Category Archives: Israel

“GREENER PASTURES”— Moving to a Nursing Home

 

“GREENER PASTURES”

Moving to a Nursing Home

Amos Lassen

 

Dov, a widower (played by the wonderful Shlomo Baraba), is forced by his family to move to a nursing home – and there’s nothing he can do or say about it. The nursing home feels like a prison, and all Dov can think about is getting out, buy his old house back, and live there “till he dies”. 

 

When he notices that all his fellow residents smoke legal medical cannabis, he realizes that weed will be his salvation – selling it, not smoking it. When love, cops, and gangsters come into play, Dov finds himself at a crossroads: Will he risk it all to make his dream come true?

“Can We Talk About Israel?: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted” by Daniel Sketch— A Primer

Sokatch, Daniel. “Can We Talk About Israel?: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted”, illustrated by Christopher Noxon, Bloomsbury, 2021.

A Primer

Amos Lassen

As a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, not a day goes by that I do not stop to think about the situation in Israel. After all, Israel was my home for almost half of my life. I willingly admit that I do not fully understand the situation. With the publication of Daniel Sokatch’s “Can We Talk About Israel?: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted”, things are much clearer yet I still am able to formulate my own conclusions… or am I?

Sokatch understands both sides the topic and brings us a primer on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He understands much more than we do but then he is
the head of the New Israel Fund, an organization dedicated to equality and democracy for all Israelis, not just Jews. He gives us thestory of that conflict, and of why so many people feel so strongly about it without actually understanding it very well at all. It has been a century-long struggle between two peoples that both perceive themselves as victims and, indeed, they are victims. He tries to explain why Israel (and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) brings about extreme feelings and “why it seems like Israel is the answer to ‘what is wrong with the world’ for half the people in it, and ‘what is right with the world’ for the other half. It is a topic about which so many intelligent, educated and sophisticated people hold passionate convictions yet know so little about it.

We look at the history and ideas of one of the most complicated conflicts in the world. No matter what we know, there is always what we do not now. I have studied the history of Israel during most of my life and devoted time to building the country in the early days and served in the Israel Defense Forces during both peace and war. I watched the currency change before my eyes and spent hours and days in bomb shelters. I have wept during victories and failures, I have voted in Israel’s elections and watched the government turn around and I have seen once persecuted minority groups achieve equality. I remember the jubilation after the Six Day War in 1967 and have cried learning the truth about what really went on behind the scenes yet I remain proud in saying that I am an Israeli citizen.

The country has taken a major turn to the right and that turn is brilliantly explained here.  I so needed this book to explain to me what was missing in my own mind. Sokatch not only knows what he is writing about, he knows how to share that knowledge. Dealing with politics is no easy task. We have no final or correct answers about the situation but we DO have a lot to think about.

Sokatch tries to give us answers and does so from his personal point of view along with the ideas of others. Unfortunately it all remains open-ended. We have two nations both convinced of their right to belong and they are not willing or unable to find a suitable compromise.  This is a fascinating look at Israel’s history, politics, and its relation with the land and the Palestinian people. It is s respectful look at everything involved.

Sokatch presents everything clearly even for those who have no previous knowledge on the conflict. We gain a better understanding and Sokatch is impartial and does not support one way or the other. Instead, he gives us facts and details, the good and the bad about the situation.  Divided into two parts, we first get a history, from Biblical accounts all the way to  the year 2020 in the first part and in the second we have a  discussion of why people get so excited when speaking about what is going on.

“GOLDEN VOICES”— Coming to Israel from the Soviet Union

“GOLDEN VOICES”

Coming to Israel from the Soviet Union

Amos Lassen

Raja (Mariya Belkin) and Victor Frankel (Vladimir Friedman), a couple in their 60s, were once heroes of Russian cinema. For several decades they had dubbed Hollywood epics into Russian for cinema audiences. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, they left Russia and migrated to Israel. Like so many other Russian Jews in search of a better life, they struggled to adapt to their new life, new culture and language but there was no demand for their particular skills. After some missteps they found work which allowed them to use their vocal talents again. Victor dubs the latest Hollywood films for an illegal bootlegging operation, while Raja found success working for a telephone sex line.

“Golden Voices” is a comedy about the clash of cultures and an elderly couple finding a new life. Directed by Russian born filmmaker Evgeny Ruman migrated to Israel in 1990 and wrote the script in collaboration with his cinematographer Ziv Berkovich. It explores themes of displacement, disillusionment, and new beginnings and love of cinema.

 Victor and Raya Frenkel’s positions were always a little complicated. When the Soviets finally allowed the Refuseniks to immigrate to Israel, they decided to get out while the getting was good. However, adjusting to a new country and a new way of life was more difficult than they expected. For many Soviets, the Frenkels were the voices of international films in Russia. However, Russian dubbing was not an obviously marketable skill in 1990 Israel. Still, due to the large influx of Russian immigrants, Raya manages to find a job requiring Russian fluency. She tells her husband she is tele-marketing. Her boss considers it phone sex, but the way she practices it, she is more like a voice in a chatroom for lonely men like Gera.

Meanwhile, her husband finally thinks he has found an outlet for his talents with a couple of low-rent Russian film pirates, but they just don’t have his commitment to quality cinema. As the couple goes about their new lives, Israeli society keeps moving forward while preparing for potential chemical weapons attacks from Saddam Hussein. We can only imagine how intense the atmosphere was in Israel.

Although it is billed as a comedy, the film is bittersweet in tone and generally much more serious than whimsical. Mariya Belkina gives an extraordinarily accomplished performance as Raya, especially in her acutely sad and sensitive scenes with Alexander Senderovich, who is also a standout as Gera. Vladimir Friedman is achingly dignified as Victor Frenkel.
Ruman and Berkovich periodically address the frustrations of Soviet film censorship, while providing a thoughtful and mature portrait of a long-standing but imperfect relationship.

Ruman and Berkovich trust the audience’s emotions, intelligence and imagination. Their use of metaphors that leave room for interpretation are excellent. There is no first act that shows Victor and Raya’s life in the USSR nor is there a third act scene that ties everything up neatly together; the last line of the film lets the audience use their imagination to fill the rest in. There’s a wonderful subplot involving a man who Raya interacts with and messes with his emotions in a way that could’ve made her unlikable, but the way that she shows compassion toward him and, eventually, remorse is brave, mature and admirable of her. “Golden Voices” is a rare film that’s made for adults and that treats the audience not only as mature adults, but also as human beings. 

“Once More With Chutzpah” by Haley Nell— Jewish Identity, Mental Health and Sexuality

Nell, Haley. “Once More with Chutzpah”,Bloomsbury, 2022.

Jewish Identity, Mental Health and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Haley Nell’s “Once More With Chutzpah” is a beautiful story about a young girl dealing with issues of  her Jewish identity, mental health struggles, and sexuality while on a trip to Israel. You would not think that a sentence such as this would awaken anti-Semites, homophobes and anti-Zionists to decry this book even before it’s official publication. I was shocked by what so many had to say about it even though they have yet to see a copy and to understand what it really has to say. I received my copy last week and after reading it went to look at the book’s page on Goodreads where I found excessive hate and complete misunderstanding of what this book is about. We immediately become aware of the lack of knowledge about the Middle East and the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict. Yet these people see fit to write about it as parts of book reviews of a something they have not even read. Politics witch once brought us together is now tearing us part and it is so sad that this is based on such ignorance and hate. Perhaps if these same “reviewers” read this with open hearts and minds, they would see how really wrong they are. It is even more astounding that Goodreads allowed these diatribes to be posted especially since they do not even reference the book. Do NOT let them deprive you of a wonderful reading experience

High school senior Tally and her twin brother Max embark upon an exchange trip to Israel during winter break. Tally hopes that the trip will be good for Max who is still struggling from a car crash that injured him and killed the driver. Tally always planned that they would go to college and begin good lives and is worried that her brother will change their plans.

As they and their group travel across Israel, Tally realizes her plan might not be working, and that Max is not the only one with a lot on his mind. When a new relationship gets complicated in the face of her own anxiety-about her future, her sexual and romantic identity, and her place within the Jewish diaspora, Tally struggles with both  the past, but also with what life will be like when they get back home. On the brink of adulthood, Max and Tally face the pressures of identity and we do so as well.

“White Smoke” by Itamar S.N.— Love, History, Hope, Politics and Human Rights

S.N., Itamar. “White Smoke”,Independently Published, 2021.

Love, History, Hope, Politics and Human Rights

Amos Lassen

Many of you know that I have been an activist for the LGBTQ community in Israel for many years and I devour anything I can read on the subject. I was so glad when Itamar S.N. contacted me about his new book and I immediately sat down to read it.

Yonatan, a bisexual left-wing activist meets Meir, a shy High-Tech entrepreneur and falls in love for the first time. The two marry and adopt twins. Amal, a Palestinian girl the victim of a family honor acid attack comes into their lives and the love story builds. While there were good feelings about peace between Israeli and Palestinian, it soon becomes quite dim when forces put the family’s and the State of Israel at risk.

This is such an important book for me in that it combines two important aspects of my like—-my love for Israel and my LGBTQ identity. Writer Itamar S. N. brings the two together beautifully and powerfully; so much so that I read “White Smoke” in one sitting. As I read the word “hope” stayed in my mind continuously.

“White Smoke” is a dramatic love story that uses important themes and prosaic skill to show us the importance of life and love. Before Yonatan met Meir he had never been in love and we quickly see how the life of the playboy political activist changes when love comes in. When the two men bring  Amal, a Palestinian girl who was the victim of a family honor acid attack into their family, their love grows even more and in fact we see a union between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, as we have all see too well, this does not last and forces not only threaten to destroy the happiness of the family but the State of Israel as well.

Early on we meet Amal as she suffers from having been attacked and filled with pain and thoughts about what she had been through. Upon understanding that her recovery would be lengthy, she became upset and questioned remaining alive.  Her pain was as mental as it was physical.

Meanwhile Yonatan does whatever he can to ire his father, the right-wing Prime Minister of Israel. He becomes the founder of Isratine – a democratic union of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and meets Meir. Their love for each other grows quickly even though the hope for peace between Israel and Palestine loses steam.  Israeli and Arab anti-liberal forces place democracy in danger and threatening the life of the family that the two men have created. There are mistakes on both sides. Writer Itamar S.N. uses the family as a way to look at human rights and we see this through life in modern Tel Aviv.

This is a book that will stay with the reader long after the covers are closed and has us looking at who we are and what hope and love are all about. I find it extremely difficult tout my words on paper as I am so struck by what I read here. More important than anything else is the look at what humanity can be.

 

“Cry, Angry Hills: A Novel of the Middle East” by Richard Reese— Two Families

 

Reese, Richard, “Cry, Angry Hills: A Novel of the Middle East”, Independently Published, 2019.

Two Families

Amos Lassen

“Cry, Angry Hills” by Richard Reese is the story of two families who struggle over one land once belonging to both people. Saul and Rachel Rabinowitz leave Revolutionary Russia to settle in the Hills of Judea to build a new life as Jews and a country for their children. Sheikh Ahmed Fawza is the proud descendant from a fierce warrior that was granted this land some thirteen centuries ago when Islam first swept into Palestine. Sheikh Ahmed will fight for the Judean Hills which belongs to him and is the very heart of the Palestinian nation. When the two patriarchs clash over a dry wadi, the confrontation between them begins a tragic 100 Years’ War which still consumes their descendants.

This is historical fiction novel with a Prologue set in 636 and going on to cover the period from 1917 through 1987, starting in Russian Poland with the pogroms and proceeding into Palestine, through the British Mandate, the Holocaust, World War II, the Partition of Palestine and birth of the State of Israel, wars in 1948, 1967, 1973, the PLO, suicide bombings and attacks, the 1982 Invasion of Lebanon through the academic and political wrangling between Zionists and anti-Zionists.
When the Rabinowitz family arrives in Israel they settle in farmland in the Judean hills, on land claimed by the Fawzas. The conflict over that land is the central theme of the novel, the now existential battle over competing claims whom the land belongs to. Reese avoids demonizing one side and glorify the other.

The novel is multi-layered and complex, like the overarching conflict of to whom these hills belong. The personal stories are interwoven with the religious, cultural, and political issues. It’s well researched with historical accuracy. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are presented as all good or all evil. We read of the internal, factional conflicts within Israel and Palestine as well, ultra-orthodox vs. secular Jews and Israel hating vs. co-existing Palestinians. There are wars within wars and the conflicts carry on throughout all aspects of life.

“MAGIC MEN”— Tracing the Past to Mend a Relationship

“MAGIC MEN”

Tracing the Past to Mend a Relationship

Amos Lassen

Avraham Coffins (Markram Khoury) is a 76 year-old father who is trying to trace his past with his son, Yehuda (Zohar Strauss) in the hopes of mending their relationship. The plot gives us simple and honest characters that each has a different belief system that gives him the confidence to turn his back on the other. This is a  comedic drama with talented and captivating performances.

Directed and written by Guy Nativ and Erez Tadmor, the film is set in Greece, a country struggling to save itself from economic ruin. Avraham Coffins is a Greek Holocaust survivor who was chosen to represent his city at a twin city ceremony held in his childhood state. Yehuda is a Hasidic rapper who has repented and has a years-long rift between his father, comes along to help his father. Avraham is annoyed by his son’s presence while at the same time is dealing with memories. He decides to take advantage of his visit to find the street boy who hid him in World War II. The same boy taught Avraham street tricks thanks through which he managed to survive and now he decides to locate and reward him.

The source of the film’s charm is in the honest and simple characters. In front of the poor and defeated state of Greece, we meet a father and a son who are each in their own way a simple and good person. What still makes their relationship interesting is that for each of them, the same belief or lack thereof, is the one from which derives his or her “simple” and clean conception of life. While Abraham survived the Holocaust, his son Judah finds the joy of his life in faith in God. Yehuda’s faith lies in love and happiness; for his father, it is the tricks he learned, what saved his life. In this way, two “good” characters were created in terms of values, which are easy to love and support, and there is still a sufficiently interesting conflict between them.

“COMRADE DOV”— A Portrait of the Only Jewish member of the Arab Hadash Party

“COMRADE DOV”

A Portrait of the Only Jewish member of the Arab Hadash Party

Amos Lassen

For 13 years Dov Khenin served in the Knesset, imposing a speech favorable to the idea of ​​an intelligent dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. This was to the chagrin of other members of Parliament and a section of the population called him a communist , enemy to the nation and privileged Ashkenazi Jew. The Israeli Arabs are on his side and admire his banter, his restless yet controlled calm and an irreproachable sense of repartee.

At meetings, quarrels are regular. In the demonstrations and assemblies of his party, he is at the forefront. He is fighting against the social inequalities experienced by a large part of the population, whether they are Jews or Arabs and this is true especially in Tel Aviv, the economic capital of the country and the nerve center of social and cultural movement.

Over the past few years he has received admonitions and even criticism from members of his party. He is reminded that he does not fully understand the Palestinian cause while as an Ashkenazi citizen, he enjoys the privileges that Israeli society affords him.

Dov Khenin is an educated man, a citizen responsible for what is happening inside an Israel where capitalism and individualism have swept aside the collective ideals of sharing and justice of a society; an egalitarian society eager to transform the dynamic with start-ups and other similarities of the genre.

Dov Khenin is in a way the black sheep of a country which is still seeking its true path. His career is filled with pitfalls and each time, he gets away like a wolf in the sheepfold. The film is witness to the various comings and goings of this citizen above all suspicion. Khenin decides to make the best decision of his life: to leave Parliament. By this gesture, he joins the common people in his fight for human rights.

This  Israeli documentary from Barak Heymann attempts to win the attention and sympathy of people with varying political views and sets out to, if not bring about concrete change, open the hearts and mind of an Israeli public that is increasingly moving further to the right.

To many Israelis, Khenin is probably more notoriously known for formerly being the only Jewish member of the Joint List, an alliance of the four major Arab political parties in Israel. Throughout the film, Heymann follows Khenin as he navigates two political spaces he understands well, the Knesset and the streets, showing us his tireless activism in action. One of the goals of the film is to encourage a view of common humanity by pointing out similar political struggles in the lives of Palestinians and Jews in Israel. In early scenes, we see some of the socioeconomic problems that working-class Jewish citizens deal with and then transitions to a scene of Bedouin residents in Umm al Hiran being evicted to make room for a Jewish neighborhood.

We see and feel the sense of urgency of the situation through the balanced presentation of the issues. In fact, it seems as though everyone is given a chance to speak about Khenin, from high ranking government officials to people on the streets and even fellow left-wing Palestinian activists who are critical of him despite his well-meaning efforts.

in one key scene in the Knesset where members are discussing a matter concerning a budget for the transfer of 7 billion NIS to the army’s expenses, we see clearly that Khenin can show chutzpah when it comes to the public interest.  “Mr. Chairman, this discussion is ridiculing the Knesset…it’s a bluff. Everything is a bluff…. The citizens of Israel need to see what is being done with their money. We can’t have a vote without allowing Knesset members to ask questions. We’re allowed to ask questions.” He is then asked to leave.

The film ends with Khenin’s retirement from Knesset after a very productive career. He emphasizes that he is not retiring from his efforts; he is merely shifting his focus. “The Knesset is very important,” he reassures fellow Hadash party members, “but the struggle for real change does not begin or end in the Knesset.” Khenin believes the source for real change must come from a grassroots movement. Despite his many accomplishments, he remains pessimistic and feels there have been many failures and that much remains to be done. What we learn from Khenin in the film that if we reach out to those who are different from us, there may be hope.

“Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth” by Now Tishby— Understanding Israel

Tishby, Noa. “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth”, Free Press, 2021.

Understanding Israel

Amos Lassen

Having lived in Israel for many years and having been an active member of Israel politics and society, I am not embarrassed to admit that there is so much that I do not understand about the country. I have read countless books, watched many documentaries and engaged in conversations with other Israelis trying to figure out what I do not understand and to this day, I am still searching for answers. I must say that in “Israel”, Noa Tishby helped me understand things a bit better, opening the door on many questions I have. While there is still a lot that remains enigmatic, I have a clearer idea of the Israeli mind.

Tishby gives us apersonal and concise chronological timeline that goes from Biblical times to the present that explores Israel. Even with its tiny size, Israel is a hot issue that seems to be debated constantly. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about Israel but not many people actually know the facts. Through her irreverent voice, Tishby goes straight to the issues and gives us an accessible look at Israel. Shechronicles the  evolution of the country, looks at the establishment of the State and covers the issues that divide Israel and many of us. She examines popular misconceptions and presents facts and critical context about controversies  and provides an account of Israel. As another critic stated this is an “anti-textbook” and not the kind of history book that we usually get. We get a crash course on Israel in witty, straightforward and authentic prose. Through the personal story of her family, we get a different look at Israel as told by someone who knows how to tell a story.

“KISS ME KOSHER”— Unlikely Lesbian Lovers

“KISS ME KOSHER”

Unlikely Lesbian Lovers

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Shirel Peleg’s “Kiss Me Kosher” is a vey funny romantic comedy about unlikely lesbian lovers.  Maria (Luise Wolfram) is a reserved German botanist whose earnest parents are about peace and love and  angry about the Holocaust. Shira (Moran Rosenblatt) is an extrovert Israeli with a  supportive but opinionated large family. The film takes place over a week or so in Israel as Maria is introduced to her fiancee’s family. Her parents also arrive.

Both families are completely supportive of their daughters being gay and wanting to marry. The issues come from the prejudices they carry outside of homophobia – whether the Israeli grandma Holocaust survivor (Rivka Michaeli) who wants her daughter to marry an Israeli (while at the same time hides her relationship with an Arab man) or the American Jewish father (John Carroll Lynch) who has the zeal of the convert and wants Maria to convert to Judaism so his grandchild will be Jewish. The German parents are upset about the fact that their soon to be daughter-in-law’s little sister is in the Israeli army because they believe in peace and the two-state solution.

The film never avoids the real prejudices and obstacles facing a young couple who are deeply in love. The fact is that when you marry you also marry the family and no matter how far Shira tries to shelter Maria from the complications, they will always be there and are captured for posterity by her aspiring film-maker kid brother. The question is whether Maria is willing to accept it all even though they are meant for each other.

Shira’s Israeli parents are stereotypes – a mother and a right wing racist father. Her grandmother seems fine on race since she’s having a hidden relationship with a Palestinian doctor after all  but she draws the line of her precious granddaughter having anything to do with a German.

Shira’s younger sister wears an army uniform because it gets her discounts at most museums and her brother is a bit of a joker who follows the couple around with a camera for a film project for school. He is delighted to make a film about lesbians, Jews and the Holocaust.

Maria’s family is liberal, apologetic, and make the mistake of wanting to visit a refugee camp on the second day of their visit. When Maria is able to begin a friendship with a local Palestinian shepherd boy, her parents are able to bring forth the unthinkable.

“Kiss me Kosher” tries to combine comedy with serious discussion, but it often gets the tone wrong. The film is not offensive but it often makes the same mistake of trying to be light hearted where there’s not much to laugh at.

Not everyone is delighted that Shira and Maria are gay, but aside from an Orthodox Jew in an early scene, everyone accepts that this is just how they are. There is also some critique of Israeli settlers, although it does seem that mentioning a Two State Solution may be a little bit too radical.

There is a happy ending. Three couples end up pledging their love despite having shown differently suspicious feelings about marriage earlier in the film. What starts off as a depiction of how difficult families can be ends up seeing no alternative to happy families.

Perhaps the queer romance is meant to enhance the comedic conventions or subvert them, but instead we get an uneasy mix of awkward dialogue consequences that don’t really matter. The film is at its best when exploring how generational differences interfere with modern relationships.