Congregation Mikveh Israel is hosting its third annual Sephardic Film Festival with the first U.S. screening of the French documentary El Gusto, the story of a band of Jewish and Muslim musicians who are separated and torn apart by war as the Jews exited en masse from Algeria and northern Africa.
For 275 years — longer than the United States itself has been around — Congregation Mikveh Israel has been part of the historical fabric of Philadelphia.
Nicknamed the “synagogue of the American Revolution,” it is considered the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia and the longest continuously operating synagogue in the United States.
Perhaps the groups of Jews who have most benefited from the synagogue’s history and welcoming nature are those of Sephardic descent.
That is why the congregation is hosting its third annual Sephardic Film Festival, to honor the stories of those who helped create the congregation.
On Jan. 31, the festival kicks off with the first U.S. screening of El Gusto. The French documentary, released in 2012, is the story of a band of Jewish and Muslim musicians who are separated and torn apart by war as the Jews exited en masse from Algeria and northern Africa.
The film’s director, Safinez Bousbia, reunited some of these musicians 50 years later to share their stories.
Eli Gabay, the parnas, or chief administrative officer, at Mikveh Israel, organized this year’s film festival, which will include another film as yet to be determined.
El Gusto was brought to Gabay’s attention by someone who had seen the film in Europe. He knew it was a perfect film to show others for the festival, especially in light of the refugee crises consuming so many parts of the world.
“It is a fine movie for these days,” Gabay said, “to show the rich history of North African Jews in general, and their coexistence with the Muslims in those countries.”
According to Gabay, the documentary, which includes interviews with the musicians, is one that will resonate widely because of its subject matter.
“Music is a common denominator to all people,” he said, “and that ingredient that fuses people’s lives together. This is a fine opportunity to show how coexistence is both possible and beautiful.”
For him, focusing on the Sephardic Jewish narrative is important because it is one he feels might be overlooked in comparison to those of Ashkenazi descent.
“I think there is a story out there that needs to be told about the existence and history of Sephardic Jews in the 20th century in Arab and Spanish-oriented countries,” he said. “There’s very little that’s being done to preserve the stories of the Jews who who lived in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egyptian Jews, Yemenite Jews — the generations are growing old, and it’s important to both interview and document the types of lives, the types of community that they had.”
He highlighted the congregation’s history and how some of the first congregants back in the mid-to-late 1700s were those of Spanish-Portuguese backgrounds. The traditions these congregants started have remained with the congregation today.
“It is a Spanish-Portuguese congregation, and it holds fast to the traditions of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews who came to this country in the 17th century,” Gabay explained. “And the services are basically the same as they were 275 years ago.”
For him, the importance of telling these stories and preserving the culture has personal ties.
His parents left their native Morocco in the mid-1940s. He grew up learning to speak Arabic and was introduced to the music, foods and culture of North Africa. Since then, he has visited the villages where his parents grew up multiple times.
“For me to visit the small village where my parents came from and where my grandparents came from was an eye-opening and most profound experience,” Gabay reflected. “And to see the synagogues that are throughout Morocco and cemeteries — preserved, by the way, by the Moroccan government — as treasures for the Jews to visit.”
Showing El Gusto and the second film, which will also focus on Sephardic stories and themes, will give viewers an opportunity to hear the stories and the importance of preserving the history.
Festival-goers will get the flavor of Sephardic culture, both through the films and through more tangible methods. There will also be traditional North African pastries and desserts available at the event, as well as mint tea, another cultural staple.
Gabay hopes that this event provides an introduction to a much-needed conversation about preserving Sephardic stories.
“I want them to see the vibrant communities, hear the music, hear the testimonies and stories and folklore,” Gabay said, “and be encouraged to ask their parents and grandparents about their lives as Jews in the Arab countries.”
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