Author Archives: Ruth Tsoffar

Ruth Tsoffar

About Ruth Tsoffar

Ruth Tsoffar is an assistant professor of Hebrew Literature, Language, and Culture in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.

Mizrahi Film

In the following article, the author surveys four Israeli films by and/or about Mizrahim, Jews of North African or Middle Eastern ethnicity. In particular, she shows how these films illustrate themes of Mizrahi life and cultural expression in Israel: displacement and the search for home, and questions of how best to portray a minority culture in film. Reprinted with permission from Independent Jewish Film: A Resource Guide, published by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.


The short film entitled Home (written, directed, and played by David Ofek, 1994) best exemplifies the search for home. The film is set in a sealed room during the Gulf War, focusing on an Iraqi Jewish family whose main concern is the well-being of the older grandmother (Mama). The television screen, finite and framed as it is in this sealed room, not only shows actual Scud missile attacks on Baghdad but becomes a map of this forgotten, inaccessible city; and thus transforms into a vehicle for returning home.

jewish moviesIronically, the Gulf War, with all its terror and anxiety, brings back a remote homeland. The wandering finger pointing at the blurred TV screen points out an imagined place of residence. Adding to this irony, Saddam Hussein’s Scud attacks increased the visibility of Iraqi Jews in the Israeli map of ethnicity, precisely because the Scuds landed on Ramat-Gan, a town near Tel-Aviv, populated by many Iraqi Jews. Indirectly, this experience enables the grandson, a second generation Iraqi-Israeli, to locate himself in the wider Israeli experience.

Yet Home has transformed. At the end of the film the grandchild, an intellectual Sabra, fantasizes about his future, hoping to unite his conflicting identities: on the one hand his Iraqi roots and on the other hand his modern western upbringing. He will marry his girlfriend, live in the hippest neighborhood of Tel-Aviv, Sheinkin Street, and have children who will sing and dance, like him, to Arabic music.


Sh’chur (Magic, directed by Shmuel Hasfari and written by Hana Azoulay Hasfari, 1994) is another attempt to go home. Now a successful television talk show host in Tel-Aviv, Rachel (played by Hana Azoulay Hasfari and based on her own life) returns to the Moroccan village in the south of Israel which she left to complete her education and develop her career years before. Will this visit enable her to bridge what seems to her irreconcilable worlds?

Sephardic Film

Israeli society has long seen tensions between its citizens of Eastern European descent, known as Ashkenazim, and those of Middle Eastern and North African, known as Mizrahim or Sephardim. Many of the latter are poorer and less educated than the Ashkenazim, who control most of the country’s political and cultural institutions. Though in recent years Mizrahim have increased their political clout, inequities remain. Reprinted with permission fromIndependent Jewish Film: A Resource Guide, published by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A major question raised in the current debate over the politics of cultures concerning minorities and marginal communities is who represents whom and who acts for whom. In the context of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish cultures in Israel, the history of Israeli cinema demonstrated that until recently, in most cases, Middle Eastern and North African Jews were either invisible or under-represented. 

In the rare instances where they are represented we find, in addition to a negative portrayal of their culture, a hierarchy enacted in the casting process in which “Ashkenazic Jews have often played Sephardic roles, while Sephardim have often played Arab roles.” (Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema 1988: 7).

The Israeli “Master Narrative”

Since the early 1970s a new Mizrahi consciousness has emerged in Israel that attempts to create a social alternative to the official “master narrative.” (The general term “Mizrahi,” denoting Middle Eastern and North African Jews, is relatively new and refers to a particular population from Arabic-speaking countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, or Algeria. The term “Sephardic” denotes Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and relocated to places like North Africa, the Balkans, and Turkey where they spoke Ladino, a dialect of Spanish. It has been generalized to signify any Jew who is “non-Ashkenazic,” that is, not Northern, Central, or Eastern European. While a problematic term, I continue to use “Sephardic” to refer to the pre-1970s Israeli reality, when all non-Ashkenazic Jews were lumped together.)