ARIEL Sobel is not reticent about expressing her opinions. Nor is she shy about standing up for her Judaism.
At just 23, Brooklyn-born Ariel has arguably become the voice of a generation of American Jews who are fighting for what they believe in.
Earlier this week, she took on the controversial Women’s March in America, the leaders of which have been embroiled in an antisemitism scandal.
In her piece for The Forward, she wrote: “I should not be alive. I’m a first generation American. My grandparents were enslaved in Auschwitz.
“My biological father was born in a displaced person’s camp for Holocaust survivors in Germany, a refugee. I’m 23 years old.
“When my mother Gail was my age, she was in Colombia and discovered the man who was housing her was a Nazi, who put back on his old uniform once a month to salute Hitler with his wartime buddies.
“Her decision to flee for her life is the reason I have mine.”
Ariel made her feelings clear at the Women’s March, by holding a sign which read: “Jewish existence is resistance.”
Ariel, who read writing for screen and TV and film and TV production at the University of Southern California, told me from Berlin: “My family history has really encouraged me to be vocal about my Jewish identity and to speak up about antisemitism, but also to have pride and joy.
“I really do believe that Jewish existence is a form of resistance.
“Anyone who is an antisemite is an idiot, so it really doesn’t bother me whenever I get criticism from them.
“I don’t give much value to their opinions. They are not the people I’m looking to impress.”
Ariel has many strings to her bow. Not only is she an influential writer — with bylines in The Forward, Tablet, Out and Advocate magazines — she has become an even more influential film-maker.
“I was always really, really passionate about documentary and film-making growing up.
“I fundamentally care about the truth and justice and I find that documentaries are a really effective way of showing people both of those.”
Her latest documentary does just that.
The Lost Tribe shines a light on the Jews of Kaifeng in the Henan province of China.
The film was a 2016 Chinese Academy Award for Documentary Film nominee and was shown at the UK Jewish, San Diego Jewish and Berlin Chinese film festivals.
It details the story of Zhao, one of the last ethnically Chinese women living in Kaifeng.
With Judaism not officially recognised by the Chinese government, it is becoming increasingly difficult for her to follow her religion.
Ariel, who spent two months living there, said: “I’ve always been really fascinated with Chinese culture, especially as it is tied to Judaism.
“They are two of the oldest cultures in the world and have very similar focuses on education, food and family.
“Even our myths are intertwined.
“Take the story about a rabbi going to heaven and seeing both heaven and hell — in hell there is a banquet where the people eating have the utensils attached to their elbows, while in heaven its the same thing but they feed each other.
“That’s also a Chinese myth, but it uses chopsticks, and instead of a rabbi it was Confucius having the dream.
“Judaism transcends race, and it is a tie that binds — I am more connected to a Jew of a different race than someone who grew up in the same neighbourhood and looks more like me.”
Having won a grant to go to China, Ariel knew that this documentary was something she wanted to do.
Her first stop was to spend a month with Orthodox Jewish expats at Chabad in Beijing.
But what she found was a wall of silence when it came to the Jews of Kaifeng.
She explained: “It’s an extremely stigmatised subject in China, but eventually someone put me in touch with the woman who I would make the film about.
SPEAKING OUT: Ariel makes her point at the Women’s March|
“It was a very meaningful and exciting first meeting. She took us to this hut she has, with a dedication to the Jewish and Chinese people.
“She was practising her prayers, and I realised it was hamotzi, but she didn’t know the tune for it.
“I don’t speak any Chinese and she didn’t speak any English, but I taught her the tune and we ended up singing hamotzi in this small hut in rural China.
“It was a beautiful moment — we connected so heavily.”
She continued: “It was a unique situation where the Chinese government is so determined to censor individualism, particularly of Jewish people.
“Zhao was being lied to by so many people and has to fight to be Jewish in a way I haven’t ever had to in my entire life.”
In the film, Ariel interviews a Chabad rabbi and rebbetzen who doubt the legitimacy of Zhao’s claims of being ethnically Jewish. They go as far as to call her a hoax.
When Ariel met with the pair it was after she had spent time with Zhao.
“I was surprised”, she admitted. “They claim she is a hoax because if they extended their hand to Chinese Jews they would be shut down.
“Allowing Chinese Jews to be persecuted is the price they are willing to pay to give Western Jews the resources to visit China.”
In the years since the documentary was released, Ariel has spoken to Zhao, who is hoping to make aliya.
She is also looking for sponsorship of Jewish education for both herself and her sister.
Ariel said: “Israel won’t accept her as a Jew.
“She would have to convert, but she doesn’t have the resources for a formal conversion like Ethiopian Jews. That really is all she wants.”
The process of making the documentary only served to embolden Ariel’s Jewish resolve.
She admitted that during Q&A events where the film has been shown, she was asked whether she tested Zhao’s blood to see if she is Jewish or not.
But, Ariel being Ariel, threw a question back at the person.
She told me: “Has anyone ever tested their blood to ask if they are Jewish?
“Why is there such a burden of proof on this woman to prove she is Jewish, but there isn’t one on me or anyone I’ve met in America?
“It has awakened me to the advocacy we must do to help the international Jewish community, as well as the Jewish communities who are not white in Western countries.”
While in Berlin, she tweeted something that says all you need to know about Ariel.
She wrote: “I’m a Jew who took a job in Germany — the nation where my father was born on a refugee camp to Auschwitz survivors.
“At my age, my mother fled Nazis in Colombia. Yet I am here, both feet planted, standing tall.
“Every country has the power to grow out of hatred and into home.”
* Watch The Lost Tribe trailer: tinyurl.com/LostTribeJT
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