Home Culture Arts & Entertainment Doc looks at rural Ghana’s small Jewish community

Doc looks at rural Ghana’s small Jewish community

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Alex Armah reads from the Torah in the Sefwi Wiawso Community Synagogue.

Alex Armah has big dreams for his local Jewish community, but he worries about the future.

Only about 100 people from his district identify as Jewish, and many of them work and live in cities hours away. Not everyone can afford to return to his synagogue every weekend for Shabbat services.

Meanwhile, he worries about the young adults who have left their rural upbringing for university life. As Armah knows, Judaism can only be sustained with an engaged community of young people.

These religious concerns are familiar to rabbis in the western world, where cultural assimilation remains a crucial issue in the 21st century.

However, Armah’s small Jewish community is not remotely close to the bustling centres of Toronto, Montreal or New York. It is in Sefwi Wiawso, a small, humid district of Western Ghana surrounded by cities that are overwhelmingly Christian.

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This story of this remote yet thriving Jewish space in rural Ghana is the focus of a new documentary from Montreal native Gabrielle Zilkha. After close to a year on the festival circuit – including a stop at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival last May – Doing Jewish: A Story from Ghana continues to thrill audiences across North America, premiering in New York and Atlanta.

In keeping with popular demand and word-of-mouth, a condensed, 45-minute version of the film will air across Canada on Monday, Feb. 6, on Vision TV.

The documentary is told from Zilkha’s perspective and begins during a trip to Accra, Ghana, in 2010. Working at a human rights organization in the big city, the filmmaker realizes that she wants to find a place to pray and eat during the High Holidays.

Zilkha’s Jewish mother comes to the rescue, finding information online about the Sefwi Wiawso community. A day’s travel from Accra, the community has a synagogue, painted blue and white, and the followers keep strictly kosher while practising many Jewish rites and traditions.

In Sefwi Wiawso, the director discovers a devoutness that she says pales in comparison to the bustling Jewish life she knows from North America

As Zilkha told The CJN last May, “There are a variety of perspectives about what it means to be Jewish. I hope that the film pushes people to think critically about how they perceive Jewish identity.”

In the doc, the filmmaker speaks with rabbis and historians, including British historian Tudor Parfitt. Parfitt believes this Ghanaian community comes from a line of Sephardi Jews from Morocco or Portugal.

Many of these Jews lived in coastal settlements along the Horn of Africa while keeping their religious identity a secret.

However, many from the Sefwi Wiawso township identify as the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who left the Holy Land more than 2,500 years ago.

Doing Jewish is a fascinating documentary, although the brevity of the broadcast version places a lot of emphasis on talking-head interviews.

The film is at its most insightful when focusing on Armah, as he preaches for conversion practices and plans to teach the locals Hebrew to enable them to connect with other Jewish communities around the world.

Zilkha and her crew frame many of these moments with Armah in the distance, reverent or praying, as his voice-over explains an insistence on keeping the local Jewish values pure. Visually, these scenes depict how the passion and persistence of one person can spread quickly through a remote space.

As the director explains in the film, she thought that Judaism was a very insular religion. Yet, the efforts of Armah and the citizens of Sefwi Wiawso to remain spiritually devout managed to bring her closer to her religious roots.

Armah, even with his worries about the fruitfulness of Jewish life in Ghana, can rejoice with that news.

Beyond the documentary, interested viewers can visit the film’s website for an interactive journey through the Sefwi Wiawso region to learn more about this community. 

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