|Directed by:||Gregori Viens||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||1995||Running Time:||55 mins|
|More Info:||Wikipedia entry on Rhodes||Category:||America|
Despite surviving for over 400 years, one unique Sephardic community’s rich culture is facing potential demise in America. Island of Roses: The Jews of Rhodes in Los Angeles traces the Rhodelis’ history — sharing their distinct traditions, and investigating the lives of modern descendants to see how the past is being preserved.
“The summer nights in Rhodes were so clear,” an immigrant from Rhodes remembers, declaring, “the moon shone like the sun.”
A fascinatingly-unique community, the Sephardic Jews of Rhodes were once Spaniards who came to find an idyllic new home in the Greek island of Rhodes. The same night that Columbus set sail in 1492, the King and Queen of Spain forced all Jews out of their country. Sephardic refugees settled throughout the Mediterranean, and a large number of them chose to make their home on the beautiful Rhodes, where almond and lemon trees grew and the smell of roses was always in the air. It was a similar sentiment for nature’s beauty that led them to Los Angeles when a new kind of oppression surfaced.
The Mediterranean island of Rhodes was once heavily populated by Jews, but only a hand-full still live there today. Fleeing WWII and its aftermath, many Rhodes Jews immigrated to Los Angeles, where the warm weather and sunny beach reminded them of home. Island of Roses shares interviews with some of the last surviving immigrants, who offer nostalgic memories of their lost home, and explores how the once vibrant community of Rhodes Jews in Los Angeles now struggles to preserve its traditions as younger, assimilated generations have to make a conscious effort to maintain the practices of their ancestors.
For centuries the Jews of Rhodes lived peacefully, preserving the medieval form of the Ladino language they took with them from Spain and practicing their own distinct Sephardic traditions. But the quiet island was invaded by Germany in 1944, and Rhodes Jews were among the many sent off in cattle cars to their deaths.
Island of Roses reconstructs the past that the Nazis destroyed through the stories and memories of the few living Jews who still remember what life on Rhodes was once like. It sounds ideal when one woman speaks about her vibrant youth on the Mediterranean island, where she spent every day of the summer on the beach and went out at night all dressed up with her girlfriends to listen to music on the Mandraki Harbor.
But the generation that was blessed with such sweet memories is starting to die out. Island of Roses explores the identity struggle facing the descendants of these immigrants. Having grown up immersed in American culture but made familiar with Rhodes customs, the children of immigrants must decide to what degree they identify with each. While they recognize the value of centuries-old traditions that threaten to be lost in history, it’s easier to let these traditions die. It takes a deliberate effort to learn a second language that few people speak, observe old folk practices, and figure out the proportions to a grandmother’s old recipes that she never bothered to write down.
But, ultimately, the documentary recognizes how lucky the Los Angeles Jews of Rhodes are to know their roots and be bound together by their age-old practices. In one scene, a large family is gathered around a dinner table, ready to enjoy a delicious, huge traditional meal and each other’s company, when the family’s aged patriarch begins to sing in Ladino.
“My heart is sighing, what is to become of me in foreign lands,” he croons, the old song’s weighty lyrics moving to a slow melody, sharing an immigrant’s apprehension about moving away from his homeland. The sad song is delivered beautifully, and one can’t help but think that the best way of mourning what is lost is to be grateful for having once had it.