If you are in Mexico this week, you may want to attend El 16º Festival Internacional de Cine Judío en México (The 16th International Jewish Film Festival in Mexico). But if you do, you won’t be seeing a film called El Tercer Espacio (The Third Place). That’s because the film which most North Americans would probably view as pretty tame, was rejected by the Festival out of fear it might lose sponsors if it screened the film. No, El Tercer Espacio, is not about the Israeli Palestinian conflict or the existential future of Jews in Europe. It’s not about BDS or the role of a small number of Ultra Orthodox yeshivot and other anti-vaxers (those opposed to vaccination) in New York City’s current measles outbreak. The film which was largely funded by a prominent member of the one hundred plus year old Monte Sinai community in Mexico City is about la Sociedad de Beneficencia Alianza Monte Sinai (the Monte Sinai Charitable Alliance). Monte Sinaí serves as the umbrella organization for Syrian Jews in the Mexican capital and throughout Mexico who trace their roots to Damascus, Syria.
Curiously, El Tercer Espacio, the rejected film, is an adoring portrait of a tightly-knit community that has for over a century looked after its own and served as a welcoming home to thousands of Mexican Jews of all ages. The film is directed by Nejemye Tenenbaum, a Mexican Jewish director educated at NYU who has directed and filmed over 100 documentaries on Jewish and secular topics. Tenenbaum’s film tells the story of Monte Sinaí through a combination of archival footage from Mexico, Israel and Syria and interviews with members of the community. Those interviewed include the community’s chief rabbi, the president, successful Monte Sinaí leaders, academics, older members of the community as well as a young man who is struggling financially and a prominent Mexican actor who found Monte Sinaí stifling and severed ties and moved away. The film explores the way the values of the Monte Sinaí community intentionally and otherwise segregate the community from the broader Mexican society. The film also considers fInancial insecurity and intermarriage, which while rare in the community, especially by North American standards, are issues that have impacted some Monte Sinaí members.
One of the most moving parts of the film is a scene in which a member of the congregation returns to the streets of La Merced, a working class Mexico City neighborhood where her childhood home and Monte Sinaí’s first synagogue are located. I wrote about la Sinagoga Monte Sinaí, the neighboring Ashkenazi Sinagoga Justo Sierra and the barrio of La Merced in an earlier piece entitled, México: El Shul de Jesús María.
In the old Borscht Belt joke a man is rescued from a desert island after 20 years. Amazed at his survival, the media descend on the island and ask the man to show them his home and how he survived.
“How did you keep sane?” the reporters ask.
“I had my faith as a Jew; this kept me strong,” explains the man who leads them to an opulent temple he has built on one end of the island. “This took me five years to complete.”
“Amazing! And what did you do for the next fifteen years?”
He leads them around to the far side of the island where there is an even more beautiful temple. “This one took me twelve years to complete!”
“But sir” asks the reporter, “Why did you build two temples?”
“This is the temple I attend. That other place? I wouldn’t set foot in there.”
This common Jewish tendency to belong and not belong is a compelling subject that receives important consideration in El Tercer Espacio. And yet, this homegrown Mexican film was excluded from this year’s Festival.
Commenting on omission from the Festival of the Tenenbaum film and Leona, a 2018 film that also deals with sensitive topics including assimilation and extra-community relations, Excelsior, a leading Mexico City daily, noted that the reason given by the organizers for excluding both films from the Festival was that they could lose sponsorships. Apparently, wrote the paper, the Festival’s commitment to elevating above all else, the values of cooperation, respect for differences and freedom of expression with the goal of fostering a creative dialogue with a culturally pluralistic Mexico does not extend to the censorship of ideas and images.
Are the actions of the Mexican Jewish Film Festival in excluding these two Mexican films censorship? It certainly looks that way and we all lose when film festivals act this way.
By all accounts, including the Tenenbaum film, Monte Sinaí is a thriving community with active synagogues and programming in Colonia Roma and Polanco and a large modern community center and synagogue in suburban Colonia Tecamachalco and elsewhere. This makes the case for the screening of El Tercer Espacio at the Mexican Festival and other festivals and theaters around the world all the more compelling. In an age when all communities struggle with cultural assimilation, Monte Sinaí’s story of community cohesion through five generations is a story that should be heard. It is the sort of film that would receive a positive reception at the New Plaza Cinema on New York’s Upper West Side and at other venues around the world that take film and issues of community seriously.
With more and more outlets for independent cinema thanks to Netflix, Amazon and others, few topics are off limits. Netflix is even airing a popular Israeli series called Shtisel, about the Ultra Orthodox community in Jerusalem. If this notoriously closed community can be depicted on the small screen around the world, there is surely a place for El Tercer Espacio at the Mexican Jewish Film Festival.
No one likes their dirty laundry aired for all to see, but in the current environment for independent cinema, the films rejected by the Mexican Jewish Film Festival’s are ropa vieja not dirty laundry. As an immigrant Jewish community that in its fifth generation is still seeing modest rates of intermarriage, Monte Sinaí is effectively serving the goals that it sought to serve when it was created in 1912.
In Inheritance, an important new book by Dani Shapiro, the author describes her search for the truth about her origins. Shapiro writes how she is fascinated by secrets. “Secrets within families. Secrets we keep out of shame, or self-protectiveness, or denial. Secrets and their corrosive power. Secrets we keep from one another in the name of love.”
Nothing has been served by keeping these films out of the Mexican Jewish Film Festival and indeed an opportunity for greater understanding and reflection has been lost with their exclusion. In the sage words of my mother, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.