By:Guest writer Denise Nelson
After centuries of persecution, exile and near extermination, Jewish communities throughout the world have taken root and flourished. The Borderland is no exception. Jews settled in El Paso as early as 1850, and significant influxes blossomed after each of the World Wars. The film “People of the Crossing: The Jews of El Paso” portrays a dynamic, richly textured account of customs, culture, and the history surrounding some of the area’s most notable Jewish families, Rabbis, business owners, entrepreneurs, educators, and others, giving audiences a panoramic view of the blending of cultures, the seamless melding of multiple heritages, and ways of life.
The film is the fifth installment in a documentary series by director Isaac Artenstein centering on the lives and experiences of Jews in the Borderland area. “People of the Crossing: The Jews of El Paso,” premieres at the Plaza Classic Film Festival on Sunday, July 23 at 1 p.m.
“This is an important film because it tells a story about the Jewish people of our Borderland that has not been told. The film explores how a group of Jewish people trekked from Europe to get away from war and other atrocities, and how so many of them ended up in the El Paso area. The film introduces us to many people and shows what important contributions they made to turn El Paso into the city that it is today,” said the film’s Associate Producer and El Paso-born Romaree F. Herbert.
Personal testimonials from these Borderland Jewish people expertly and vividly characterize life on the border. In addition, compelling aerial and land cinematography, film footage and historical photos enhance these testimonials. For Romaree, a significant aspect of the film is its rich historical content. “There are now third and fourth generation family members still thriving here in this area. Having a film that documents many of the stories really helps the younger generations piece things together and understand where their ancestors came from,” Herbert observed.
After viewing Artenstein’s film and a series of serendipitous events that led Herbert to track down the director, Artentstein chose her to be the film’s associate producer. “As it turned out, Isaac and I really hit it off, began sharing stories, and he explained to me that he had been trying to produce a film about the Jews of El Paso for more than 10 years, and that not much had come from it. The more I shared with him about my family and other families that I had grown up with, the more it became possible for us to see about bringing to life his El Paso film idea and seeing how we could begin production on it,” Romaree shared.
Thusly, she curated interviews with descendants of 19th Century Jewish pioneers, stalwart community entrepreneurs, artists, and historians, along with photographs and other information to help form the film’s backbone. Throughout the film, we learn from current Jewish community leaders and families how much persecution and economic strife they had to overcome and flee from in their homelands.
Romaree’s own family has played a pivotal role in shaping life in El Paso for Jews and non-Jews alike. Her maternal great grandparents came here from Poland and Lithuania, respectively, establishing Kahn’s Sweet Shop and Sunbeam Bakery, which provided Jewish delicacies and baked goods for the entire city. The establishment’s iconic sign still beams brightly near the Spaghetti Bowl.
“I hope that this film will enlighten people of all backgrounds about a time in history
when people who experienced real hardships in their lives, moved out West, came
together and united their efforts to build a solid foundation of a city that
continues to give back to its people,” Romaree said.
“People of the Crossing: The Jews of El Paso” at 1 p.m.
Plaza Classic Film Festival, Plaza Theatre Kendle Kidd Performance Hall $6
Q & A with Bob Moore of El Paso Matters and the film’s director to follow