Exactly one hundred years ago, on September 8th, 1916, my great-grandmother Estrella penned the last entry in her French notebook. At the time she was attending an elite preparatory school for Jewish students in Paris. Like hundreds of other Sephardic teenagers from around the Mediterranean, Estrella had been plucked from her tiny Jewish community on the island of Rhodes and taken to France for an intensive four-year training hosted by the Alliance Israélite Universelle. She thus spent the bulk of World War I far from her family, the sprawling Leon-Alhadeff clan who lived in La Juderia, Rhodes’ Jewish quarter.
And now, a different kind of Jewish film festival. “In the Beginning Was a School…,” a two-part documentary celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, has its American premiere March 13 at the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. Traditional in its visual presentation — talking heads intercut with archival footage, animation, video montage, and old black and white clips of maps that look like out-takes from Casablanca — this television production tells a story little known on these shores, even if legendary among the francophone Sephardic diaspora. Its director, Josy Eisenberg, is a prominent figure in France, known as host — for over 40 years! — of a television program on Jewish life, history, and culture, and as the co-screenwriter of the 1970s cult film comedy, “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.”
Researchers interested in poking through the library of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris or the Hungarian Jewish Archives in Budapest may no longer have to leave their laptops to do it.