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The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America 2008


Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016; 202-808-4980
Produced by Gabriela Bõhm
Directed by Gabriela Bõhm
DVD, color, 88 min.

College - Adult
Jewish Studies

Date Entered: 03/19/2009

Reviewed by Sheila Intner, Professor Emerita, Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Simmons College GSLIS at Mt. Holyoke, South Hadley, MA

Crypto-Jews are defined as Jews who publicly convert to other religions, but privately retain their beliefs and practice Jewish rituals in secret. In recent years, some attention has been paid to ostensibly Catholic families living in the American southwest bearing Latino surnames, who, nevertheless, have family members who light candles on Fridays, eat matzos in the spring, and spend a day fasting in the fall, just like Jews, all in secret. The Longing examines the matter of descendants of South American crypto-Jews and the problems they face in attempting to return to the Jewish faith. The stories of six people are told here: Laily Saltaren, Boris and Maritza Valverde, Flor and Daniela Cortés, and Ortiz Luna. Through the Internet, they contact an American Reform Rabbi, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, and explain their desire to convert back to Judaism. For two years, he helps them learn to be Jews, studying Torah and other texts, and consulting by phone, Internet, and the mails. Finally, the rabbi and his pupils meet in Guayaquil, Ecuador for the conversions.

The six explain how they discovered their Jewish heritage: Dr. Saltaren was told her forebears were Jewish by her father; Dr. Luna by his mother; the Cortés mother and daughter and the Valverdes husband and wife by family members. Dr. Luna decides he is not ready for conversion and declines to continue. But they all tell about being rejected when they try to bond with Jews in their communities or attend a synagogue.

Rabbi Cukierkorn talks with men from Guayaquil’s synagogue. He explains that community interaction is essential to the spiritual well-being of his students and asks why they exclude the prospective converts from services. The replies are lame, questioning the validity of Reform conversions and the convert’s knowledge. The synagogue president refuses to speak to Rabbi Cukierkorn or filmmaker B õhm. She speculates that Ecuador’s Jewish community is made up of Orthodox Ashkenazis who fled World War II and their descendants. They are fearful of outsiders and consider the descendants of crypto-Jews to be Christians.

The Rabbi holds serious interviews with each prospective convert. He conducts ritual immersions in the river and rabbinical trials in which two local Jews are persuaded to participate, questioning and challenging each convert. Afterward, the proceedings are concluded with prayers and gifts. A year later, some of the group of converts flourishes, establishing a Reform synagogue to further their faith, while others find the effort of being Jewish all alone, excluded from any communal contact, is more than they can bear.