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Brandon Judell

The Jews of Lebanon (Le Petite Histoire des Juifs de Liban):
The Plight of the Arabic Jew

The Jews of Lebanon

By Brandon Judell

In 1948, there were 20,000 Jews in Lebanon. By 1960, the number had dwindled to 8,000. Today only 20 remain.*

Citing these figures, director Yves Turquier dedicates his 77-minute documentary, The Jews of Lebanon, to those Lebanese Jews who immigrated to Mexico, Israel, the United States, Canada, France, England, Switzerland, Brazil, and Italy to make new lives for their families. Some of these hardy survivors escaped with their wealth in tact; others departed with diddlysquat, including one man who was forced into exile with just his undershirt on.

Turquier's inspiration to record and then compile these stories was a web site he came across, www.b400.com, an online meeting place for hundreds of Jewish Lebanese émigrés of which he was one.

The film, which is a fusion of photographs, home movies, and talking heads will no doubt be a must-see for those with a Lebanese heritage. For others, a glimpse of this unexamined side of Jewish history will no doubt be intriguing.

Why with Lebanon seldom leaving the headlines, a greater understanding of this country's relationship with its Jews cannot but help throw a little light on the country's current situation.

Ah, but on the past is where most of the interviewees want to dwell. Their childhood in Lebanon, which was "often called the Switzerland of the Middle East," was an idyllic time. "Life was less complicated" back then, one notes." Another adds, "Most Jews lived in the Wadi," an area later destroyed during the Lebanese Civil War.

"We talked to each other from the balconies."

Goods were often sold from the streets. One hawker of vegetables would shout, "My cucumbers are like children's fingers."

And there were hula hoops, romances, plus delicious smells pouring forth from the land and sea, and "some Jews were imprisoned for a year simply because they were Jewish." Of course, the Israeli War for Independence didn't help matters for Jews living in an Arabic country.

As Celly Chreim Moghrabi recalls from her girlhood, "It was '48. The Muslims were walking down the street and shouting really scary slogans. They went from house to house. We had to hide every night. One night our uncle came. He rang and rang, but we were too scared to open the door. We were terrified."

"The words 'Jewish' and 'Israeli' became synonyms," notes another.

There were "memories of crowds calling for the death of Israel and the Jews."

"Palestine is our country and the Jews are dogs."

"Every day we were called dirty Jews."

Albert Mann, who resides now in Montreal, smilingly adds, "For my part, I think it is God's miracle. At Passover, we say, 'He led us out of Egypt.' Now we have to say, 'He led us out of Lebanon.' He led us out at the right moment."

"That's how life was in Lebanon," Turquier sums up from off-camera, "a succession of tragic moments and periods of happiness."

And that scrambled existence is often reflected on the faces of the several generations who dance across the screen here, the youngest of whom only know of Lebanon from the dishes of lemon rice, falafels, and malfoof they've been served all their lives.

And this delicious union of old and new and survival and celebration in cinema is what the 12th year of The New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival celebrated from February 7-14th.

Lynne Winters, the Director of Programming, each year gathers together films that both illuminate and entertain Big Apple audiences "with an extraordinary breadth of lands, languages and traditions, revealing the 'other' within the Jewish tradition."

Besides "The Jews of Lebanon," there was the deservedly critically acclaimed "Aviva My Love," a tale of a struggling Israeli mother who dreams of being a writer while her family wants her to be anything but, plus such documentaries as "The Last Jews of Libya" and "Leaving Paradise: The Jews of Jamaica." A regular cultural smorgasbord this was.

So get on this fest's mailing list. For information on forthcoming festivals, art exhibits (e.g. "The Historic Synagogues of Turkey"), and other events produced by the American Sephardi Federation, check out its web site: http://www.americansephardifederation.org/default.asp.

*(These statistics are alternately confirmed or disputed to a minor degree by various Internet sites.)

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