New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival 2016

SHATTERED RHYMES (SAMI CHETRIT, 2014)

It’s difficult to convey the elegaic lyricism of this graceful documentary about poet Erez Bitton, winner of the 2015 Israel Prize for Poetry and Hebrew Literature and the first Mizrahi to receive the award. Director Sami Chetrit skillfully combines interviews, footage of Bitton reciting his own poetry, and fine archival material from Israel’s recent past, but the excellence of the film goes beyond its material: between Bitton’s literary achivements, Chetrit’s keen sense of Israeli history, and stunning visuals from cinematographer/editor Jonathan Chetrit, there’s something ineffable that makes Shattered Rhymes one of cinema’s most enriching hours.

When Erez Bitton was six years old, his Moroccan parents moved the family from Algeria to Israel. The year was 1948, and the hegemony established by white European Jewry was not kind to Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, who not only represented the “other” but also embodied Arab culture at the very moment Arabs were invading the newborn state. Racism against Mizrahi Jews manifested itself in substandard housing and education, in addition to a more seditious phenomenon: prohibition against using their given names (Bitton was forced to change his from Ya’ish to Erez) and speaking and writing their native languages.

Nevertheless, Bitton had a relatively pleasant childhood, often playing with friends in the fields that surrounded their compound. Once, when he was ten, he found a strange object lying in the grass and wanted to investigate it further. He hit it with a hammer, and it exploded. The object was a bomb, and Bitton nearly lost his life in the accident that left him blind.

The cliché is that loss of vision allows one to see inward. With Bitton, the opposite happened: the entire universe became his to understand. “When I followed myself, I reached you,” he recites in the film, needing only a few words to identify the eternal in the here and now. “The present is a prelude to something glorious,” Bitton recites later, reminding us, who are sighted, of what we often fail to see.

But Bitton wasn’t just a stunning poet; he was a stunning Mizrahi poet, who dared to disregard Ashkenazi prohibitions against using his native language and describing his Moroccan background. Of the night he was wounded, he writes, in a poem entitled “My Father Gave the Neighbors,” “And the women continue / to come and go / to revive me / with nard and turmeric / until morning arrives / sealing the time / of darkness,” employing terms that were unfamiliar to the Ashkenazi crowd.

The impact of Bitton’s refusal to deny his culture cannot be underestimated; his poetry constituted a social revolution, not a cultural one, and he effected in Israel what Langston Hughes had accomplished in America thirty years earlier: legitimizing that which had been unacceptable. “The use of Moroccan words in modern Hebrew poetry was incredibly exciting,” explains Chetrit, himself a scholar and educator on Hebrew language and literature, as well as Israeli media, at the Center for Jewish Sudies at Queens College in New York City. That excitement animates Shattered Rhymes throughout, along with an infectious, and humbling, gratitude.

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