April 8, 2024
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Ben Porat Yosef Presents ‘Memories of the Mizrach,’ An Oral History Project

Ben Porat Yosef Head of School Rabbi Saul Zucker with Robyn Badash, co-director of communications/public relations.

A standing-room-only crowd was on hand last week as Englewood’s Congregation Ahavat Torah hosted the culmination of a year-long oral history project undertaken by last year’s Ben Porat Yosef (BPY) seventh graders. These students had interviewed and recorded the life stories of their Sephardic relatives and friends of the Mizrach who had emigrated from their lands of origin. With the editing now completed, the video production was finished and ready for presentation. This, finally, was the night! Every seat was filled, and the walls and back aisle were lined with students, family and friends.

Opening the program with his legendary enthusiasm and warmth, BPY Head of School Rabbi Saul Zucker explained with great pride how the idea for the program had blossomed into the video that would be featured in the evening’s program. He noted that the students, now eighth graders, had attended special classes and were intimately involved with the editing, referring to their efforts as “an activity of love, rather than a labor of love.” He also recognized Rachel Barber Schwartz, past president, BPY board of trustees, for planting the seeds that grew into such an important and beautifully executed project—equally important for the students, for the interviewees, and for the community.

Rachel Barber Schwartz delivers closing remarks.

Tamar Moche, granddaughter-in-law of one of the first interviewees, Fadhila Moche, also helped promote the project. The assembly was treated to a brief choral performance by the third grade choir, accompanied on keyboard by Chana Salamon. Amanda Teichman, representing the class of 2024, introduced the video, expressing appreciation to faculty and others who helped in the project.

The video features eight people, relating their amazing, sometimes shocking and sometimes harrowing experiences living in and/or emigrating from various countries in the Mizrach: Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Tunisia.

Some left by choice and some by force. Indeed, many escaped with no “papers,” or with what they termed a “white passport,” being told point blank: “You can leave, but you can never come back.” Some escaped by enduring dangerous journeys, having to hide along the way, paying $20,000 to be smuggled to safety and seeking asylum in Pakistan. Some made their way to Japan before arriving here, others came in through Canada, and some went to Israel first or stayed there, their first home being a tent.

Third grade choir sings “Hatikvah.”

Shoshana Oppenheim described selling their home to raise funds for departure, only to have the government take that money from the bank, and having people throw stones at them as they left. Others had their documents stolen, lost them in transit, or got caught with falsified documents. Yet some told of being aided or saved by friends and neighbors—in one case, a grocer. Many of the stories were painful, yet Daniel Kalai concluded his interview with this observation: “The vast majority of people are good.”

Closing remarks were offered by the current president of the BPY board of trustees, Howard Kestenbaum, followed by Schwartz.

She emphasized: “A key piece of BPY’s mission involves the transmission of our heritage: Sephardic, Mizrachi and Ashkenazi. Being a student at BPY means growing up with a level of familiarity and comfort with not just your own families’ traditions, but those of your classmates.”

Thus “Memories of the Mizrach,” became the students’ debut engagement in recording the testimonies of the oral history of ancient Jewish communities in the Sephardic and Mizrachi world that were uprooted in the 20th century. “These histories have not been widely recorded and we have a fleeting opportunity to do so,” Schwartz noted.

“Am Yisrael, our people, has a long memory, perhaps the longest of any people. For us, memory is not something that is in the past; it’s not just history… It’s alive for us in the present, and informs our future.”

The “Memories of the Mizrach” oral history video is about 45 minutes in length, and even peppered with a little humor from those who fought their way to freedom despite dire circumstances.

“Memories of the Mizrach” can be viewed by accessing the BPY YouTube collection via their website, www.benporatyosef.org

Amanda Teichman, BPY class of 2024, speaks before the video presentation.
Shoshana and Oded Oppenheim with their children Yair and Aviva.
Zucker shares his enthusiasm for the “Memories of the Mizrach” oral history project.
Howard Kestenbaum, President, BPY Board of Trustees extolls the oral history project and the students of BPY.
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