When Gabrielle Zilkha arrived in Accra, the capital of Ghana, she didn’t expect to find any fellow Jews there.
She travelled to the West African country to work at a women’s rights NGO for six months — a Canadian Jew awash in a sea of African Christians. Although Zilkha felt welcome, she also felt isolated, like a fish out of water; feelings that were intensified by the fast-approaching Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
“The thought of finding another Jew seemed completely absurd. I resigned myself to spend the holidays alone,” recalled Zilkha during a phone interview with The Phoenix. “I longed for a connection of familiarity and my sense of self.”
Gabrielle Zilkha, the producer and director of "Doing Jewish: A Story From Ghana."
Apart from volunteering her time promoting women's rights, Zilkha is also an award-winning filmmaker, whose work often marries humor and creativity with issues around identity and social struggles. She didn't know it at the time, but her persistence in finding fellow Jews in Ghana would lead her to an incredible story, and the topic of her latest media project.
Zilkha asked the Ghanaians in Accra if there were any Jewish communities in the vicinity, but most scoffed or laughed at her inquiry. After a tip from her mother and little online research, Zilkha learned of a rural village called Sefwi Wiawso an hour's drive away, where a group of Ghanaians circumcised their babies, upheld strict Kosher diets, and studied from the Torah. There were Jews in Ghana after all; a group of Africans that believed they descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Zilkha leapt at the opportunity to travel to the Jewish village, and learn about how their faith took root, in what she originally thought was an unlikely spot.
A production still from "Doing Jewish: A Story From Ghana," where a young Jew prepares for a Bar Mitzvah.
“There’s something to be said about people who cling hold to their tradition and culture in the face of almost zero community around them, in total isolation,” said Zilkha. “Their story blew me away.”
Over the course of the following five years, Zilkha began to piece together that story by spending time with an African rabbi named Alex Armah, directing and producing a documentary that challenges mainstream perceptions of Jewish people and where they belong.
Zilkha’s film, Doing Jewish: A Story From Ghana, is one of 30 films screening at the 20th annual Maine Jewish Film Festival, a lineup that offers insight into how multi-faceted the Jewish experience can be. Like others in the schedule, Zilkha’s film forces viewers from all backgrounds to ask questions that she feels are incredibly pertinent today: What binds the Jewish experience across different cultures? Once you understand the nuances of a shared faith, how can you bond with people outside of it who hold vastly differing beliefs about the very nature and purpose of life itself?
Gabrielle Zilkha (left) said that she reaffirmed the commitement to her faith by connecting with African Jews in Ghana.
Judaism’s not winning over many new converts; with just around 12 million followers worldwide, it’s only the 12th most followed religion. But despite declining numbers and a myriad of different cultures and sects (orthodox, reformed, and conservative) within Judaism, many of its followers report feeling closely bound to the experiences of other Jews. Many like Zilkha describe fellow Jews, no matter where they might be living, as family.
Despite this sense of kinship, minority status makes it hard for some Jews to shake the feeling of being “the other.”
From the Outside
Chances are, if you’re non-white, non-Christian, or both, you’ve felt “othered” at some point in your life. According to Zilkha, some Ghanaian Jews feel like outsiders in their own country, even though there’s no visible marker for being Jewish.
Ghanian Jews eat the same food, practice the same etiquette, and follow the same politics as their Christian and Muslim counterparts, but they form close groups with fellow Jews, and because of their shared faith in the Torah, feel strength in small numbers. Zilkha's film follows these people as they strive to be accepted by Jews worldwide, try to understand their place within the shared faith, and struggle to unite and encourage their tiny congregation. Zilkha's affection for these people shines through the film; she becomes an integral part of the story herself as she too questions what it truly means to be Jewish in an inter-connected world.
Zilkha felt these contrasting emotions of isolation and belonging both in Ghana and in her hometown of Toronto, where sometimes she’s the first Jew her peers and colleagues meet.
“I feel a little taboo about being Jewish sometimes,” said Zilkha. “I don’t feel personally threatened, but my back is up.”
Zilkha's feels like the lessons she's learned about her identity could also be applied to followers of another Abrahamic religion who sometimes feel a similar sense of exclusion from a culturally amorphous, and generally progressive Western society: Islam. Despite 1.3 billion followers of Islam worldwide, Muslims in America and Canada are still the religious minority. According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S. That minority status, combined with the current political temperature come with some anxiety-inducing social realities.
“Considering the politics of the day, I want to see Jewish people standing up for our Muslim brothers and sisters, who are undergoing the same vile treatment that led to our persecution,” said Zilkha.
In the first couple months under President Trump, his xenophobia-fueled travel ban, and the surge of religiously motivated hate crimes we continue to witness in the wake of his election, many Jews and Muslims struggle to feel truly welcome in the West. And despite their widely different interpretations of the stories surrounding God, followers of both religions are starting to feel a sense of kinship and solidarity with each other.
A heightened sense of anxiety in the Trump era
Recently, hate crimes against Jews and Muslims have shot up in Canada, America, and Europe. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been the go-to source for compiling data on race and religious based crimes. So far, they’ve reported 1,092 incidents in U.S. just in the first month following the election. At least 100 swastikas have been graffitied across the country (sometimes accompanied by the words ‘go Trump’). Police in New York city told Politico that instances of anti-semitism have doubled there. Just last week on Capitol Hill in Washington, someone scribbled “the Holocaust is fake history” on a synagogue wall. Jews in America have seen their community centers face over 50 bomb threats, and their cemeteries desecrated by vandals.
Muslims have been the target of alt-right hate as well. The Huffington Post recently tracked at least 385 Islamophobic incidents, including threatening notes sent to imams, mosques set on fire, and disturbing interpretations of the Koran distributed in communities.
Last month, Portlanders joined thousands across the country to protest Trump's controversial travel ban. Their message was clear: immigrants are welcome here.
According to Zilkha, she’s seen a rise in hate crimes in Canada as well, and mentioned the shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six Muslims in January. One Canadian newspaper recently asked if the "Trump Effect," of bigoted attacks against minorities are spilling over into Canada after a consecutive string of hate crimes.
But interestingly enough, who has been standing up in solidarity with Muslims and Jews in the aftermath of these crimes? Often fellow Muslims and Jews.
According to The Washington Post, when vandals damaged Jewish graves in St. Louis last month, Muslim activists raised over $130,000 to repair them. Twice, in fact.
Jews showed their allyship to Muslims when several of them, including the President of Israel, prominent rabbis, and directors at Jewish centers, expressed outrage when a gunman opened fire on that mosque in Quebec City, while many Christians, including President Trump, kept their lips shut.
Could it be that Jews and Muslims feel a stronger kinship with each other than they do with their Christian neighbors? Considering both Muslims and Jews have both been historically labeled outsiders by Europeans, perhaps their alliance is bound by a stronger glue?
Finding common ground
Pious Ali, a native Ghanaian and Muslim who’s been living in Portland for the past nine years, can speak to this. He said that although the issue of identity is very complicated, generally there are more religious and cultural similarities between Judaism and Islam than Christianity and Islam.
Pious Ali speaks to The Phoenix on the similarities between Islam and Judaism at the Muskie School in Portland.
For starters, both are monotheistic religions whose followers descended from Abraham, but to be fair, Christianity is too. But according to Ali, unlike Christians, Jews and Muslims both ritually wash before prayer, and have special dietary restrictions — kosher and halal, respectively. Orthodox Jews don’t shake hands with members of the opposite sex, and their women wear head coverings, much like conservative Muslims.
But beyond religious tradition, which some modern Jews and Muslims don’t even observe, the two faiths share similar values and experiences. Both exhibit an emphatic importance on protecting, propagating, and emotionally investing in the family unit. And of course, as mentioned earlier by Zilkha, both Jews and Muslims share the same experience of being the religious minority in white-Christian dominated spaces.
As the first Muslim elected to Portland’s City Council, Ali knows what it’s like to, as he puts it, “live in a place where you feel like an oasis, or an island.” Ali says he will attend the Maine Jewish Film Festival, taking questions from the crowd about this experience and life in Ghana, right after the screening of Zilkha’s film.
Ali said that affirming your identity as a minority in Maine can be complicated because “one can have a shared faith with someone, but not a shared culture.” Muslims exist all over the world; but a Somali Muslim will likely have nothing in common culturally with a British Muslim. Similarly, a Jew from Israel might live a very different life from a Canadian one, but their shared faith and sense of family might bind them together.
In Maine, Ali balances his identity by sticking to his faith, and absorbing aspects of both American and Ghanaian culture.
“You have to respect the culture of where you are, but also stay true to your own culture of where you came from,” said Ali. “If someone has a unique identity, there’s still a way to connect with them. We’re all human beings.”
The Jewish community in Maine
There are a couple "islands" of Jewish faith and culture serving the 8,000 Jewish people that settled in Maine following the diaspora of the last century. One of them is the Maine Jewish Museum and Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) Synagogue in Portland. Inside is a beautiful place of worship surrounded by three floors of visual art (paintings, sculpture, photographs, dreidels) that boast both a Maine and Jewish connection.
The first floor of the Maine Jewish Musuem, where curators aim to solidify Jewish history in the public consciousness. All art displayed here has both a Maine and Jewish connection.
On the first floor, a colorful and imaginative showcase of art by a South African Jew named Mirlea Saks is displayed: tongue-in-cheek impressions of life in New England. On the third floor, powerful portraits of Holocaust survivors who settled in Maine (three are still alive) hang alongside text of their harrowing accounts spent suffering in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The curator of the museum and lifelong Jew, Nancy Davidson, takes pride in putting “Jewish history on the map,” and solely featuring art with a Jewish connection on her walls. She had much to say about the kinship that Jews feel amongst each other, and those of different faiths.
“I can go into a room, and communicate with somebody simply and know if they’re Jewish or not,” said Davidson. “It’s an intuitive thing. I always knew I was Jewish.”
When asked what binds the Jewish experience together across different cultures, she called on the local Jewish scholar Jerry Sherry who answered simply: the Torah.
“Whether you’re in Ethiopia, Israel, France, or America, there is one Torah, the scroll, the law,” said Sherry. “The commentaries will differ, but we are all children of God.”
At the Tree of Life Synagogue in Portland, all are welcome.
Despite how much being Jewish has encapsulated Davidson’s identity, her museum has always been welcoming to everyone. Christians frequent the museum. Muslims have come to support events. Meditation meetings are held at the synagogue by people of many faiths. Even transgender and AA meetings have been held there. Although religious disagreements can cause the deepest of social divisions, Davidson, like everyone interviewed in this piece, doesn’t judge someone on their beliefs, and instead focuses on the aspects of their common humanity.
“I find common ground with people from very different backgrounds,” said Davidson, who also has a degree in sociology. “If you had to describe the Jewish Museum, the first word I would say is inclusiveness.”
Who hasn’t heard the platitude that “our common humanity has more similarities than differences”? Who hasn’t had the golden rule of “treat others the way you wanted to be treated” hammered into their head by parents and teachers?
But despite timeless lessons of basic human decency towards each other, hate persists. Religious intolerance exists. Political campaigns fueled by elitism, nationalism, and traces of ethnic superiority, win elections.
Which brings us back to the Maine Jewish Film Festival, which organizers feel can serve as an antidote to the poisonous rhetoric swirling around certain political and social spheres nowadays.
How art and film can help
Zilkha said that her film is targeted to anyone who has never seen a Black African Jew. Without banging dogma over the heads of viewers, the film aims to engage people emotionally, subtly but persuasively. It’s also meant to ease viewers into empathy and humanize the “others of society”, and show three dimensions to both the Jewish and Ghanaian experience. For Zilkha, art can help start conversations that are typically doomed from the start, and tear down the walls that some minorities feel boxed into.
Jews exist all over the world and practice a myriad of cultures, but what binds them together is the Torah.
“I feel like dialogue these days in the Trump era has become so difficult,” said Zilkha. “What’s beautiful about film is that you can’t talk back to them. You have to listen.”
And even if you’re reading this and having trouble believing that you’ll find anything to relate to during a documentary about African Jews in Ghana, there are 29 other films screening at the Maine Jewish Film Festival, that will showcase just how complex, human, and diverse the Jewish experience can be. The executive director of the festival, Barbara Merson, said although most of the films show very personal stories, and specific themes, there’s an incredible sense of universality to be absorbed from the films. In other words, you don’t have to be Jewish to love these movies, and find an idea, character, or experience that resonates deeply with you.
“When it comes to great films we all speak the same language,” said Merson. “These films are important because they help people think about deep issues, without be stuck where they are. A good film can transport you.”
Barbara Merson, the executive director at the Maine Jewish Film Festival, said that the "Women's Balcony," (still pictured here) will be a standout film this year. The film centers around a group of Jewish women fighting for their rights against a fundamentalist in the wake of an accident at a synagogue.
Among the places viewers will be transported to include Tel Aviv, where Sudanese asylum seekers joined hands with Israelis to protest injustices in Demonstration in the White City. Another, titled Bogdan’s Journey takes place in the Polish city of Kielce, where a Catholic psychologist confronts the community about anti-semitism. Then it's back to Israel in Bar Bahar to explore the Jewish experience through the eyes of three young Palestinian girls. Freedom to Marry takes viewers to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the battle for marriage equality was fought. London sets the stage for the film Who’s Going to Love Me Now, where a Jew comes out as gay to his orthodox family. And The Last Laugh takes viewers across comedy clubs in America to ask Jewish comedians if it's ever okay to joke about the Holocaust.
Clearly the Jewish experience will be approached through a dizzying amount of angles, but it’s important that they do.
According to Merson, the films at the Maine Jewish Film Festival are examples of art that can break down that “us vs. them” mentality. They can help you see life through wildly different lenses, and force you to find similarities between experiences that would otherwise be disparate. They can change the way you think.
“Generally speaking, when people are so set on a certain mindset, it’s because they feel threatened in a very existential way,” said Merson. “Their happy existence is threatened. The ‘other’ becomes demonized as a threat, which probably has no basis in reality. But when you feel threatened you might not be thinking in the most rational way. We’re trying to get people out of that mindset.”
In the end, perhaps there's something secular folks can learn from the level of solidarity between followers of Judaism and Islam. The people interviewed in this piece would argue that you don't need to be religious to appreciate a strong family, peace-promoting traditions, and values steeped in respect and kindness towards everyone. If followers of all three of the Abrahamic religions stuck to the core truth from each of their holy books, and everyone else abided by the Golden Rule, would we finally see a just world?
“Can I explain the Torah on one foot? Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t have done to you. The rest is commentary,” said Merson. “That’s the essence of Judaism. We’re passionate about community and how we treat other people.”
“We have one thing in common: we are all human,” said Ali. “We don’t have to agree on everything.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a secular person, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a pagan, or a worshipper of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; you could stand to read and absorb into practice these three religious passages. It doesn’t matter who you are, obey each one; they’re pretty much interchangeable!
And if you happen to be a conservative Jew that condemns homosexuality, an Islamist who doesn’t believe in gender equality, or a Christian fundamentalist who promotes white supremacy, you really need to re-read your respective holy book, because something’s not quite right.
“Do not be scornful of anyone, or doubt that anything can happen, for there is no person without his hour, no thing without its place.” – Mishnah, the oral redaction of the Torah
“Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.” – The Talmud, an ancient collection of prayers.
"O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted." – Qur'an
“Whoever wishes to be delivered from the fire and to enter Paradise should treat the people as he wishes to be treated.” – Sahih Muslim, a collection of hadiths (traditional sayings)
“Serve God, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet), and what your right hands possess [the slave]: For God loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” – Qur'an
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” – The Bible
“They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.” – The Bible
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.” – The Bible