THE LONGING: THE FORGOTTEN JEWS OF SOUTH AMERICA
Connecting with ancestors, reclaiming faith. Against all odds.
A small group of South Americans, whose ancestors were European Jews forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition, long to affirm their faith. Isolated in Catholic countries and rejected by local Jewish communities, they battle to become Jews regardless of the consequences.
The Longing, set in Ecuador, tells the story of a small group of South Americans attempting to regain their birthright as Jews. The film focuses on a doctor and his wife from a small town in Ecuador and three women from Ibagué, Colombia, who explain their connection to Judaism and why their desire to convert is so strong.
Frustrated in their attempts to become Jews, the group locates a Brazilian-American rabbi on the internet who travels around the world helping “lost Jews” reclaim their identities. But, first, Rabbi Cukierkorn must get the local Jewish community’s support in facilitating the process. Tension runs high as the process and their struggle for acceptance begins.
"I began this project because of my interest in addressing issues of religious identification among possible descendants of Sephardim living in South America. I wanted to unearth how bits of information about their Jewish identify set into motion a quest to unravel threads of their long-buried history and struggle for religious inclusion. Their story is unique in the history of colonization of the Americas, and so I wanted to detail their journey as they pursued legitimization of their faith.
At the same time, I hoped to make a film that showed how there are still consequences of the Inquisition - even many centuries later. The Longing is not just about people discovering and pursuing their legacy. Nor is it only about their transformation. In order to be complete, the story had to show the relationship between Jewish communities and those trying to reclaim their faith.
The longing, faith, and will of the people in the film touches hearts of viewers regardless of their religion or spiritual beliefs."
- Gabriela Böhm
Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn was born in São Paulo, Brazil. He grew up hearing stories of Portuguese and Spanish Jews who continued to secretly practice Judaism even after being forced to choose between their lives and converting to Christianity. When he was ordained a rabbi in 1994, he wrote his dissertation on crypto-Judaism in northern Brazil. Cukierkorn has traveled to Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and parts of the United States helping descendants of the “conversos” return to the faith. He is rabbi at the New Reform Temple in Kansas City, Missouri — a congregation made up of 300 families.
Borys & Maritza Valverde are from Babahoyo, Ecuador, where he is a doctor. The Valverdes’ previous attempts at conversion have met with rejections from their local Jewish community. Fueled by Rabbi Cukierkorn’s willingness to convert them, they will be the only Jews in their hometown but plan to practice regardless.
Flor & Daniela Cortés are mother and daughter from a small town in Colombia. Flor’s ex-husband is Catholic. Neither has told him about their decision to convert. Their desire to be Jews is so strong that they travel 36 hours, each way, by bus to Guayaquil.
Laily Saltarén is a professor of microbiology from Ibagué, Colombia. She has extensively researched her past and practiced Jewish rituals, on her own, for four years. She hopes her conversion will result in acceptance by her local Jewish community in Colombia for herself and her young daughter.
Eduardo Alvarado is a previously converted Jew from Guayaquil, Ecuador, who has been frustrated in his attempt to join the local Jewish community. Although he has provided proof that he was converted by an American Orthodox rabbi, he is still denied access and support. His advice to the others is not to proceed with their conversions.
Ortiz Luna is a doctor who heads a mental health facility in Guayaquil. Aware of the lack of support from local Jews, he is reluctant to go through the conversion process and has kept his longing for his faith to himself.
- Historical Background -
Jews first came to the Iberian Peninsula in the sixth century. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish Jews (Sephardim) were the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, a concerted campaign to obliterate the Jewish religion and culture forever. Persecuted Sephardim were forced to convert to Catholicism, becoming “conversos,” New Christians. If they did not, they were forced to flee their homes and the lives they had built. Those who would not renounce their faith fled to Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire or other parts of Europe. Others took their chances in the New World. They hid their ancestry, even changing their names. The only way they could avoid imprisonment or death was if they masqueraded as converted Catholics.
In today’s South America, descendants of Sephardim still exist. They live in heavily Catholic countries, largely isolated in rural areas. Often, they are unaware of their ancestry. Families who practiced Judaism were alone; their hidden identities expressed through private Jewish ritual, such as lighting candles on Friday night and not eating pork. Known as “crypto-Jews,” many have decided to embrace their religious heritage at considerable personal cost. Their alienation, living in Catholic homelands, is exacerbated by local Conservative Jewish communities that claim to have a monopoly on faith and reject the legitimacy of their conversions. These individuals’ longing to be Jews and their ensuing struggle illuminates the Inquisition’s consequences centuries after the fact.
GABRIELA BÖHM, Producer/Director
GUILLERMO ZAPPINO, Director of Photography
JONATHAN BROCK, Co-editor
MIRIAM CUTLER, Composer
- Documentary feature (75 min)
- Spanish & English
- Available with English or Spanish subtitles
• Mitchell Block: Founder, Direct Cinema Limited Distribution Company
• Professor Mario Cohen: Author, Jewish Colonial America Director, Sephardic Culture Research & Dissemination Center, Buenos Aires
• Professor Anita Novinsky: Associate Professor, Department of History, University of São Paulo, Brazil, Author, The Inquisition: Prisoners of Brazil, 16th to 19th Century; Anti-Semitism in Portugal and Brazil
• Dr. Ellis Rivkin: Professor Emeritus of Jewish History, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio, Author, The Shaping of Jewish History