Sephardic Film Festival at Center for Jewish History: Tuesday’s Theme was Young Love!
Reported for the Flatiron Hot! News by Tod Shapiro
The Center for Jewish History, located on 16th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in NYC, and a short walk from the NYC Seminar and Conference Center, continues to be a gem of a site for interesting cultural events. Last Tuesday evening I stopped by to take in and be enlightened by Day 4 of the annual Sephardic Film Festival. The American Sephardi Federation, one of CJH’s partner organizations, is devoted to celebrating and memorializing the lives, culture, and customs of the Sephardi Jews, namely Jews of Middle Eastern descent. The evening’s films examined the trials and tribulations of young love as it impacts the lives of Sephardim in American, Israel and Europe. The timeless yearning for romantic love, and the quirky lengths the characters in the three films will go to achieve it, is examined in the environment of three different countries with their varying societal, cultural and personal preconceptions.
The first of the evening’s films, Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv’s “Dear God”, presents an interesting, whimsical analysis and commentary on faith in God to deliver one’s fondest desires in life and love, with that of the theme of more pragmatic self-help. The short film presents us with the venue of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, where a lonely security guard gazes each day on the multitudes who come to pray at the wall, and leave their messages to God, no doubt beseeching Him for divine intervention on matters large and small, in the form of written messages on paper in the cracks and crevices in the Wall. The guard has obviously been attentively watching one attractive woman, who each day leaves her personal message to God in a crevice. We see the guard, in turn, each day clearing the wall of messages as part of his job, secretly looking at his intended’s message. Alas, the woman is also lonely – her personal scribblings beseech the Lord; if only somebody would leave a flower in her name! If only someone would dedicate a song to her – if only! Sure enough, our watchman is off to track down and offer her, in the back alleys of Jerusalem, her fervent desires – anonymously! Our young lady can only wonder if, in fact, God answered her prayers? Or is it some more earthly set of intentions? Do our hero and heroine get together? Only God Knows! A very touching tale told in only 15 minutes! The film is well worth the watching, if only for the wonderful views of the daily drama and sights of the Western Wall and the Holy City!
The second film, Anaelle Morf’s “Jewish Blind Date”, explores the plight of young Jews in the Diaspora (in this case, Switzerland) in finding the right mate. Our protagonist, Mary Lou, a secular and attractive young lady, is discouraged in her efforts to find her match in the hurly-burly of dating and hook-ups of modern Europe. At the urging of her mother, she attempts to find her match at what appears to be a formal “speed dating” event for observant Jews. Falling back on her vague recollections of her assimilated family’s some-time religious observance, she tries to pass herself off as devout and observant to please her intended. Alas, her arranged date has similar ideas – he is actually Christian, but posing as an observant Jew himself for similar reasons, egged on by his “wing-man” who whispers him the right answers by “text-messaging” from outside the hotel. The two of them “fumfer” through comic recitations of Jewish religious observance, until their mutual attraction for each other leads them to a quite “non-observant” hookup in the ladies’ room! Is this a comment on the dangers of the diaspora and mixed marriage, or a commentary on the need for modern young people to get back to basics? You decide. Well worth a 15-minute viewing!
The third film, and the highlight of the evening, is “Love Iranian-American Style”. This film’s title, an irreverent immigrant’s homage to the classic 70’s comedic TV show with an immigrant twist, recounts the experiences of a woman trying to find her soul mate as a young woman caught between the expectations of her traditional Persian-Jewish family and her own adopted country’s more modern and Americanized way of finding true love. Told in the form of a documentary by director and writer Tanaz Eshagian, with endearing and personal hand-held video-camera interviews with all of the members of her extended Iranian-Jewish clan, including her mother, step-father, and myriad aunts, uncles, and cousins all taking a starring turn and giving their “two cents” on her ongoing efforts to find just the right man over many years. Everybody has an opinion on just why Tanaz can’t find the proper Iranian-Jewish fiance among the expatriate community in L.A., especially her mother, who just can’t quite understand why her daughter cannot find a mate among the apparently rich, attractive, and well-to-do suitors that she and her myriad relatives keep sending her way.
Alas, Tanaz, as an assimilated, college-educated, and attractive young American woman – she came with her family to the U.S at a young age and is thoroughly American in manners, language, expectations and tastes – just can’t get her head around the very conservative and distinct approach of many of the immigrant Iranian Jewish men, who have a very “old-country” idea of just how a young bride-to-be should behave, including being virginal, a home-maker, and very accommodating to their spouse. Tanaz also can’t seem to find the right American soul mate either, as deep down she still is very much attached to the culture and customs of her very close-knit clan. Her mother steals the show with her loving and unstoppable efforts to see her daughter find the right man, so as the film goes on, all of us in the audience are hoping that somehow, some way, Tanaz will find the right guy.
Particularly enjoyable, humorous, and revealing are the interviews Tanaz conducts with several of her prospective Iranian Immigre and “regular” American suitors, all commenting on how poor Tanaz just can’t seem to get beyond being caught between the world of her family and her adopted American culture.. Not to be missed are the off-the-cuff comments of her myriad friends and relatives as they each comment, in turn, on her many efforts.
The film speaks to the universal theme of first- and second-generation American Immigrant families and the kinds of personal and intimate issues they face as they and their families adapt to their new homes. Tanaz, now an accomplished documentary film producer, and currently working on an important film tracking the fate of Syrian immigrants in the United States, took the stage after the showing for a Q and A to speak about her challenges as a young woman growing up in a new land and finding love, and of course, her mother was in the audience – sitting right next to yours truly and beaming proudly! And, happily, Tanaz is now a proud mother of two beautiful young children, and somehow, some way, she obviously found an answer to her search.
The showings were followed by an excellent buffet smorgasbord of Middle Eastern food and treats, and all of the attendees had a chance to confer with each other and the film auteurs in friendly fashion. Commendations to CJH and the American Sephardi Federation for this year’s film festival, and for highlighting in these difficult times for immigrants and exiles the many challenges they face.