Promotional poster for Sallah Shabbati, Starring Topol

On February 23rd, 1965, “Sallah Shabbati”, the Israeli film about the life of Arabic-speaking Jewish migrants to Israel becomes Israel’s first Oscar-nominated film when it was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Category for the 37th Academy Awards.  

The film, which is written and directed by Ephraim Kishon, stars Chaim Topol, who also played in the Fiddler on the Roof play, and highlights the struggle encountered by Jews immigrating from Arab lands to Israel through humorous dialogue.  The film was wildly successful, to the point that even at the Golden Globes, the film received a special secondary prize as an Outstanding Foreign Film, and Chaim Topol was recognized as a “star of tomorrow.”

Sallah Shabbati was one of the very first blockbuster films in Israel, 20 years before the movie-renting chain was even a thing. with over one million tickets sold, during a time in which many Israelis experienced financial struggles, it was released in the United States in March of 1965. To this day, the film is considered a classic in Israeli Cinema and is often watched by elementary school students as a humorous way of presenting life in Israel during the 50s and 60s.  

The film is part of a genre of films in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s that is now called “Bourekas” movies, named after the popular pastry eaten by many Sephardic Jews.  Bourekas films were comedies and melodramas, usually with a Mizrahi-Sephardi protagonist, that were based on classical ethnic stereotypes. 

Bourekas films would most often feature a cultural or communicational conflict between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Israel, which was a melting pot of many different cultures at the time, and remains so to some extent.  Sallah Shabbati in particular highlighted both this clash of cultures as well as offering a critical viewpoint of the pioneering ideology of the Kibbutz and physical labor in developing the new Jewish state.

The Oscar nomination was a significant moment for the newly-founded Zionist state and would act as a predecessor to the many films and Israeli series that would become global hits.  Today, more than ten Israeli films have been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and an additional three have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature, including two in 2013 alone. Today, the Zionist artistic and cultural scene has reached new heights; Israeli shows like Fauda have become internationally watched shows, with viewers from all parts of the world, including ones hostile to Israel.

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