“Ghana’s Jewish community teaches us that some Jews really have to fight hard to maintain their identity -- harder than we’re used to in North America.” So mused Gabrielle Zilkha when we spoke at the New York Jewish Film Festival for the US premiere of her documentary Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana. Raised in Montreal and now ensconced in Toronto, the award-winning filmmaker came by her observation through sustained engagements with indigenous Jews in the West African nation. Those engagements form the weave of her film.
It began with, what else? a Jewish mother. The one in question, Zilkha’s, dug up an article about a Jewish enclave in dusty Sefwi Wiawso, about a day’s travel from where Zilkha was volunteering. Though not especially religious, the Canadian expat had begun feeling wistful about her roots as Rosh Hashana approached. Thanks to her mom's tip, she hopped on a bus and found her way to a tiny community that has observed kashrut, male circumcision and other recondite rituals for centuries. Only in the 70s did they learn that these rituals linked them to a global faith with millions of followers: Judaism.
Five years in the making, Doing Jewish traces the past and current history of the Sefwi Wiawso Jews. In the process, it also explores the meaning of belonging, both for the Sefwis and for the filmmaker. We chart the rural community’s efforts to nurture Jewish education and institutions as well as to gain acceptance. Their spiritual leader, Alex Armah, shares his vision of having his congregation recognized as bona fide Jews.
For him, compiling -- and passing down -- their story is an essential step. Yet just what that story is brings up intriguing challenges. One version is that these long isolated Sefwis are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Such speculation tripwires on the larger question of who is a Jew, and what it means to be one. In hopes of finding some answers, Zilkha heads out to Miami, Brooklyn, Montreal and Toronto, where she meets with experts including the African-American Orthodox author MaNishtana.
What does Zilkha most want viewers to take away from her film? “To look outside themselves,” she said. “As Ashkenazi Jews we tend to be quite insular. We should have the courage to consider others, regardless of how we choose to define Judaism. Let’s expand our networks and knowledge instead of remaining behind high walls.”
Asked about her own lessons gleaned from the Ghana-inspired production, she reflected, “Jewish identity is not static; it shifts over time, over history, over cultures. This film was a wonderful journey for me to understand where I stood on Judaism as a faith, as a religion, as a culture. I discovered that through the process of filmmaking, through the arts. The was my way of connecting with that identity.”
The New York Jewish Film Festival is a collaboration of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum.