It takes that first step to jump off the cliff

Marek Bochniarz

Marek S. Bochniarz interviews Oren Rosenfeld, an Israeli documentary filmmaker, photojournalist, and a film producer.


‘Converts’ | “You can’t just decide: OK, I’m gonna be Jewish”

Could you describe the project you are currently working on, ‘Converts’? Tell me about your characters.

We basically follow three different young people. One is from Toronto, Canada. Coming from a Jamaican background, he decided that he wants to convert to Judaism. We also follow a woman from Central America, Costa Rica that believes she is a descendant of the Marranos, Jews from the fifteenth century that had to convert to Christianity or hide their Judaism. She tries to convert to Judaism, but it’s very difficult. Another character – which you might find more interesting – is actually living in Warsaw. She is from Radom. It was a big centre of Jews prior to World War II. She decided that she wants to convert. She tried different religions, paths, and her theological journey took her to ‘the source’ – as she says – to Judaism.

What is the reason you’re making this movie?

We want two things. One is to understand why people want to join the most hated religion in the world. Why are people converting to Judaism? What makes them want to join the club? Second – which is also very interesting and important to me and my co-director, Rebecca Shore – is to show young people, the young Jews in America and other places around the world, that are now losing their religion, their Jewish past by intermarriage and other reasons, how people have to struggle to become Jewish. And it’s so difficult some don’t even make it. But they already are Jewish. Maybe if they see it, they think twice about giving it away so easily. Why throw it away?

Why – for example, young Jews in America – are losing their Jewish identity? Is atheist upbringing the problem here?

I think the answer is more simple and not as complicated as people searching for atheism or other reasons. They just grow up without any Jewish background. They don’t see any connection to their Jewishness. Then they meet a boy or a girl who is not necessarily Jewish, and they marry them. And that’s it. And their children are not going to be Jewish anymore.

They didn’t put any thought to it not because of theological reasons, but purely because they don’t realise or don’t understand. They don’t know the past. They are young. They are busy with life, making a career, studying. They are not religious. Hopefully, this movie will touch some people. When they see it, they will think “hey, hang on, I’m already Jewish, how do I keep being Jewish, how do I not lose this, how do I keep my children being Jewish?”.

Why it’s so difficult to become Jewish?

First of all, there are a few different paths to conversion. An Orthodox – which is the only one recognised by Israel – is the most difficult. If you want to convert and make aliyah and come to Israel, you hate to do it the Orthodox way. That means keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, all the different rules. If you are a woman, there are even more rules. And you have to prove to the beit din, a rabbinical court, that you are really committed to this. It’s not just “OK, this is cool, I’m gonna be Jewish”. It’s a commitment.

How do you prove this commitment?

You have to study for many years. You have to keep Shabbat and live with a family that keeps Shabbat. You have to take tests seating in front of a committee that will ask you questions about different rules. All the basic things that the Jew knows instantly, but somebody who is not Jewish would not understand the nuances of.

Out of the three characters that I’m following, only one has made it to the finish line so far. And we’ve been filming ‘Converts’ for four years now.

How did you choose your characters?

It’s always difficult to find the right ones. It’s a lot of research and took a lot of time to find the right people. I was in Poland for a film festival with ‘Hummus!’ and I started the research. I spoke to different rabbis in Warsaw. I was looking for somebody who has just started the conversion process – young, not married.

In Toronto, it was again through the local Jewish community. I asked them for some names, and eventually, I found the right guy. We tried in Los Angeles, New York, London, but we couldn’t find anybody good. The one from Costarica I found through a friend.

‘Mumbai Jews’ | “It’s possible for people to live together despite their different religions”

You choose less obvious subjects in comparison to other directors of documentaries. Before watching any of your films, I would never think that the topics presented in them are promising materials for features. Still, after the screening I'm always puzzled: "It's such a great idea? Why didn't I think about it before?"

It’s just a mitter of choosing something that you are willing to commit to for the next three years. These ideas are all around us all the time. It takes that first step to jump off the cliff and to start something. I think that out of two or three things I start, eventually, one of them reaches the finish line. And for many reasons. I don't have financial backing, and it's all coming from the money I save. I do most of the research and filming myself. I'm the director, producer, cameraman, soundman, driver. I don't edit myself and its very costly. Every time I save some money, I do a few days of editing.

When did you discover the subject of ‘Mumbai Jews’ and though it would be a good material for a movie?

I've been to India many times on different occasions – for the BBC and different NGOs. I've been doing films for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to show all the good things they're doing there.  Every time my friends and I flew through Mumbai. As a younger traveller backpacking in India, I always went through Mumbai but never stayed for the night. It never interested me as a place. I was more interested in a classic part of India – all the beaches, all the parties. I didn’t know what I was missing.

But when I did [stay in Mumbai], I was in shock. It’s such a beautiful place. All the different religions in the city of 22 million people – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Farsis, any religion you can think of – they’re all living there. Twenty-two million people – that's almost three times the size of Israel! And they get along! How is this possible? I wanted to understand why.

I’m using Mumbai as an example to the world that it’s possible for people to live together despite their different religions. Despite the terror attacks in Mumbai, it didn’t change anything in that city. The attackers came from Pakistan; they weren’t from Mumbai. There weren’t internal terrorists. It just made them stronger. A Jew can walk freely down the road all day and all night wearing whatever he wants, and nobody would touch him. There is a lot of respect for religion there. It’s fascinating. That was the initial thought. And then it evolved. I started to learn more about how the Jews in Mumbai are actually two different kinds of Jews.

There are Jews that came with the British as merchants from Baghdad – and they are called the Baghdadi Jews. They have lighter skin, have British passports. Most of them left when the British left and dispersed to different countries – everywhere were British colonies were. And when Israel was formed, many went there as well because India got independence from the British in the same year Israel was founded. That year many of the Baghdadi Jews left, and now there is only about fifty left. But they left a big mark on the city. One of the main guys is an entrepreneur. They call them the "Rothschilds of the East". His name is David Sassoon – a very wealthy businessman. Until today, in Mumbai, the docks are called the Sassoon Docks, the library is the Sassoon Library, everything is „Sassoon”. I’m exploring the Baghdadi Jews through a character – professor Shaul Sapir who is a Baghdadi Jew and wrote many books about Mumbai Jewish heritage.

There are also Bene Israeli Jews. According to the legend, those are the one who came as merchants as they fled the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem 2200 years ago. Their ship sailed to the Arabian Sea and just south of Mumbai there was a shipwreck. Everybody died except for seven couples. They are the base of all the Jews that are living in Mumbai, the Bene Israeli Jews.

How these two groups get along?

You can imagine that group that came 2200 years ago look like any other Indian. You can never tell if they are Jewish or not. They were kind of looked down on by the Jews who came with the British  high society that had money, dressed western and built all those fancy synagogues. At the time they kept away from each other. They didn't mix; they didn't go to each other's synagogues. But because now there are almost no Baghdadi Jews left, they must bring in the Bene Israeli Jews just to have a minyan in their huge synagogues. So things have changed.

‘Holy Vegans’ | “Suddenly their lifestyle is not that weird anymore”

What’s the story behind ‘Holy Vegans’?

In 'Holy Vegans' I'm exploring the phenomena of veganism in Israel. The restaurant in Israel that doesn't have a vegan menu or vegan options is going to have a problem. There are so many vegans. I wanted to understand why. Why in such a small country in the Middle East is it such a huge phenomenon? Why are people becoming vegan? What’s behind it? Is it them feeling bad for the occupation of the Palestinians and suddenly they have a conscience and feel bad for the animals now?

I started to research this together with my co-director Michal Lee Sapir who’s been vegan for 18 years before it became trendy. I went to where it began. Veganism was introduced to the Middle East by the Black Hebrews of Dimona. They are Afroamericans that call themselves Hebrews and eventually settled in the Negev in Dimona in the south of Israel. A whole village, a community of 5000, live the vegan lifestyle. They opened the first vegan restaurant in Tel Aviv. For years they were the only ones. Now it’s such a huge trend, and they capitalise on it selling vegan food that they make. Suddenly their lifestyle is not that weird anymore.

Could you give an example of problems Jewish vegans who are religious must face in everyday life?

Tefillin are made of animal skin. The Torah scroll, the mezuzah is all animal scrolls. I had questions: how can you kiss a dead animal when you are vegan? How do you put a dead animal on you? His answers were very surprising. He said: "Listen, we don't have a Sanhedrin, we don't have the rabbinical committee that can decide and change rules. So they can't change tefillin to synthetic leather. But, having said that, I'm not going to buy a new one. I'm always going to encourage other people to use what has already been made, just refurbish it and use it again rather than buying a new one."

I also found an Arab who is preaching to the Arab world about veganism and is facing the same kind of problems like the rabbi. People don't understand it. It takes a while to change people's minds.

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