Atlanta holds various associations within people’s imagination. For some it is a stark reminder of the civil rights era, for others it signifies a simpler time in which everyday routines are embedded in country living. Atlanta’s history is rooted in timeless classics such as Gone with the Wind to prominent museums such as the National Centre for Civil and Human Rights.
Since the 1996 Centennial Olympics, Atlanta has experienced tremendous economic growth. Yet this pales, sadly, in comparison to its level of cultural awareness. Although various ethnicities reside within Atlanta, they rarely interact with each other. Atlanta’s Jewish community is no exception, and while it has made significant strides in building relationships with Black, Latino, and Asian communities it has failed to recognise Middle Eastern Jews.
Atlanta’s Jewish population is predominantly Ashkenazi with subsets of Sephardic communities composed of Russian, Persian and South African Jews. Transplants from New York, Boston and Philadelphia continue to make Atlanta one of the fastest-growing Jewish cities in America. Yet many of the city’s new inhabitants arrive with the same level of unfamiliarity about Middle Eastern Jews.
Atlanta’s Orthodox community, Toco Hills, possesses the city’s oldest Sephardic Synagogue, named Or Ve Shalom. After numerous Persian Jews fled the Iranian Revolution in 1979, a small portion emmigrated to Atlanta and adopted the synagogue as their new sanctuary. Over time, Atlanta’s Persian Jews built two new synagogues named Netzach Israel and Ner Hamizrach which became increasingly Orthodox due to strong Sephardic customs imported from Iran.
Unlike Jewish communities in the North of the US, however, Atlanta seldom acknowledges other cultures comprising the Jewish faith. Living in Atlanta as a Persian Jew has not always been easy and while I love my Persian culture, I am often forced to suppress it in order to blend in with the Ashkenazi community. In an attempt to do so, however, I am often met with unsettling questions such as, “Are you from here?” or, “Are you Muslim?” or, “I didn’t know there were Persian Jews living in Iran”. While I am no longer startled by these suggestions, I am offended. Is Atlanta’s Jewish population that unknowledgeable about other cultures?
Persian Jews are accepted into Georgia’s top universities, attain prominent careers and receive high salaries, yet are rarely recognised for their contributions. Like other Jewish minorities, Atlanta’s Persian Jews are often eclipsed by the city’s significant Ashkenazi population. This in turn leaves little room for galas, social functions or community events which promote diversity.
Atlanta’s Jewish Film Festival is slowly beginning to change people’s perceptions, however. Recognised as the world’s largest Jewish film festival in 2015 by attracting 38,000 moviegoers, the festival provides audience members with an experience unlike any other. What makes the festival so unique is its distinctive unifying role within the Jewish community. Each film generates multiple connections across Atlanta’s diverse communities and educates them about other cultures.
Baba Joon, directed by Yuval Delshad, is a prime example. The film was Israel’s Oscars entry in 2015 and received multiple awards. Despite strong political differences between Iran and Israel, the film successfully portrays the migration of Persian Jews to Israel and their contributions to society. I particularly enjoyed watching this film because it specifically targeted Persian and non-Persian Jews. Audience members who had little to no knowledge of the community were immersed in the customs and traditions of that culture. Actor Navid Negahban plays Itzhak who speaks Farsi throughout the film and strives to teach his son age-old Persian traditions together with the importance of their Jewish faith. Audience members are finally given a first-hand look into other ethnicities comprising the Jewish faith.
In addition to opening night festivities which include sampling food from Atlanta’s most popular restaurants, such as Rumi’s, filmgoers have access to directors, producers and actors who are invited to speak at the festival. Each Q&A encourages audience members to dig deeper and ask questions which will better acquaint them with different customs, peoples and histories. This is particularly true for the festival’s international films, such as Baba Joon, which continue to raise cultural awareness within Atlanta’s Jewish community and build bridges of understanding.
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