In Search of the Bene Israel and The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest

Film, Lily's notes

In Search of the Bene Israel by Sadia Shepard is a moving and compelling documentary about the 2000 year old Jewish community of the Mumbai region. The film-maker is a descendant of this community and she shares the story of the BeneIsrael and of her beloved grandmother very tenderly and thoughtfully with us, the lucky viewers.

Her Jewish grandmother eloped as a young person with a Muslim man, they moved to Pakistan and then to the US where eventually, the film-maker was born. SadiaShepard returned to spend a full year working with the remaining Jewish community in and around Mumbai. The majority of this community has emigrated and now lives in Israel.

Also, the Bene Israel say that they have never experienced anti-Semitism in their 2000 years in India, -what a wonderful heritage. They clearly love India deeply but want more economic opportunity and to stem the tide of assimilation.

The documentary explores the myths, history and current reality of this fascinating community.

We saw this in a screening at the Walter Reade Theatre as part of the Jewish Film Festival and this film  will be screened again at the 13th Annual Sephardic Film Festival at the Center for Jewish History. It is a marvelous film not to be missed.

See the post below this for more details about the 13th Sephardic Film Festival.

At the same afternoon screening, we travelled from crowded Mumbai of the Bene Israel, and a community in the midst of emigrating to Israel, into the lush Amazon rainforest in Peru in The Fire Within: Jews in the Amazonian Rainforest by Lorry Salcedo Mitrani. This film is about a community of Jews from the Amazon who have relocated in the Negev desert in Israel.

These 300 to 400 Jews are the descendants of Jewish men who came to the Amazon seeking their fortunes in the rubber boom during the late 1800’s, and their indigenous wives and girlfriends. We follow their journey to become fully recognised as Jews, their mass conversion to Judaism, and their emigration and stunningly remarkable adjustment to life in Israel. We meet the scholar, Ariel Segal, and the Rabbis who took part in this remarkable education and conversion. Engrossing.

Clearly, the Jews of the Amazon have a real historical and cultural claim on their Jewish ties as certainly do the Bene Israel of Mumbai. 

These films also brought to mind what we learned when we were in Israel in the summer 0f 2007.  We learned that many desperate people from Africa make their way across the African continent each year to the Egyptian border with Israel and beg for political and economic asylum and the right to live in Israel. They say that the Jews should know what it is to be homeless, destitute and war-tossed, and not wanted by other countries, and they ask to be admitted into Israel for a chance to make a new more prosperous life.

Israel sorts through their claims and tries to find the true political asylum seekers for admission into Israel and sort them out from the economic immigrants since no country can admit all comers.  We do not know why this human story has not been the topic of any reporting we have seen in the regular press.

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