The Converso’s Dilemma

[Jewcy asked Katie Halper to attend the New York Jewish Film Festival and write periodic blog posts about the films she saw. The following is an interview Katie conducted with the Gabriella Böhm, director of The Longing: the Lost Jews … Read More

By / February 1, 2007

[Jewcy asked Katie Halper to attend the New York Jewish Film Festival and write periodic blog posts about the films she saw. The following is an interview Katie conducted with the Gabriella Böhm, director of The Longing: the Lost Jews of South America.]

The Longing: the Lost Jews of South America, which premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival, tells the story of five descendents of conversos as they struggle to reclaim their Jewish identity. Director Gabriella Böhm traces the history of crypto-Jews, who were forced to convert to Christianity in Spain during the Inquisition, maintaining their Jewish practices secretly. Their descendants now live throughout Europe and in enclaves in the United States. Some of them light candles and have ceremonial dinners every Friday, avoid pork, and yet are unaware of their Jewish background. Böhm’s film, however, focuses on conversos who are very much aware of their Jewish heritage and long to connect to their faith.

Rejected by the Jewish leaders in their own towns, these men and women turn to Jacques Cukierkorn, a Brazilian born rabbi who now leads a Reform temple in Kansas City and travels through Latin American and the U.S. offering guidance and help to conversos who are struggling to enter Judaism.

After years of study, including online study with Cukierkorn, a doctor and his wife from a small town in Ecuador, a mother and her daughter from Ibagué, Colombia, as well as a microbiologist also from Ibagué, meet each other and the rabbi in Guayaquil, Ecuador in the hopes of completing their conversion.

I spoke with director Gabriella Böhm about her films, her life as an Ashkenazi Jew raised in Argentina and Israel by holocaust survivors, what makes a Jew a Jew, the universality of longing, and the mitzvah-potential of her films.

What made you decide to make this film?

The main reason I wanted to this film is because I was interested and I am interested—and you can see this in my past film passages—in what constitutes identity. And there are many pillars of identity; sex, religion, financial situation and I felt that the question of religious identity is something that I deal with in my own background and ancestry so the very position of feeling that dual identity, that sense of returning back to Judaism is something that made me curious.

In the research I began to understand that the earlier examples of crypto-Judaism were much stronger because [these people] were forced to convert so they therefore had more of an impetus to actually maintain their secret identity. Throughout the centuries that reluctance to Catholicism diminished. Judaism has trickled down into something that in many cases these Jews aren’t aware of. Some of these people are not even sure what it is but they feel a connection. That's very powerful to me. There’s a fiber in their being that they want to honor and they choose to do it even though the circumstances are very, very hard for them, especially in these places. Converting, or re-converting, or reversion as it’s called is different in America in the Southwest, New Mexico or Colorado. But in South America Catholicism is very pronounced. It has been around for hundreds of years. It is something you do in every aspect of your life, in mass, in baptism. Catholic holidays are honored. Bible classes are in every school. And I know because I grew up there. The environment isn’t very conducive for them to research their roots and follow their hearts. It takes real courage to do that.

Can you talk about your own dual identity? How did you reconcile your Argentine and Jewish identity? What’s your own personal Diaspora story?

My mom was born in Budapest and my dad was born in what was then Transylvania and is now Romania. Both experienced the Holocaust. My father was a teenage boy and he was sent to work camps by the Nazis and then by the Russians. All his family was killed—he was the only survivor. My mom was able to get fake documents that said she was Catholic and she went to live hidden, at a Catholic in a farm outside of Budapest and when the war ended she was able to return home and, luckily, her family was all placed in different areas and they survived. She tried to go to Israel but the English who controlled it sent her to Cyprus, then Israel. My father ended up in Italy. Then he went to Israel and they fell in love in Haifa, moved to Italy, got married there, then moved to Buenos Aires.

We spoke Hungarian, Spanish, Hebrew because when I was 13, my parents divorced and my mom, my sister and I went to Israel. Israel was like coming back home for me. It was this amazing experience of feeling immediately embraced. I was young, I was a teenager. I felt like I know what it feels to come home. It was a great experience.

I was born to parents who were Holocaust survivors, so they had a sense of having been rejected and of being put aside and so that sense of being an outsider and inadequate carried on to the second generation, that was me. I was raised in a very Jewish environment, went to a Jewish school, had Jewish friends, lived a ghetto-like experience. But then, when I would come out of that environment, when I went into the public environment, there were different codes of behavior, languages, value systems so I had to go between those two worlds. Once someone shouted at mejudía de mierda” (piece of shit Jew), but I didn’t experience clear anti-Semitism while I was growing up. I had the sense of not being in your own home and feeling like a stranger in your own land so that aspect of my life in Argentina was probably coming from my own parents’ experience, which is why I felt so connected to these people who were in a limbo, who did not belong in the Catholic environment and were not being accepted into the Jewish environment. It must feel awful.

How does the experiences of the re-conversion or conversion of Jews who are living in places with small or non-existent Jewish populations compare to your experience as a Jew in Argentina?

It’s a very difference experience. I can only speak from my experience as an Ashkenazi Jew. In Argentina Judaism is something that I accepted at least on a level that it’s not outwardly persecuted. There is a clear intelligentsia that is Jewish, there is an art scene, there is a whole level of life that has been infiltrated by Judaism, so Judaism is talked about and accepted in some ways. In these little places in Ecuador and Colombia the situation is much more dramatic and that’s why I chose to focus on these small and insular communities. I didn’t intend to do a general view of all Jews in Latin America. And I’m not an academic. I’m a filmmaker. I chose to focus on these people in insulated and limited Jewish communities. That’s where my interest went and these pockets of Jewish life are going to disappear if there is no more tolerance and acceptance.

There seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy or Catch 22 in the orthodox community’s rejection of people who are trying to re-convert. Maintaining the Jewish population is important to religious Jews. And yet, there is a reluctance to let in these people who didn’t happen to be born practicing Judaism, but who may even have a stronger Jewish identity because they’re actively seeking it?. Why do these synagogues reject instead of embrace people who are coming back to Judaism?

It’s a fascinating situation and I did my best to try to understand it over the years I’ve been researching it. My film isn’t necessarily pointing a finger but it’s raising questions. I’m not accusing this group but I am questioning their motives. I think that in this particular experience the feeling is these Jews are not considered “one of them” because they are Hispanic, which is seen as lower, not as good, darker skin. And the Orthodox Jews are afraid for their sense of comfort, sense of wellbeing that they have worked so hard to create in these Catholic counties. So I feel for these Orthodox communities. I don’t think they are doing this on purpose; I think they are doing it as a survival mechanism, like we all do. We want to maintain the status quo. We don’t want foreign elements coming and disturbing our sense of peace and sense of wellbeing. And these conversos are different. Like the rabbi says, they are like children. They are just starting their walk as Jewish people so they are awkward, they do strange things. One of the characters in the movie does the sign of the cross; others say, “Oh, my father”; they have stranger Catholic iconic behaviors that are very weird for Jews. They have no means or ways to know how Jewish people behaved because they weren’t allowed to experience that.

So these people are dealing with anti-Semitism on the one hand and a sort of racism on the other?

Double whammy. It’s a very difficult situation, which leaves them with a sense of hopelessness. You have to be very persistent. And I think the movie is about this sense of Jewish persistence. Hopefully they will find that acceptance somewhere. In Israel they are now trying to figure out how to accept the Jews who are returning. They are trying to pass a new law of return so they can be accepted back into Israel. There is a constant struggle.

These synagogues are rejecting these Jews because they don’t know what to do, but how can they when they’re not taught? Aren’t these orthodox Jews, paradoxically, creating a larger reform movement because they’re forcing Jews to movements that will accept them?

There are some who want to join the Reform movement but there are cases, like Eduardo Alvarado [a character in the film who discourages converting because of his own experience being rejected by the Orthodox Synagogue] who converted with chabad in Massachusetts, did the circumcision, did everything and he did not feel that his calling was to be Reform. Now he doesn’t want to continue to struggle to be accepted by the Jewish community. He didn’t want to join the Reform movement—he loved the conservative aspects of Judaism, following the Talmudic laws. But I think the Reform movement will find that a lot of people are willing to go that rout and, yes, it is not as restricted as conservative and Orthodox. But I think that because they have no access otherwise, they feel like at least somebody’s’ saying “come home.” So I understand that they would join because someone is saying, “I accept you as my brother and sister.”

Groucho Marx, himself a Jew, once said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I kept thinking of the converse–Why would I want to be in a club that wouldn’t want me as a member?—when I saw Eduardo. It was frustrating for me as a secular Jew to watch him. I felt like shaking him and saying, “Why would you want to join this? Go with the reform movement.”

I did tell him many times, “We love you, we want you, come with us.” I mean he did everything. He went to yeshiva in Israel where there were many South African Jews and they mistreated him so badly because of his dark skin and they wanted him to be kicked out of the yeshiva. Then he went to a kibbutz and his stuff was stolen. Nothing went right for him. And it’s an unfortunate situation and at the same time I’m in awe of someone who keeps persevering. Now he’s very disillusioned, living in the United States.

In the film you try to talk to Mr. Roth, the rabbi in Ecuador who has rejected Eduardo and who won’t accept the five main characters of the film. How did this rabbi respond to you?

Very badly. He kicked me out of the synagogue. I was so upset at the fact that he would lie in my face about Alvarado, saying that he wasn’t really an Orthodox Jew. I’ve seen the papers—he is an Orthodox Jews. Why would he lie to me? I tried to get in touch with Mr. Roth many times by phone, by going to synagogue, through people who knew him, but he gave me the run-around. I wasn’t allowed in. There were two other women waiting, one from Peru and one from Ecuador, who wanted to have Shabbat services, and they were also not let in.

On the other hand, Rabbi Cukierkorn explains his goal isn’t make the world a more Jewish place, but to make it a better place. What did he mean by that?

The point isn’t to make it our world, but to make it tolerant and loving.

What was the thing that surprised you the most in making the movie?

When I started the project I started it more from a research, historical perspective. I was going to focus mainly on the crypto-Jewish experience of 500 years ago, the inquisition, moving into South America, continuing to create an environment of fear in South America, so it was an academic type of documentary. I was very surprised to meet these people who were in the process of converting back to Judaism and I began to see that there was a place to tell the story of today’s crypto-Jews. And the most surprising, and what I didn’t expect, was for the Jewish community to be so defensive and reactive to the crypto-Jews. I didn’t expect these people would experience rejection for wanting to be Jewish. I didn’t know that that was going to happen. I felt an extreme sense of unfairness and I feel it is not right for us Jews to behave that way. But I think it has nothing to do with Judaism. It’s people and their own experiences. Judaism isn’t about exclusion—that’s how some people interpret it.

Your saying this isn’t Judaism and the question of these people trying to convert and being rejected, these people defining themselves as Jewish while others don’t, this all begs the question of what a Jew is, what makes a Jew a Jew. What’s the answer? And did your understanding of the definition of a Jew change or was it reaffirmed during making film?

I don’t know the answer. There are many different ways of experiencing oneself as a Jew. I would say it confirmed my own identity as a Jew and that I felt that as a Jew I have the responsibility to bring about understanding and a sense of mitzvah into my life and into other people’s so I want to be able to continue doing that. And through this film I feel that I’m bringing into the open questions that are very important to be discussed. I don’t want to blame anyone, I want to create an open dialogue because we all need to look at ourselves and see where we can create change. This is an issue in Judaism that is coming up now because of the changes in statistics, assimilation, demographics. There’s an influx of people wanting to come in and at the same time a greater assimilation of Jewish people worldwide. My goal is to create an open dialogue.

The rabbi’s Judaism is a Judaism that is loving to all. It’s not one that says, “You: yes. You: no.” His approach is very open; it includes gay marriage, all the possible aspects of modern life.

What makes these people who are reconverting Jewish? How do they know that they’re Jewish?

Some cases it’s the fact that there’s a direct oral telling, "you are Jewish, your great, great grandfather was Jewish." Others feel that they know their families didn’t eat pork, stay away form the church, light candles, different aspects for different people. Even though there is no hard evidence to what they say that they are, they feel that they are Jewish, I could have gone the route of doing DNA testing but I chose not to because DNA testing brings with it the question of purity of blood which is what the Inquisition did, what the Nazis did, and it is contradictory to what I feel identity is. One doesn’t identity with something because he has a genetic proof of it. It matters if they have Jewish blood but it’s not a prerequisite.

Why the title of the Longing? Where does this longing come from?

The rabbi mentions they have this añoranza, yearning. I feel that it is a longing, a longing for something that was there and is not there anymore, a longing to be reunited with our ancestors, to feel Jewish. But they’re not allowed. There are many longings there and I thought it was an appropriate title because there’s a sense of their wishing for something and not necessarily being able to get it. It’s appropriate for me as well. I do long for a sense of embrace, for my family, my own sense identity, and I struggle with my own sense of identity because I have many different aspects. I feel fragmented and I long to be united, to be whole. I think it’s a human condition. I think it’s a universal condition and quest. Even though this is a Jewish movie, I think people, from what I hear, Latin people at least, have reacted very strongly to the sense of longing to understand where they come from. It’s for everyone.

Which goes back to the question of the universality of Judaism rabbi Cukierkorn’s goal and your goal of making the world a better place for everyone. What is your next project? The immigration issues we are facing in California. More about longing.

Tagged with: