There was a beautiful “Arts and Ideas” event last night at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, co-sponsored by Magen David Sephardic Synagogue.
It was the kickoff of the Fall Arts Festival, with a film screening of The Unorthodox (directed by Eliran Malka, in Hebrew with English subtitles). The movie is based on the real-life formation of the Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians) political party in Israel, and some hearty Jewish humor is intertwined into the serious topic of the film, which is discrimination.
The movie depicts how the Sephardim and Mizrahim (Jews from the Middle East and Central Asia) were fed up with being treated as a lower class to the Agudat Israel party (primarily Ashkenazim from Europe). The movie kicks off showing Yakov Cohen angrily confronting the Ashkenazi school that expelled his daughter for “not fitting in.” He decides it’s time to initiate a Sephardic party in Israel. Yakov’s story is an incredible one, of overcoming formidable social, religious, and bureaucratic hurdles to start a new political party and essentially overcome the forces of the status quo and the political powers that be.
The initial waves of Aliyah beginning in 1882 were driven by the persecution and pogroms, and later the Holocaust, in Europe. Thus, Israeli society initially built up their institutions and power centers around these Ashkenazi pioneers. Immediately after 1948, when Sephardic refugees were expelled from the Arab countries en masse, Israel was overwhelmed with as immigration influx that virtually doubled the Jewish population in Israel in the first three years of its existence. Unfortunately, the newly arrived Sephardim were relegated to a substandard housing and economic situation, which then persisted for many decades.
In Jewish society, however, there is no room for ethnic discrimination and inequality, and the formation of a Sephardic political party in 1984 was a crucial milestone in Jewish social and economic justice. For almost 30 years, Shas was led by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Israel Chief Sephardic Rabbi and spiritual leader, and Shas has remained one of Israel’s top political parties.
Ultimately, this wonderful movie about a simple man, Yakov Cohen, and a few of his compatriots, is a lesson in how we can all overcome the odds when we fight for what is right. As is said in the movie, “If you go straight, you will never lose.”