Category Archives: Israel

“Queer Jewish Lives Between Central Europe and Mandatory Palestine: Biographies and Geographies, 1870–1960”— Coming in January

Krass, Andreas, Moshe Sluhovsky and Yuval Yonay, editors. “Queer Jewish Lives Between Central Europe and Mandatory Palestine: Biographies and Geographies, 1870–1960 (Historical Gender Studies)”, Transcript Publishing, 2021.

One to Look For

Amos Lassen

I want to mention here a very important book that is coming our way in January.

“When queer Jewish people migrated from Central Europe to the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they contributed to the creation of a new queer culture and communality in Palestine. This volume offers the first collection of studies on queer Jewish lives between Central Europe and Mandatory Palestine (1870–1960). While the first section of the book presents queer geographies including Germany, Austria and Palestine, the second section introduces queer biographies between Europe and Palestine including the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), the writer Hugo Marcus (1880–1966), and the dance critic Giora Manor (1926–2005).”

“The Memory Monster” by Yishai Sarid— Back to Poland

Sarid, Yishai. “The Memory Monster”,  translated by Yardenne Greenspan, Restless Books, 2020.

Back to Poland

Amos Lassen

Yishai Sarid invites us to journey back to Poland with a doctor of Holocaust history and a travel guide. The doctor becomes overpowered with “the monster of memory” as he reflects on the past. He questions the resistance to fate and in doing so, he adopts his own Holocaust character and is reminded of Israeli society as a culture based on the admiration of power, militarism and what he calls “herding”. Yishai Sarid writes about with the darkness in the heart of Israeli society making this a parable of how we deal with human horror and the memory of the Holocaust.

Our unnamed narrator suffers with his own undoing. As a young historian, he became a leading expert on Nazi methods of extermination at concentration camps in Poland during World War II and he now guides tours through the sites for students and visiting dignitaries. He hungrily devours every detail of life and death in the camps and takes pride in being able to recreate for his audience the excruciating last moments of the victims’ lives.

His job is both a mission and an obsession. He spends so much time immersed in death that he loses his connections with the living. He resents the students who are preoccupied with their iPhones who are not sufficiently outraged at the genocide of the Nazis. He even begins to discover  that in the students and he. himself, have a bit of admiration for the murderers and their efficiency, audacity, and determination. He feels that the only way to deal with force is by force, itself, and that we must all be prepared to kill.  We soon confront very hard questions on how to deal with brutality, how sides are chosen in a conflict, and how the memory of horror is dealt with it without our being consumed by it.

On his last assignment, he is to take a German director who wantsto make a film about “Auschwitz” to the Polish camp. He explains how the trips to the former camps have weighed heavily on him and how he sees his students, how he dealt with the Poles, how the separations from his wife and child hurt his family. He soon realizes that these trips have forced him into  a bitterness that did not stop at his own people, his own people and his own religious community. He describes how the Holocaust has increasingly become a kind of label from which everyone can derive the position that is appropriate for himself. He also admits that he himself has not only become a wearer of this label, since his travels have given him a good income but that he has become dependent on his employer – the Yad Vashem memorial. Here he found the recognition he wanted, he who never wanted to become a historian of the Shoah. He became a good narrator of the horror that he did not have to experience but which is also a narrative for him, that is made up of pages of knowledge.

Our narrator reports on his experiences in first-person as he investigates historical questions. He knew that the Allies knew about the concentration camps, but did not bomb any rail tracks to prevent the transports and probably because the Allies did not particularly like Jews. The hatred of young Israelis for Poles, but not for Germans, was a new idea for me. Again and again, he advises the young people that the Holocaust was initiated by Germans, not Poles. However, the camps were built in Poland. He is an expert who is confronted with horror over and over again.

Sarid brings us all the horror of the subject of Holocaust remembrance and its impact on a society and a people and this is frightening. It demonstrates how focusing on the contents of the atrocities and the technical details of the extermination, in fact, poisons our souls, while we are unwilling to face the real lessons that will require us to behave completely differently in the world and within us. His mind is shaken as he is required to refrain from talking about the really painful and important topics and messages, and so he focuses his guidance on matters that are easier to digest. Discovering that the details of the atrocities are much easier for his listeners than the dilemmas and moral questions that arise as a result of Holocaust research, he is forced to choose. The need to moderate his words eats at him causing him to understand that it is much harder for us to hate the Germans than to take out the frustrations of not being able to resist, fight back or deal with our Holocaust-era cooperation.  Sarid uses sophisticated literary tricks to share his sharp and important insights into what is happening to us here and now.

 

 

What we have here is a consideration of memory and its risks, and a critique of Israel’s use of the Holocaust to shape national identity.

Many writers have asked the question of where, or if, humanity can be found within the profoundly inhumane, and we see here that preoccupation and obsession with the inhumane can take a toll on one’s own humanity. In a sense, he offers an indictment of memorializing the Holocaust and a consideration of its layered politics. He does not apologize for Jewish rage and condemns the forms it sometimes takes. He explores the banality of evil and the nature of revenge as this is certainly a controversial look at the past.

 

This is an imaginative novel that is so based on the reality of our lives and breaks up the collective soul.

“A TRAMWAY IN JERUSALEM”— The Rhythm of the City

“A TRAMWAY IN JERUSALEM”

The Rhythm of the City

Amos Lassen

Israel is a complex nation of multiculturalism and we really see this in Amos Gitai’s new film “A Tramway in Jerusalem”. The characters seem to be trapped on a journey to nowhere, going round and round on seems to be an endless trip but they’re all in the same boat: gentiles, Hasidic Jews, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Jews. Gitai shows us  the chaotic nature of these Semitic as they argue, laught, console, sing and debate.

The film begins with a woman singing an aria while a man plays the oud. In the backseat we see a man and his son who are visiting Jerusalem for the first time. At the same time, a group of Hassidic men chant a religious chorus. Made up a series of sketches, the film gives us a taste of Israel. The tram follows a path along the city and starting from the different points of view of the various protagonists that follow one another.

Gitai introduces us to strangers  who we get to know during their ride. The tourist (Mathieu Amalric) loves the sun and light and he is taking his son to visit the places where Flaubert had been, revealing however how in a more serious confrontation on the country he is unable to bring his interest in focusing on the reality of things there is the couple who must decide whether to divorce, a priest (Pippo Delbono) who speaks of God, a girl is going to her lover for a spicy encounter; a talkative woman provokes an Orthodox Jew, inviting him to look out the windows at the beautiful city instead of continuing to study the Talmud; a departing soldier greets his girlfriend trying to hold back the tears and there a girl who feels threatened by an Arab just because she is Arab.

There is another very important nonhuman character— the music. The different musicians who alternate along the way (the Palestinian rapper, the banjo player, the singer) are indeed characters who demonstrate a further way of living public transport. The path of the tram takes the different musical genres from one area of ​​Jerusalem to another, allowing them to come into contact with an audience that may not be used to them (including us). Music is a passenger on the tram as well as a  vehicle for a message of integration. Gitai knows how to transform this abstract element first into a concrete one and then into a metaphorical one— the various musical styles make up a sound backdrop of Israeli multiculturalism.

Traditional Palestinian music alternates with the songs of Orthodox Jews and pop sounds, while in the background the announcement of the various stops becomes a spatial counterpart to the time scan performed by the timetables.

In Jerusalem, the tram connects different neighborhoods, from east to west, and we see their variety and differences. The film collects a mosaic of human beings from this city which is also the spiritual center of the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Gitai reflects on national identity and does so by inventing a limitation of a spatial nature (the film is shot entirely inside the tram that crosses Jerusalem 24 hours a day), and a temporal nature (every single scene is still in sequence shot, and in each sequence there are different characters, with only a few returning more than once).

“A Tramway in Jerusalem” shows us the progressive unveiling of the discourse: we move from apparently harmless dialogues around issues of banal everyday life, to then gradually understand that behind each of those dialogues, there is an obstacle, namely the arrogant belief on the part of the Israelis that they are second-class citizens, while everyone else is forced to adapt, even the tourists. The same anxiety about the control of one’s own territory is manifested within the tram, where there is always a guardian in uniform. The policeman – has the task of verifying order within a public vehicle, he is a militarized reality. We go from the Israeli assistant coach who does not let the new coach who came from Europe speak to the mother who complains of her son’s work and sentimental inanity. The dialogue between the French tourist and two citizens of Jerusalem with his compliments of Israel and their answers that include talk about the military  are meant to show that the forces of land support each other in perfect coordination.

There is a fragmentation of voices and languages ​​(including French, Arabic and Italian) that show that the ancient Jewish popular culture has been replaced  by the obsession

About Film Movement

 Founded in 2002, Film Movement is a North American distributor of award-winning independent and foreign films based in New York City. It has released more than 250 feature films and shorts culled from prestigious film festivals worldwide including the Oscar-nominated films Theeb (2016) and Corpus Christi (2020). Film Movement’s theatrical releases include American independent films, documentaries, and foreign art house titles. Its catalog includes titles by directors such as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Maren Ade, Jessica Hausner, Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrzej Wajda, Diane Kurys, Ciro Guerra and Melanie Laurent. In 2015, Film Movement launched its reissue label Film Movement Classics, featuring new restorations released theatrically as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, including films by such noted directors as Eric Rohmer, Peter Greenaway, Bille August, Marleen Gorris, Takeshi Kitano, Arturo Ripstein, King Hu, Sergio Corbucci, Ettore Scola and Luchino Visconti. For more information, please visit www.filmmovement.com. Visit www.filmmovementplus.com for more information about Film Movement Plus, the new subscription streaming service from Film Movement.

Sorry—at this tie there is not a trailer with English subtitles.

“HAPPY TIMES”— A Horror/Comedy

“HAPPY TIMES”

A Horror/Comedy

Amos Lassen

Director Michael Mayer’s “Happy Times” is a horror/comedy about a Shabbat dinner gone terribly wrong. Yossi, an American/Israeli businessman and his wife invite friends and family to their Hollywood Hills home for a dinner party that soon becomes filled with inflated egos, alcohol and jealousy. What was supposed to be a quiet evening soon becomes “murderous mayhem”.

Characters include a businessman who made it big and his wife, a real estate man who doesn’t succeed and his wife, a former lawyer who became a housewife and her husband a young kid, and a good actor who tries His luck in Hollywood and his African girlfriend. Most of the actors in the intimate production are Israelis living in Los Angeles: Ido Moore, Shani Atias, Guy Adler, Iris Behar, and Daniel Lavid, joined by Liraz Hammi who works in London, Alon Padot who lives in Austin, Texas and Michael Aloni is the only one left in Israel. This group, speaks Hebrew most of the time and works well together  and it is their chemistry that drives the plot from twist to twist through “witty words and jagged barbs.

The film can be seen as controversial. The acts of violence and atrocities will probably cause people to stay way, yet they also invite cynical self-criticism that is not too serious. The California sun replaces the shores of the Mediterranean, where secular capitalism is run by religious rituals. For example,  we see a shofar and hamsa displayed on the wall as household decorations yet they become improvised and deadly weapons. An evening that began with the traditional blessing of wine, kiddush, ends with kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

Michael Mayer, who was born in Haifa in 1973 and moved to Los Angeles, where he still lives and works blends comedy and tension with great success. His Yossi looks down on his guests who are an incompatible group that is connected with a relationship of interest rather than friendship. They try to hide their feelings of anger, jealousy and enmity towards the host and each other.

Trying to distance himself from his Jewish roots, Michael’s attacks on the concepts of religiosity and family fuel the fire that is already ready burn. When the group’s anger against Michael erupts, fights fueled by egos inflated with the support of alcohol, cultural separation between Jews and non-Jews, envy, greed, arrogance and lust become unstoppable. As events that started out like a classic bourgeois feast goes out of whack. Religion and family turn the twists and the tension begins to rise at the same rate as black humor through the criminal and powerful characters.

You can only imagine what extremes a meal can go to when a number of people from different origins sit at the table to celebrate the Sabbath. Even with all of the violence, this is a very funny movie with tension coming out of black and dark humor. Mayer brings a slapstick and sinister critique of all human, sexual, emotional, and economic relationships. None of the characters of the story, including the rabbi, are clean enough to ignore Mayer’s aggressive accusation. This point of view is also a self-criticism towards the contrast-filled Israeli microcosm set under in California instead of Israel.

The plot includes exciting secret clues about Jewish traditions, Israeli post-trauma, and Israeli communities overseas. Traditional values are made fun of and ​turned inside out. If a non-Jewish-Israeli director had made this very offensive film, it would probably be considered to be anti-Semitic.

“Happy Times” is an example of a chamber cinema that has been masterfully handled in cinema, and it is a tremendously paced work that is watched breathlessly despite the fact that it takes place in only one place. It is a very well written, well played, very successful black comedy that brings together a sarcastic self-criticism with a comic thriller. So can you tell what I really thought about the film? I hope not because I want you to be free to come to your own decision.

“CREATING A CHARACTER: A The Moni Yakim Legacy”— A Teacher

“CREATING A CHARACTER: A The Moni Yakim Legacy”

A Teacher

Amos Lassen

Moni Yakim was born in Jerusalem and began his career as performer himself, taking part in classics like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” but it is not his background is only a small part of the film. His heroes are Étienne Decroux, who created mime, and Stella Adler, who believed that actors must master techniques beyond their own knowledge and experience in order to portray a variety of characters. Moni became a teacher who gives over much of his teaching time to having his gifted young actors imitate mime and spends most of the class time in getting them to twist their bodies every which way. These gymnastics are the focus of the movie. We see his students yelling gibberish, or crawling on the floor learning the necessity of freeing the body. Yakim puts 90% of his energy into the physical work. He takes students beginning in their second year while his wife Mina works with the freshmen.

We have interviews with alumni such as Jessica Chastain, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney and Anthony Mackie. We see former student Alex Sharp who went on to win a best actor Tony for his lead role in “The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time” when he was  a young man working in Moni’s class.

Moni Yakim has taught movement at the Juilliard School since 1968and is a guiding force for many actors, some of whom make brief appearances to celebrate their former teacher. The reunion between Yakim and Kevin Kline is very moving as the two embrace and talk about acting challenging each other in a game of pantomime. We feel the real, mutual affection and admiration between the two. Watching Yakim and Kline discuss and actually perform, takes us below the surface of Yakim’s core philosophy of acting: Movement is the most important tool an actor possesses.

This is a straightforward biography of Yakim’s professional life—starting in Israel, learning the art (and shunning the shallow entertainment) of pantomime in Paris, and coming to the United States to run his own company (with his wife Mina) before being recruited to teach at Juilliard. As intriguing as his life has been, the biographical part of the film shows us his central thesis about acting.

Yakim is, above all, a teacher whose legacy is the the success of his students and with this film we can see the actual theory and process of his teaching.

“FIRE BIRDS”— The World’s Most Exclusive Club

“FIRE BIRDS”

The World’s Most Exclusive Club

Amos Lassen

When an eighty-year-old man’s body is found with three stab wounds to the chest and a number tattooed along his forearm. Amnon, a police detective and second generation Holocaust survivor, is assigned to the case. As the plot moves between the past and present, stories unfold.

Two plot threads develop. One of them is about the cop who has been disgraced in the past but who now has a chance to redeem himself by solving a mystery. His wife has also thrown him out and would like to return to her and to his daughter. The other plot thread is unconventional and we see some of Israel’s finest actors. Neither plot thread winds up resolving itself expectedly, but it’s hard to decide if some ultimately unresolved and undeveloped plot points reflect the modern tolerance for uncertainty in narratives or if something is missing.

 This is a black comedy about a man who is determined to crash “the world’s most exclusive club” of wealthy Tel Aviv widows who are Holocaust survivors. I find it fascinating how we laugh and cry at the same time and while the idea of a comedy about Holocaust survivors sounds strange, it really works here.

Director Amir Wolf and his two co-screenwriters Orly Robensthein Katcap and Itzhak Wolf play with complex timeframes. In the present tense,  detective Amnon (Amnon Wolf) is ordered to investigate the death of an old man found dumped in the Yarkon River. The body had an Auschwitz tattoo, and Amnon, the son of two Survivors, does not want this assignment, but because he is on probation,  he has no choice.

Amnon’s investigation is cross cut with the story of how “Amikam” (Oded Teomi) spends his final days. Amikam (if that is really his name) runs afoul of two widows: a famous actress named “Zissy” (Miriam Zohar) and a retired surgeon named “Olga” (Gila Almagor) who are also survivors as were their now dead husbands. In one scene, Amnon takes his young daughter to visit his elderly parents. “Danielle” (Sarit Vino-Elad) so she can interview them and learn more about her family history. However, Amnon doesn’t want her to know about any of the “things” he learned as a child. So in answer to the question “Where did you and Zayde meet?” his mother (Aliza Rozen) describes a camp on a chocolate river filled with marzipan. “Every day we had tea with Mister Himmler!” Danielle is entranced and here is an example when tears and laughter come together. 

I realize I have really not said much about the plot but to do so would be to spoil the film. You just have to see for yourself.

The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible” by Rachel Havrelock— Conquest, Genocide and the Founding of Modern Israel

Havrelock, Rachel. “The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible”,  Princeton University Press, 2020.

Conquest, Genocide and the Founding of Modern Israel

Amos Lassen

“The Book of Joshua” is central to the politics of modern Israel than the book of Joshua. Joshua was a military leader who became the successor to Moses and his story is about the march of the ancient Israelites into Canaan. It describes how the Israelites subjugated and massacred the indigenous peoples of the land. In “The Joshua Generation”, Rachel Havrelock looks the book’s centrality to the Israeli occupation today and how it reveals why nationalist longing and social reality do not fit in the Promised Land.

Diaspora Jews largely ignored the book of Joshua and those who did not criticized it. The leaders of Israel, however, have used it as a way of promoting cohesion among the citizens of the modern state. Those Israelis who are at odds with the occupation see the Book of Joshua as a celebration of  genocide. Havrelock examines the composition of Joshua and shows how it reflected the nature of ancient Israelite society which was divided and then the desire to unify the populace under a strong monarchy. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, formed a study group at his home in the late 1950s and generals, politicians, and professors reformulated the story of Israel’s founding in the language of Joshua. We see how Ben-Gurion used this tale of conquest and brutality to unite the immigrant population of Jews of different ethnicities and backgrounds by showing Israelis and Palestinians as latter-day Israelites and Canaanites.

Havrelock gives us an alternative reading of Joshua finding  evidence of a decentralized society composed of tribes, clans, and woman-run households. We immediately see the relevance for today when diverse peoples share the resources of a land scarred by wars.

“The Joshua Generation” is a study of the role of the bible in Israeli culture and the impact it has on politics and modern commentary and reinterpretations. Here we have questions about the intersection of the bible with history, archaeology, politics, and national memory.

By examining interpretations and uses of the book of Joshua at various stages in its history, this marginal text for Jews in the diaspora became foundational for the formation of a national identity in modern Israel based on myth.

The Book of Joshua presents a nation-building process unlike what was actually happening on the ground. Ben Gurion used it for similar ideological purposes and we see the significance of historical literary analysis and historical geography and how these affect political possibilities today.

“More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic” by Matt Adler— The Unseen Israel

Adler, Matt. “More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic”, Matt Adler, 2020.

The Unseen Israel

Amos Lassen

Israel is one of those places where no one seems to have anything neutral to say about. The truth is that although Israel is a tiny country, there are vast differences throughout the country. In “More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic”, writer Matt Adler becomes our guide Jewish guide to the country but he uses Arabic to explain some of the lesser seen parts of the country. I lived in Israel for many years and for before the time that gays were (at least in Tel Aviv) recognized as equal citizens and before Tel Aviv Pride became a gay destination. It was a time when people did not openly speak of their sexuality. Adler shows how much it has all changed. He shares his gay identity with a questioning teenager, hitchhikes on golf carts in a rural Druze village, and celebrates Shabbat and he does so in Arabic and with humor and compassion as he visits Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities. We are taken into contradictions and intricacies of one of the most diverse places in the world.

While I was in Israel (and it was for many years), I worked with both Arab Israelis and Druze Israelis but I would never have considered discussing that I was gay with them. We had come together to build a city in the Golan Heights and while we spent days and nights together as well as lots of free time, the topic never came up so I was anxious to read how Adler dealt with the situation. For me, there are few lesser known places in Israel— I took it as my responsibility to get to know the country’s every nook and cranny so I spent a lot of time exploring. Adler shares his stories with an open mind and we sense his identification with the characters he writes about. The writing is fine and many will find it enlightening. When Adler writes about food, we can almost taste it.

“The Drive” by Yair Assulin— To the Breaking Point

Assulin, Yair. “The Drive”, New Vessel Press; Reprint edition, 2020.

To The Breaking Point

Amos Lassen

Originally published in Israel in 2011 in Hebrew, Yair Assulin’s “The Drive” (translated by Jessica Cohen) is the story of the journey of a young Israeli soldier  who is at the breaking point and unable to continue carrying out his military service. He is terrified of the consequences of leaving the army. As the soldier and his father drive to meet with a military psychiatrist, the author penetrates the torn world of the hero. His journey is not just that of a young man facing a crucial dilemma, but we are taken on a tour of the soul and depths of Israeli society and of those everywhere who resist regimentation and violence. The soldier is tired of being forced to be part of a larger collective, yet does not know if he is can fulfill a yearning for an existence free of politics, the news cycle and the imperative of perpetual battle-readiness―without risking the respect of those he loves most. This is a story of an urgent personal quest to reconcile duty, expectations and individual instinct.

Since the publication in Israel, Yair Assulin, has become a con­se­quen­tial voice in Israel through his reg­u­lar col­umn in the lib­er­al news­pa­per “Haaretz”. “The Drive” is an intense work that gives a point of view on Israeli life that is unfa­mil­iar and sur­pris­ing to non-Israelis.

The soldier/nar­ra­tor is an unnamed young man doing his required ser­vice in the Israeli Defense Forces. He is tor­tured internally and deeply dis­sat­is­fied with his assign­ment in an army intel­li­gence unit and is impelled almost to the point of self-harm. His requests for a change of assign­ment have been reject­ed by his supe­ri­or offi­cers. The nov­el traces his thoughts as he dri­ves with his father from Haifa to Tel Hashomer Hos­pi­tal in order to see a men­tal health offi­cer who he hopes will pro­vide him with a way out.

The story gives us a ver­sion of the eter­nal con­flict between the indi­vid­ual and soci­ety. Israel requires its young to serve in a mil­i­tary that val­ues con­for­mi­ty just at the same time when they wish for inde­pen­dence, and the nar­ra­tor gives a harsh indict­ment of what is usu­al­ly regard­ed as one of Israel’s crown­ing achieve­ments: a demo­c­ra­t­ic and egal­i­tar­i­an nation­al ser­vice. Beyond the ide­al­is­tic pro­pa­gan­da that the soldier feels is a soul-crush­ing expe­ri­ence. He rejects the val­ues of mil­i­tary ser­vice as ​“a big show,” and finds ​“all the talk about pro­tect­ing the home­land and giv­ing back to the coun­try to be the emp­ty rhetoric of peo­ple seek­ing respect”. He remembersthe lieu­tenant colonel in his unit  from years earlier as a piti­fully poor sub­sti­tute teacher. He is also crit­i­cal of the role of the army in what Israelis refer to as the sit­u­a­tion” that was brought about by Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Pales­tini­ans’ resis­tance. The sense of futil­i­ty evoked by par­tic­i­pat­ing in this is seen by his main assign­ment in his unit: lam­i­nat­ing maps of West Bank towns.

We wonder if he is moti­vat­ed by gen­uine feel­ings of dis­gust at a cor­rupt sys­tem or is he, like many peo­ple his age, react­ing vis­cer­al­ly to hyp­ocrites and fakes?  The soldier sees him­self as a lone truth-teller while every­one else exploits the sys­tem to inflate their ego or to gain some advan­tage. He is also some­what of an odd­ball in his unit because he is reli­gious­ly obser­vant. We question whether the pro­tag­o­nist is a reli­able nar­ra­tor or, whether he is, as his loy­al and long-suf­fer­ing father com­ments toward the end of the nov­el, ​“real­ly … a bit of a narcissist.”

These two pos­si­bil­i­ties are held in ten­sion through the short novel, and it is difficult to decide where is the truth here.  The novel reveals facets of mod­ern Israeli cul­ture not usu­al­ly known out­side of Israel. The story also speaks to the ongoing short comings of the mental health industry. The soldier’s reaction is puzzling unless there are pre-existing mental health issues. Some will see this story as military service being primary over mental health He, himself is not a sympathetic character in that he petulant, self-absorbed, and immature. Going into a military setting is not going to be good for someone with his personality. He doesn’t do well with authority or with change and he’s completely unable to explain or express himself in a way that others can understand. Sometimes I believed him, other times I felt it was dishonest.

However, at the mental health office, the story rings true. Everyone tried to talk him out of it, (including his parents), and point out the life-long stigma attached to this choice. How he’s treated when he finally gets there is horrible.

Having served in the Israeli Defense Forces and often doing menial jobs, I can understand his displeasure.  His mental conflict feels like what we are going through now. Can we take a break from the news cycle, from being perpetually battle-ready, from speaking, writing, reacting and just spend a morning reading good literature?

The soldier’s feelings of unease and the irreconcilable space between soldier and commander hit home for me more than once in this unexpected story of resistance to military life. But the most important part of this book may be in its exploration of how impossible the mentally healthy find it to participate in the journey of the mentally ill. All in all this is a powerful and compelling look inside the mind of a young man as “he struggles to find his way in life and balance the expectations of his family, romantic partner, and country with his own troubled sense of who he is.”

“Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood” by Rachel Biale— Those Were the Days

Biale, Rachel. “Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood”, Mandel Vilar, 2020.

Those Were the Days

Amos Lassen

“Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood” is Rachel Biale’smemoir made up of linked stories about growing up on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1950s and 60s. It was a time when children spent most of their time in a children’s House. 

The memoir begins with a prologue from her mother’s diaries and from of Rachel Biale’s mother and from letters her parents exchanged when her father served in the British army. She describes what her parents experienced when they escaped from Eastern Europe and went to Israel. They fled from the Nazis in Prague in 1939, spent five years on dangerous sea voyages and were interred i in British refugee camps. Yet even with this, her parents maintained their socialist and Zionist value and brought them to the kibbutz. 

Rachel’s parents felt that was nowhere that could be the kind of utopian society they longed to see and decided to live on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin. Her earlies memories are from when she was three-years-old and a member of the children’s society and for a god part of the book, the focus is her childhood years. She also writes about the lives of the adult kibbutz members, including Holocaust survivors. 

Kfar Ruppin is in the valley of the nearby Jordan River and Biale was there during an important time in the history of Israel—the 1950s and ‘60s. The kibbutz was founded in 1938 by German Jews and Czechs who fled the German occupation, and sat 800 feet below sea level.

Biale’s memories look at how profoundly kibbutz life and the State of Israel has changed. We seehow her kibbutz childhood influenced the woman she became. Children on the kibbutz were expected to contribute to the broader community. In third grade, Biale was already in charge of a group of dairy cows. Above all we see her family’s commitment to build the young Jewish state at a central moment in Israel’s history.

Many things have changed since then. One of the most significant changed was taking down the children’s houses in the 70s and 80s. Many felt to do this was to change the original concept of the kibbutz experience which was built on a work ethic. It altered what childhood looks like. The biggest changed came in the 90s with the privatization process. Today, the kibbutz has become a much more diverse and inclusive community. The rigid, ideological, rather constraining system is no longer there, and there is a lot more freedom and independence. People  now have greater room to do as they please within the community’s parameters, yet everybody shares space, a communal social and cultural life, and major decisions.

The political scene in Israel has also changed greatly. There was a time, when I loved on kibbutz in Israel that the country was dominated by the Labor Party, which backed the kibbutz movement. When the right wing under Menachem Begin came to power, this changed and a very strong anti-kibbutz sentiment used by Begin and subsequent right-wing party leaders rallied their supporters. However, it was the Six-Day War was a disastrous victory that was responsible for the greatest changes in the country.

Regarding the settlements, Biale says that settling in the Golan seemed like it was the extension of the early kibbutzim ideology of settling into “empty areas.” However, these were not “empty areas”. What seemed to be the continuation of the kibbutz idealism, of creating kibbutzim and developing agriculture was basically co-opted and abducted by the extreme right wing in the project of settlements in the West Bank.

Biale felt it was important to write about the people who created “this utopian, strange community and the extreme danger they lived through to give her an idyllic, safe, healthy childhood.” They were able to keep part of their inner world and the cultural and cosmopolitan world of Europe. They fled their countries and abandoned their families in order to survive, yet they remained emotionally connected to their European childhoods. They came from highly educated cultured families, and they managed to sustain that intellectual and cultural world.  Even while on the banks of the Jordan River, they always remained Europeans.

Rachel’s family eventually came to live in America where she had her political awakening about Israel and the occupation. She began sto think about Israelis in relation to Palestinians and the social discrimination against Mizrahi and North African Jews. After the army, she decided I to return to the United States for college and she married an American Jew thus changing her life. Nonetheless we see the influence growing up on the kibbutz had on her and we are lucky to be able to read about it.