Local filmmaker’s new documentary ‘A Long Journey: The Hidden Jews of the Southwest’ to air on KPBS
Oceanside filmmaker Isaac Artenstein’s new documentary, “A Long Journey: The Hidden Jews of the Southwest” chronicles the journey of the Sephardic Jews of New Mexico and the Southwest as well as the northern Mexican border town Ciudad Juarez. The documentary, which will air on KPBS on Monday, Jan. 11 at 7 p.m., examines how they found their ancient roots and returned to the Jewish faith.
Little is written in American history books about the secret or crypto Jews of the Southwest, and many people do not know much about them. Some of the ancestors of present day New Mexicans, for example, were “Conversos” or secret Jews who came to New Mexico when it was being colonized by Spain. During the time of the inquisition, the Conversos were Jews who pretended to convert to Catholicism to avoid being killed. Some of the conversos really did convert, but many continued practicing their Sephardic Jewish traditions in secret in their new land for generations, sometimes without even knowing why.
There is the story of Tim Herrera, a cowboy, New Mexican cattle rancher, and proud Jew. Although not everyone in his mostly Catholic family approved, he rediscovered his Sephardic Jewish roots and converted to Judaism as did his wife and children. He embraced his faith and roots so strongly that he is currently in the process of moving to Israel as he wants to bring his experience as a rancher to the Holy Land and raise cattle there. Herrera is one of various Sephardic New Mexicans who have embraced Judaism, a theme the documentary explores.
Artenstein and his crew traveled throughout New Mexico and southwest Texas to explore the world of the descendants of the “crypto Jews” and how many of them are exploring their family trees and coming back to Judaism, not always an easy feat. First, they have to research their ancestors and find the documentation that shows that they are descendants of Sephardic Jews. In fact, the Jewish Federation of New Mexico is one of the leaders in confirming a Sephardic background. Next, some have to contend with families who, like Herrera’s family, are dismayed that they are leaving the Catholic Church.
While filming, Artenstein and his crew met and interviewed many interesting characters starting with cowboy Herrera. There is the scholar Ron D. Hart, who wrote the companion book for the film. There is the artist Charlie Carrillo, a Santero (one who draws saints or retablos) whose work is inspired by Spanish Jewish and Catholic imagery. Although Carrillo is Catholic, he is proud of the Sephardic roots many New Mexicans have. There is Blanca Carrasco, who speaks honestly about grappling with not feeling accepted by some of the congregants at her previous synagogue and her road to Judaism.
One of the most charismatic of all the people interviewed is Stephen Leon, the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’Nai Zion in El Paso, Texas. A warm and jovial Ashkenazi Jew from New Jersey, he has made it his life’s mission to serve the Sephardic community of El Paso and also Ciudad Juarez across the border. He helped many in their conversion and assimilation.
This documentary is also worthy because it can be the catalyst for different discussions, including the history and traditions of Sephardic Jews in the Southwest. In the United States, much more is known about Ashkenazi Jews.
Finally, up until last year, the Spanish government was offering Spanish citizenship to those who could prove they had Sephardic blood. There was a rush of Jews from around the world that coveted Spanish citizenship who applied to the program. Many researched their ancestry to prove they had Sephardic blood and were able to obtain the citizenship. Some of this is discussed in the film.
The photography in the documentary is stunning, especially the aerial views. It gives the viewer a sense of the cultural and national landscape, especially New Mexico. Artenstein worked with his other long-time collaborator, his director of cinematography, Sergio Ulloa.
Artenstein is also known for his films Tijuana Jews and To the Ends of the Earth, A Portrait of Jewish San Diego. His website is www.cinewest.net.
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