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A Review of Dimona Twist

Nestled away in a quiet neighborhood in Chelsea, another red-brick building on a street of red-brick buildings, the Center for Jewish History is discreet. A single banner advertises the “New York American Sephardic Film Festival.” I enter, go through the metal detector, take a minute to process the necessity of that metal detector, and brush the thought away.

Upon arriving at the theater, I realize quickly that I am the youngest person in attendance by decades. Two silver-haired women to my left discuss salad recipes, a son’s honeymoon, grandchildren. Three rows ahead of me, a woman pulls out her reading glasses to look at her iPhone, the font so large that I can make out the text from my seat. I eavesdrop shamelessly. A chatty older man is telling his neighbor his family history—he’s a Moroccan Jew who moved from Shanghai to Russia to Brooklyn. There’s a frenzied moment of recognition when two men in the audience realize they both speak Ladino and begin to converse animatedly with one another. I sit, watching them, and feel for a moment—to my own surprise—that I might cry. My grandfather, whose family left Spain for Turkey, ended up in Cuba, and finally settled in the Bronx, was the only person I had ever heard speak Ladino. Even as he aged and his memory slipped away, he still retained his native Spanish and the Ladino songs of his childhood. Hearing his mother tongue makes it feel as though he is in the room with me. Even after the lights dim and the film begins, this unanticipated sense of community and kinship with the people around me remains.

This night of the film festival is titled “An Evening of Empowering Sephardi Women,” and I’m here to see Dimona Twist, an Israeli film created by documentarian Michal Aviad. Dimona Twist recounts the history of North African and Eastern European immigrants to Dimona, a development town in Southern Israel, told through individual stories of seven women. After the Holocaust, and with a rising sense of danger for ethnic minorities in the Middle East and North Africa, the newly formed state of Israel presented a haven to Diaspora Jews looking for security and a sense of belonging. However, the reality in Israel was far from the utopian existence the immigrants had imagined. Upon arriving by boat, they were herded like cattle onto buses and driven to Dimona without any sense of what awaited them. Some, including an interviewee’s baby brother, did not survive the arduous trip. Having left behind prosperous, modern lives in their respective homelands, these newcomers found themselves stranded in miles upon miles of sand—cold and hungry, without access to electricity, running water, or health care. One woman recalled seeing Dimona for the first time as a small child and thinking she had somehow arrived on the set of one of the cowboy movies she had watched at home.

Life in Dimona proved especially difficult for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, who experienced pervasive racism in Israel. Even within the shared experiences of abject poverty in Dimona, Sephardic Jews were treated like second-class citizens by both their fellow immigrants and Israeli officials. Nearly all of the graduates of Dimona’s academic high school were Ashkenazim, while the students at the vocational school were predominantly Sephardim—a disparity that still exists in Israel today, albeit to a lesser extent.

Subject to discrimination and poverty, and struggling to reconcile memories of their respective homelands with an Israel that was equal parts hostile and promising, the women interviewed in Dimona Twist defied the odds and made their own world in the barren Negev desert. One interviewee was the only female scientist who worked in the phosphate factory in Dimona. Another started the sewing strike demanding fair wages for women workers after the Six-Day War. These women disobeyed oppressive fathers, fought to divorce abusive husbands, raised children alone, and created a world for themselves in Israel. And the recounting of their experience and struggles is infused with a resilient joy, with the women often laughing during the interviews, even while recounting their most painful memories.

From its memorialization of the struggle of immigrants and refugees, representation of Jews of color, complicated portrayal of the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and profoundly feminist subjects, these stories of Dimona feel perfectly relevant in 2017. Dimona Twist raises issues my peers and I discuss daily—cultural pluralism, women in the workforce, and diasporic identity. And that is, in part, why it felt so tragic that, besides myself, there was nobody in that theater under the age of 40.

Millennial Jews, who are perhaps more secular, less rooted in tradition, and more left-leaning when it comes to hot-button issues like Israel-Palestine politics or intermarriage, are often discussed like we’re a lost generation of Jews. We are told that we don’t know our roots—that we don’t know our history. Perhaps it’s because the stories we are told are so profoundly bleak and despairing; it is difficult to access a sense of ownership over our identities. Jewish collective memory is punctuated by tragedy, and the rich, complex, awe-inspiring stories in the interim too often fall by the wayside. Watching the teenagers in Dimona, with their short skirts and bouffants, dancing to the Twist, Sephardim dancing with Ashkenazim against their parents’ wishes, felt like a story I knew, one that I could hold.

Looking around at the shocked faces of the elderly Jews who lived through the time of the Holocaust and its aftermath during the screening, it became clear to me that this lack of knowledge of Jewish history is not unique to young Jews. Part of maintaining one’s identity in the Diaspora, whichever Diaspora it may be, is the constant and deliberate uncovering of our history. Especially as a Sephardic Jew, I feel this work requires finding alternative resources and exploring identity on one’s own. Although the effort required to trace our histories is difficult, the lengths to which we have to go can actually yield the most joyful results. Even as I fought the commuter crowd to get back uptown after the film, I was so profoundly uplifted that I didn’t mind the packed train or delays. I thought about my grandfather, the Dimona teenagers who snuck out of the house to go dancing, the dignified struggle to make a home, and my place within this ancient, global story. I am already excited to go back to the festival next year—and this time, I am bringing my friends with me.

Dimona Twist is currently being screened at Jewish film festivals around the country.

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Dimona Twist Movie Poster
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Poster for Dimona Twist, a 2016 documentary from Michal Aviad.

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How to cite this page

Desai, Mitali. "A Review of Dimona Twist ." 13 September 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 20, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/review-of-dimona-twist>.

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