Three young Montreal filmmakers explore the declining Jewish population of the Dominican Republic.
“Stay Jew”, as pronounced by Benny Katz, son of World War II refugees in the Dominican Republic, sounds more like “stay you”. Both aspirations can be quite difficult when you are one of only two hundred Jews left in the predominantly Catholic Caribbean country.
Katz, a car shop owner in Sosua, a coastal town where a few hundred Austrian and German refugees settled in the late 1930’s, is one of the people featured in The Hidden Faith: Dominican Republic. It is the first in a series of films documenting life in diminishing Jewish communities around the world. The second floor of his shop, filled with “truck-like cars from the fifties”, doubles as a small, improvised synagogue, remembers David Adelman, one of the three directors behind the film.
“I had no experience with cameras or anything media-related”, recounts the Concordia student, who straight after graduating from Bialik, a private Jewish high school in Montreal, entered a CEGEP “not populated by Jews”, and became good friends with two Dominican students. Curious, he decided to research whether there were any Jews in the Dominican Republic. Thus began Adelman’s fascination with los judios dominicanos.
At the time, Adelman had never traveled out of Canada, and Dominican Republic was going to be the first trip anywhere without his parents. He got his longtime, and somewhat video-savvy friend Nick Timmins, on board and bought three plane tickets before knowing who the third party would be.
A week before the trip, he met video journalist Paul Shore, thanks to the Flyt Foundation, an organization that trains young people in media in order to raise awareness for different causes.
“It immediately resonated with me”, says Shore about the project. “I had no idea there was a Jewish Community in the Dominican Republic”.
The two teenagers and their future mentor met at a Starbucks in Montreal. Adelman fondly recounts how the very next day, he invited Shore to his parents’ house, where everybody immediately liked him, and the next thing he knew, they were on a plane together going to the Caribbean.
The film they produced is dedicated to Louis Hess, the first Holocaust refugee to arrive in the Dominican Republic in 1939.He was 100 years old when the crew met him in his home in Sosua.
Hess was wearing a pair of red checkered shorts and walking almost perfectly erect. He displayed for the camera a framed award that he understood to be the highest German honour one can receive, given to him by the Ambassador of Germany in the Dominican Republic –this, decades after his German citizenship had been revoked.
His visa was one of 100 000 issued by Dictator Alejandro Trujillo (1931-1961) to European Jews, as part of an immigration policy allegedly created to whiten the population. However, only 500 Jewish men and 200 Jewish women arrived to Sosua, where they worked mostly as dairy farmers.
Today, less than fifty families have resisted the trends of emigration, intermarriage and assimilation. Hidden Faith looks at the ways in which some of these families try to maintain their religion, including killing chickens in a makeshift kosher slaughterhouse and salting them in the rabbi’s son’s plastic tub. The film also reveals how their motivation to keep their faith, culture, lifestyle and history alive is, to a great extent, a matter of survival in the face of the threat of extinction of their Jewish identity.
Benny Katz, the man with the car shop and the heavy Dominican accent, encourages his fellow Jewish Dominicans to “stay Jew, and live like a Jew and use the kippah so that other people know that you are a Jew”, a proposition that some Western secular Jews would likely disagree with.
As for the impact of the trip, the three cases in point: Nick Timmins, who is not Jewish, and has an uncomfortable connection with his own Chinese heritage, can’t get the smell of the slaughterhouse out of his memory, nor the fact that he was wearing sandals on the day he visited it. David Adelman feels a year older, although he was only there for three weeks. He had a chance to explore Judaism as a culture, as a religion, and as a world civilization like he had never done before. Paul Shore, on his end, says he never had a particularly spiritual connection with Judaism, and nor does he now. But the trip did get him thinking about Jewish women: “I never really dated Jewish girls”, he explained, “not that I avoided them, but it wasn’t a priority. Now, it’s something I actually think about.”
Moved by the unique community they discovered in the Dominican Republic, The Hidden Faith project is hoping to explore other small Jewish communities like the ones in Curaçao and Suriname. For more information about the Hidden Faith Project, and to watch the next four of chapters of the documentary, go to www.thehiddenfaith.com.
Claudia Itzkovich is a Mexican journalist based in Montreal. In her spare time she teaches at a Hasidic high school for girls. If you see her in the neighbourhood wearing a mini skirt, just don’t tell the school principal!