By: Sarina Roffé
The fifth of seven documentary films produced by Joseph J. Sitt and the Sephardic Heritage Museum was released last month, on September 20th. A Community Grows in Brooklyn: 1945-1965 features an era when many of the baby boomers in the Syrian-Jewish community grew up. This was a time of considerable prosperity and growth, when the seeds which produced today’s flourishing community were being planted.
The film is part of a series of seven movies entitled, “The Syrian Jewish Community – Our Journey Through History.” Each film documents a different era of our community. Episode 1,
which covers Jewish history in Syria, has not yet been released. Episode 2 covered the immigration period in the early 20thCentury, and Episode 3 chronicled the Syrian Jewish community’s survival during the Great Depression. Episode 4 told of our community’s involvement during World War II.
Episode 5: A Community Grows in Brooklyn: 1945-1965includes interviews, over 300 photos, and film footage from Bensonhurst, Bay Parkway, Bradley Beach, Ocean Parkway and the building of Shaare Zion, along with audio clips woveninto the production. Among the special features are interviews with Rabbi Abraham Hecht, zt”l, and Rabbi Zvulun Lieberman, zt”l, as well as information about the arrival of Hacham Baruch Ben Haim, zt”l, and his influence on the youth and Torah education. In one scene, Rabbi Hecht speaks of how some community members found him in the Catskills and mentored him on Sephardic pronunciation, such as saying “Shabbat” instead
“In this movie, you see the stepping stones to where we are today as a community,” said Senior Producer Marlene Mamiye. “Before the Sephardic Community Center, you see the community center on Ave P,
and the feeling that there was a need for places for youth to gather.”
The film tells the story of “Charlie’s Shul,” which markedthe beginning of the youth minyans we see today. Charlie Serouya established a youth minyan in early 1950s called Young Magen David, and he empowered the boys and girls to be in charge, to chair committees, and to raise money. “They learned religion because of him,” Ms. Mamiye reflects.
Filmmaker Lisa Ades did a phenomenal job filming the interviews for the documentary, and Murray Hidary provides the narration. Joseph Sitt, who created the Sephardic Heritage Museum, dedicated the film in memory of his father, Jack J. Sitt.
The film covers an era of change in the community – not only the move from Bensonhurst to Ocean Parkway, but also the move away from public school education to yeshiva education, a process which was considered controversial at the time.Many in the community were very happy with public school education and publicly opposed yeshiva education on the basis that the community was assimilating and that the yeshivas would not provide the same level of education. The film tells of the building of Magen David Center, and how, through the efforts of Isaac Shalom, the building was taken over to become Magen David Yeshiva.
An interview with Ralph Salem highlights Salem Catering (owned by this author’s grandparents). Selim and Esther Salem’s backyard kitchen produced foods used for catering parties and lifecycle events, which were held in the home because there were no social halls. (Salem Catering was the genesis of Sarina’s Sephardic Cuisine and Backyard Kitchen: Mediterranean Salads.) Ralph, son of Esther and Selim, speaks of how Rabbi Hecht and Rabbi Kassin used to come and check the kitchen.
Episode 5 documents a period in the community when our values were formulated. Our soldiers had returned from World War II, there was prosperity, jobs were plentiful, and community businessmen expanded into wholesale. Community businessmen helped others transition from peddling to business. People began to travel abroad, opening factories in China and the Philippines. Business ethics were incorporated into daily life. It was during this period when people began taking on nicknames like “Chick” Esses and “Storefront” Ashkenazi.
Families were able to afford summer homes and began to go to Bradley Beach. To keep the children off the streets, the first summer campopened, combining religious learning with outdoor activity.
The film also chronicles the move out of the small homes in Bensonhurst to larger homes in the Ocean Parkway area, and, ultimately, the challenges of building of Shaare Zion Congregation.
According to Rabbi Raymond J. Beyda, “The 50s was like a bridge from the older generation to the new generation; the focus changed from being Syrian immigrants to being full-fledged Americans. The world was changing and our community was changing.”
The forthcoming Episode 6 will bring us back to Syria, the Israeli War of Independence and the experiences of Syrian Jews from the end of the French Mandate until the 1950s. Episode 7 will document the decline of the Jewish community in Syria, the saving of the Keter (Aleppo Codex), the Eli Cohen tragedy, and the last exodus of Jews from Syria in 1992.