Thursday, January 18, 2007

Gabriela Böhm Discusses Her Documentary, "The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America"

"'The Longing' is a moving documentary portrait of South Americans who, after discovering that their Jewish ancestors converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, undertake profound, personal journeys of faith. Dismissed by local Jewish authorities, these determined men and women choose to study via the Internet with an American Reform rabbi who ultimately arrives in Ecuador to complete the conversion."

I spoke with Gabriela Böhm, whose documentary “The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of
South America,” has its World Premiere at the NYJFF.

Would you tell us more about what brought you to this project?

I was born in Argentina to parents who emigrated after the war from Eastern Europe. Then when my parents divorced, my mother took us to Israel, where I lived for ten years.

Later, as a film student at NYU, I heard an NPR show about crypto-Jews in New Mexico, which fascinated me. At the time I was still a student, and the issue’s richness and complexity put it a little out of my reach. But, years later I returned to that idea of crypto-Jews who believed they were the descendants of forced converts from the Inquisition. I wanted to find out why these people believed they were descendants, and what drove those who wanted to pursue Judaism.

What were some of the fundamental themes you wanted to explore?
The question of identity is really important to me: how people construct identity, what constitutes the pillars of one’s identity. And the people in my film lived in what I call a ‘dual identity process,’ as descendants of Jews who survived the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and expulsion. Their relatives had to choose how to live, how to keep their traditions alive, while continuing to be Catholics on the outside. More than the real Catholics, they had to be very involved in the Church and the Catholic community to avoid suspicion, and on the inside, as forced converts, they lived out a secret identity.

Any written communication was risky: they could be tortured and killed for it; so Judaism lived on through the oral tradition. And traditions began to mutate as they embellished the existing ones, but some standards remained: not eating pork, lighting candles for Shabbat, not going to church during one’s menstrual period. It was unclear to the children why they observed these traditions but they passed them on just the same.

The few who care and begin to research their backgrounds, remark that they've noticed something in their fiber, if you will, that feels Jewish. This is not a scientific question, this is not an academic question, this is a question of feeling. And that is why it interests me so much: this question of what makes us who we are, what really forms our identity. What makes one a Jew?

Why did they identify these feelings with an essential Jewishness?
People who search for their identity are people who are looking for something concrete. All of us have this desire. The people in my film all spoke of returning home, not as a literal place but as a means of grounding, of a relationship to god they did not feel with Christianity. Part of this experience was identifying with Judaism. In any event, I think it’s a miracle for these people to be feeling a connection to Judaism so many centuries after their families were forced to convert.

“The Longing” maintains an expertly neutral tone throughout, but curiosity left me wondering where you stood…
It was very important for me to stay neutral: I didn't want to be some accusing hand because I feel we all make choices and need to take responsibility. I wanted to be there for their quest for acceptance, and to tell their story. Their hearts were set, and I felt for them.

You know, I don’t believe in answering questions so much as asking them. That makes me a Jew I guess. We really don’t like answering questions unless it’s with a question. This provides an environment with more discussion and investigation.

The prospective converts encounter tremendous resistance from the local Jewish councils…
Of course, I didn’t know that their story would take the path it did, that they would encounter such obstacles. As I filmed, I realized there was a strong reaction on my part, that I really was appalled by what they had to face. Even after completing the film, I am left with a lot of questions as to why things happened as they did. At the time I felt it had to do with the socio-economic difference between the two groups. Certainly they looked different: the prospective converts are mestizos, a mix between Indian and Spanish, so the mainly Ashkenazic council members couldn’t really identify with them as brothers. You know, Jews like to identify with one another as brothers, and here they couldn’t.
And one thing that struck me was how very Catholic the gestures and prayers of potential converts were.
Absolutely, this was interesting to me because they were affected by the Catholic environment at all levels, and they bring it with them even into their new Jewish lives. But, as the rabbi in the film says, if they were already Jews they would be like us, but since they are new to Judaism they bring with them a new relationship with god, a new love for god that we are not familiar with. And there is some iconography that gets blended into their behavior.

So, as much as they feel they are Jews, as much as they want to be, they are not recognized as Jews, even though have been become Jews. But will they ever be able to know how a Jew behaves if they are never allowed in the Jewish sanctuary? Only through participation could they learn? In this sense I sympathize with them. In Israel, they ask the same questions: are the Ethiopian Jews really Jews? I ask, how do we know?

How did you get to know the rabbi who helps the prospective converts?
I have amassed a lot of contacts as I’ve been researching this for a few years. The leading expert on Brazilian Jews put me into contact Rabbi Cukierkorn.

What are the lives of Jews like in Ecuador and Columbia?
For the cryto-Jews it is a very difficult road, even more so for those who converted. They have taken a stand, but they will not be part of the Jewish community. For what I’m told, they plan to form an association of crypto-Jews to worship together. This will be very difficult.

The local Jewish communities are very selective and exclusive. They are like a club. They can do whatever they like since they have their own guidelines. They mingle with those on the same social level, and marry within these ranks. Not so much in Argentina, but elsewhere in South America, it’s a ghetto-like experience.

Are they subject to anti-Semitic violence?
During the dictatorship in Argentina, they were. In fact, my young student cousins were among those murdered. Yet I don’t think there is active anti-Semitism in South America but I do feel the crypto-Jews will really suffer marginalization and that they will never find their place as things currently stand.

One last thing I wanted to say is that I have never seen a film where the actual process of conversion is shown. I’ve seen photographs from before and after the mikvah, but to be there inside the process, the rabbinical trial, I think this is an aspect of my film that might be interesting for many people.

"The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America" screens at Lincoln Center on Monday Jan. 22nd at 4PM and Tuesday Jan. 23rd at 1:30 & 6.

To find out more about Gabriela Böhm and her films, please visit

Please see the NYJFF in The News section of this blog for more press about "The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America," including her interview with Robin Cembalest in Nextbook.

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