash. JCH works tirelessly to restore the pride of the rescued Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel by teaching its youth its own culture and heritage.

For information about tickets to the 14th NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival and post screening discussions, please visit www.sephardicfilmfest.org or call (212) 294-8350.