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Diversity and unity explored at this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival

From left: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Maurice Eisendrath, and Abraham Joshua Heschel during the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. From "Shared Legacies."
From left: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Maurice Eisendrath, and Abraham Joshua Heschel during the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. From "Shared Legacies."Boston Jewish Film Festival

An Israeli-Moroccan couple, a Black neighborhood organizer, generations of civil rights activists, and even a former Hezbollah member — the subjects of the documentaries in this year’s virtual Boston Jewish Film Festival demonstrate the diversity of the Jewish experience and the deep bonds that unite it. The festival runs from Nov. 4-15.

In one scene in Kamal Hachkar’s “In Your Eyes, I See My Country” (accompanied by a live musical performance and a discussion with the director and the subjects on Nov. 8, at 12:30 p.m.) musician Neta Elkayam tries to explain her identity. "I’m half Berber Amizigh and half . . . half what? “Jewish Moroccan,” says her life partner and fellow musician, Amit Hai Cohen. Though they are both second-generation Israelis who live in Jerusalem, they feel caught between two cultures. Drawn to their Moroccan origins, they tap into them with haunting renditions of traditional songs, many of which are about lost loves and lost homelands.

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To fill the void in their identity they travel to Morocco, touring and playing with local musicians to appreciative audiences. Music, they find, is a common language bridging their two cultures. They also track down their ancestors by parsing documents, visiting a graveyard, and finding a family home in a stark village in the desert. It’s like an episode of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” but with beautiful landscapes, rousing performances, and fascinating encounters.

Neta Elkayam in "In Your Eyes, I See My Country."
Neta Elkayam in "In Your Eyes, I See My Country."Boston Jewish Film Festival

Tamar Manasseh, the subject of Brad Rothschild’s “They Ain’t Ready For Me” (accompanied by a discussion with the director and Manasseh on Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m.), is a Black Jew from the South Side of Chicago who got fed up with the gun violence in her neighborhood and decided to do something about it. She and a few neighbors took over an empty lot on a corner where they set up tables and offered refreshments and stern maternal advice to kids during the school summer vacation. For three years this combination of neighborhood watch, block party, and surrogate parental supervision has eliminated all gun violence on the block. Her initiative has evolved into the organization Mothers Against Senseless Killing and has been imitated in other cities.

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Spirited and charismatic, Manasseh is also a rabbinical student who finds solace and strength at her local synagogue. Her Sukkot and Passover celebrations are attended by people from the neighborhood and by Jews from other parts of the city, bringing together in a spirit of mutual understanding two communities that are too often alienated from one another.

Tamar Manasseh in "They Ain't Ready for Me."
Tamar Manasseh in "They Ain't Ready for Me."Boston Jewish Film Festival

As is shown in director Shari Rogers’s “Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance” (accompanied by a conversation between the director and subject Susannah Heschel, moderated by Robin Washington, on Nov. 14, at 7:30 p.m.), the ties between the Black and Jewish communities go back at least to the beginnings of the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, more than 100 years ago. Their relationship intensified during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when thousands of Jews and rabbis joined Martin Luther King Jr. in sit-ins, demonstrations, and voting drives in the Deep South, often putting themselves in harm’s way.

That was the case in Mississippi in June 1964, when two Jewish volunteers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and a Black activist, James Chaney, were abducted and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Public outrage over this atrocity was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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With rare archival footage, photographs and recordings and interviews with figures such as the late John Lewis, the late Maya Angelou, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, and folksinger Peter Yarrow, the film surveys a century of race relations from an illuminating point of view and urges a return to what King called a “coalition of conscience.”

Perhaps the festival’s most extreme example of the wide variety of Jewish experience is the title subject of Itamar Chen’s “The Rabbi from Hezbollah.”

Ibrahim Yassin, a.k.a. Rabbi Avraham Sinai, tells an incredible story. The son of a Lebanese shepherd, he first encountered the cruelties of conflict as a child in 1975 at the start of the Lebanese Civil War when a Palestinian fighter shot his beloved pet goat. It was a loss he never forgot, but far worse was to follow, as well as unexpected kindnesses.

Ibrahim Yassin, a.k.a.  Rabbi Avraham Sinai, from "The Rabbi From Hezbollah."
Ibrahim Yassin, a.k.a. Rabbi Avraham Sinai, from "The Rabbi From Hezbollah."Boston Jewish Film Festival

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in 1982, his wife was in labor with no access to medical help. Neighbors hailed a passing Israeli convoy and one of the officers assisted in delivering the baby. Later, that same officer invited Yassin to infiltrate and spy on the local Hezbollah militia. Yassin, no friend of the militant group, readily agreed. He proved an invaluable intelligence asset until he was caught, imprisoned for nearly a year, and tortured. He refused to talk even after his captors forced him to watch his infant son burned alive.

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Convinced of his innocence, Hezbollah let him go, and Yassin resumed spying for the Israelis. Warned that he was in danger of capture, he fled with his family to Israel, where he converted to Judaism, changed his name to Avraham Sinai, and became a rabbi.

A powerful, artful assemblage of archival footage, re-enactments, and interviews with Yassin’s Israeli army handlers, the film is dominated by the testimony and presence of Yassin himself — a burly, bearded, and exuberant enigma.

Go to www.bostonjfilm.org.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.