Kazablan: the Israeli Romeo and Juliet

Kazablan is an Israeli boureka film, directed by Menahem Golan and adapted from Yigal Mossinson’s play of the same name. Shot in Jerusalem and Jaffa, the film may be best be described as an Israeli Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story.  It tells the story of Kazablan, a Moroccan Jew (i.e. a sephardic Jew), and how he falls in love with Rachel, an ashkenazi Jew. During the film Kazablan is falsely accused of stealing the villagers’ money, but he ultimately is released from jail and reveals the real culprit: Yanoush, an Ashkenazi Jew who wants to marry Rachel.

This film explores various themes we discussed in class and read in Ella Shohat’s book, Israeli Cinema. Many of the Sephardim in the movie are portrayed as uncivilized and unintelligent. When one of the villagers goes into labor, several of the women in the village perform superstitious customs, such as giving the soon-to-be mother a rabbit’s eye for good luck. The Sephardim are further made out to be unproductive members of society; Kazablan’s “gang” is described as a bunch of hooligans who wake up the entire village in the morning through their shenanigans and then drink all day long. Even the more respectable Sephardim in the movie all have low-paying jobs while the Ashkenazi have much more “respectable” jobs, such as Yanoush, who is a wealthy shoemaker.

The divide between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is further explored through Kazablan’s relationship with Rachel. When Kazablan flirts with Rachel, Rachel’s father tells him “she’s not for you,” whereas Kazablan responds “why, because I’m a Moroccan?” Although the villagers sing “kulanu Yehodim (lit. We are all Jews), the ethnic divides throughout the film and the disapproval of Kazablan and Rachel’s relationship by the villagers illustrate that the villagers do believe that ethnic divides matter.

Although the film employs many stereotypes, it uses them as a way of criticizing the discrimination against Sephardic Jews in Israel. Kazablan, though originally portrayed as a gang leader, is revealed to be a war hero and eventually finds the culprit who stole the villagers’ money. Shohat describes in her book how in many of these boureka films, the Sephardic protagonist ultimately climbs the social latter by marrying an Ashkenazi woman. It is interesting to note that in this movie, Kazablan never marries Rachel, and instead, his “redemption” is through the revelation of his past as a war hero, as well as his involvement in capturing the true thief of the villagers’ money. However, the stereotypes illustrated in the film are still damaging as they reinforce the false belief that Sephardim are violent and unproductive members of the society. Nevertheless, the Ashekenazim are clearly the true villains of the movie: the thief is an Ashkenazi Jew and the men who come to (unsuccessfully) demolish the city (because it is worn down and doesn’t meet building codes) are also Ashkenazim.  As a Sephardic character points out, the government is willing to pay for repairs in Jerusalem but when it comes to repairing houses in the Sephardic Jewish community of Jaffa, no money is available.

If one is interested in exploring the representation of Ashkenazim and Sephardim in film, I highly recommend this film. It is an enjoyable movie with an interesting characters and plot. And (although not discussed in this post,) it is also an interesting example of how media, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, influences other media (i.e. intertextuality). The movie is available from Tisch with English subtitles.

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One Response to Kazablan: the Israeli Romeo and Juliet

  1. I find the juxtaposition of such open views like having a Sephardic hero who is not destroyed by the Ashkenazis and eventually wins favor through his own ability and such closed views that still portraying most of the community as very undeveloped an interesting choice. The mixed message of reinforcing while breaking down a stereotype could prevent a clear message from being received effectively. Thinking of this situation in the context of the spectrum that is discussed by Bardenstein, it is frustrating that such an extreme difference is displayed between two of the groups that are right next to each other on the spectrum. It would be really interesting to study how large each of the gaps are between the groups on the spectrum and see how they compare and why they might be different.

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