Category Archives: Israel

“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.

“Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West” by Gilles Kepel— Forty Years of Middle East History

Kepel, Gilles. “Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West”,  Columbia University Press, 2020.

Forty Years of Middle East History

Amos Lassen

The Middle East is one of the world’s politically hot regions. We have had great optimism for and tremendous disappointment in the countries there. We have seen the rise of the Arab uprisings through the rise and fall of the Islamic State resulting in challenges to international security challenges. The threat of terrorism has caused migration as have warfare and climate change, competition for control over oil.

Writer Gilles Kepel’s “Away from Chaos” is a forty year political history of Middle East conflict and its ramifications for the rest of the world. He brings us a “narrative of the long-term causes of tension while seamlessly incorporating on-the-ground observations and personal experiences from the people who lived through them.”

The history here begins in 1973 with the Yom Kippur War. We look at the many and diverseideologies of Middle East politics and their implications on the global stage. Kepel puts the chaos in perspective and shows their underlying dynamics while also exploring the prospects of coming out of what is happening.

“Away from Chaos” is Kepel’s personal and political look at the Middle East and a synthesis of years of engagement with and in the Middle East. Keppel has lived what he writes about and has even been targeted by jihadists. Here he shares what he has lived while proposing that there is a return to what steadied the region successfully in the previous century.
In 2016, Kepel was condemned to die for being “an experienced Arabist”. Then right afterwards French-born terrorist, Larossi Abballam, murdered a police officer and his wife . On Facebook he called for the murder of seven public figures in France, with Kepel’s name close to  the top of the list. A government security team guarded Kepel round the clock.  He is a public intellectual in France and extremely well-known.

While there isn’t much new or groundbreaking here yet this is a fine primer for anyone wanting to get up to date on the region and does not go into the aspects of the conflicts that so often cause one to not get a clear picture of what is going on..

Until the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Arab-Israeli conflict  was what really defined the region. Then a steep rise in oil prices and profits financed the first wave of radical Islamism. In 1979 the Iranian revolution and the siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca brought about  a deadly conflict between Tehran and Riyadh that continues today. The same year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and this accelerated for the movement of international jihadists who were willing to become martyrs in battle against heathens.

Jihadism of the 1990s switched the United States for the U.S.S.R as its major enemy. Then came the 9/11 attacks. The Arab Spring pulled the region in yet another direction offering ideas fleeting of hope that the authoritarian regimes from Libya to Syria might finally become representative governments. Only Tunisia conformed.

After this,  ISIS picked up where Al Qaeda had left off and conquered and governed territory in Syria and Iraq . Young Muslims in Europe began to murder their neighbors and Jihadism was everywhere in the Middle East and became which became the beginning of the terrorism in the 2010s.

Kepel says that a new era has now begun with the destruction of the ISIS “caliphate” and the keeping of its influence and prestige in-check. Not only terrorism has largely subsided again but he monarchies of the Persian Gulf are modestly reforming and finally distancing themselves from the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect that has was the backbone of support for many years. Oi money that has financed radical mosques, sectarian militias and terrorist organizations all over the world are permanent declining and the United States replaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas.

We are certainly not sure of how it all stands today and whether we are just experiencing a pause or actually beginning a future that is not so volatile.

“ADVOCATE”– Lea Tsemel, Israeli Defense Attorney

 

 

“ADVOCATE”

Lea Tsemel, Israeli Defense Attorney

Amos Lassen

 

Lea Tsemel is a 74-year-old Israeli political firebrand, who has dedicated her career to challenging Israel’s two-tier justice system. In Israel there are different judicial standards for Israeli citizens and Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Tsemel sees herself as an “angry and optimistic woman” known for her quick sardonic retorts and unselfconscious in her moral convictions. Her opponents see her as “the devil’s advocate” or traitor to her country and her defense of would-be suicide bombers and other violent offenders is even difficult for pro-Palestinian pacifists.

Much of the film follows two inflammatory court cases in 2015-2016. One involves the youngest defendant Tsemel has ever had: a 13-year-old Palestinian boy charged, along with his 15-year-old cousin with the attempted murder of two Israelis in a knife attack in one of the illegal settlements. Through video footage, which was widely seen throughout Israel, the older boy was shot dead by security forces while the younger was run over by a car before his arrest. The other case is of a 31-year-old woman who was left badly burned by a car explosion in what the court determined was a failed suicide bombing.

The film is a talking heads plus archival clip biography of Tsemel who was a law student during the 1967 Israeli-Arab war in which she was a volunteer. However, the sight of refugees fleeing the Israeli forces brought back family stories of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and this brought about her life-long opposition to the occupation and her challenges to the military justice used for the Palestinian population.

Michel Warchawski, Tsemel’s pro-Palestinian activist husband, gives an amusing account of his wife. During a period when he was jailed for helping Palestinian extremists and complained about the intense interrogations they had to deal with, she told him he needed to man up or he wasn’t worthy to be her husband. (Her adult son and daughter see her somewhere between embarrassment and awe). We see how her legal history includes many losses and a few incremental wins, including her part in getting a 1999 Israel Supreme Court ruling which limited the use of torture in interrogations.

We do not get much  from Tsemel’s critics and we see her as a unique crusading figure. The documentary isup close and personal and is directed byRachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche. We see Tsemel in motion on a bisected screen with live-action footage on the left and animated imagery on the right..

This has been Tsemel’s life for decades, working on behalf of people viewed by many  as inferiors and fanatics. Here is Tsemel’s tireless routine as she demonstrates how one person lives morally and ethically within a system that is little more than a swamp of misunderstanding.

There are flashbacks to Tsemel’s past, detailing her budding student activism, her fraught attempts to raise her family and her fervent efforts leading to a landmark 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that outlawed the use of torture when interrogating detainees.

Jones and Bellaïche would seem to be at a disadvantage because their cameras were not allowed in the courtrooms for these trials. But this works to the film’s advantage. We mainly watch Tsemel and her clients as they either ready for or react to their days in court. Tsemel is fully aware of the likeliest outcome, and she frequently assumes a position of preemptive consoler.

Jones and Bellaïche combine a biographical profile and an interrogation of the Israeli justice system here as they focuses on Tsemel’s life and work .

 

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.

“A Passion For Israel: Adventures of a Sar-El Volunteer” by Mark Werner— Volunteering

Werner, Mark. “A Passion For Israel: Adventures of a Sar-El Volunteer”, Gefen. 2020.

Volunteering to Serve

Amos Lassen

Mark Werner is a successful corporate lawyer who is now retired and living in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also a man who finds volunteering as a way of life and we especially see this in his beautifully written memoir about the three weeks every year that he spends volunteering in the Israel Defense Forces. Werner is the son of Holocaust survivors and an ardent Zionist who found that the best way to show his love for the State of Israel was to become part of Sar-el, an organization that works with thousands of volunteers from all over the world to spend time as civilians on Israeli military bases thus allowing soldiers to do their military duties rather than being involved with the mundane duties of army life. Werner  kept journals of his work with Sar-el from 2006-2019 and they are the basis of “A Passion for Israel”.

For those of you who have served in the military, you have some idea of what that entails. However, the Israeli army constantly faces the threat of war in a climate much unlike many others. If that is not enough, an American without knowledge of Hebrew has a lot to learn. I so identified with so much here even though my time with the IDF came not as a volunteer but part of my obligation as an Israeli citizen who actually served on the front lines during several wars and skirmishes. Every day becomes precious for those in the army since each day could bring about horrific results at any moment.

What a wonderful and personal read this is. Beautifully written in great detail, we get an accurate picture of army life written by a man who made the choice to serve. It is also proof that many American Jews honor their commitment to the Jewish state voluntarily by giving of themselves to help defend the land.

I loved reading of Werner’s experiences of living during sandstorms, sleeping in bomb shelters, experiencing attacks from Palestinian missiles and getting used to a new way of life. Of course, three weeks is limiting but in a worn-torn country anything can happen and do so at a moment’s notice. While he was not on the front lines, when a military action takes place in Israel, everyone in the country feels it. Packing kitbags and medical supplies and the other necessities of army life are, in most cases, not exciting activities, they are necessary for the welfare of the entire nation and their importance cannot be under-estimated. The fact that Werner was part of this, along with filling sandbags and helping to get tanks ready, is heroic in my mind and because of him and others like him, the IDF is able to function smoothly.

Having been part of the Zionist movement from a young age, I knew that the time would come for me to go and live in Israel and I am very aware that many American Jews are unable to make such a commitment. Werner shows us that another way to make a difference is through Sar-el and his personal take on his life while doing so is quite a read. The stories are vivid and the prose is wonderful. He gives us a new look at life in the military in Israel as both an insider and an outsider. As I read, memories of the many years I spent in Israel and of the years I spent in the IDF came flooding back. Now re-settled back in the United States, I so needed this book to answer so many of my questions as to why I left this country at a time when Israel was still a baby and I found myself regretting what I left there. I cannot recommend this book enough— it is so much more than just a read.

“UNCHAINED” (“METIR AGUNOT”)— A Look at Jewish Orthodox Marriage

“UNCHAINED” (“METIR AGUNOT”)

A Look at Jewish Orthodox Marriage

Amos Lassen

Agunah is the Hebrew word for “chained” or for an “anchored” woman. This refers to the Jewish law principle  in which a woman is bound in marriage by a husband who refuses to grant a divorce or who is missing and not proven dead.

This is the story of Yossef Mourad and his wife Hannah. It takes viewers into the closed-off ultra-orthodox Haredi world, and touches on the most painful place where Jewish-law clashes with modern life- the status of women in society. 

 A devout Rabbi-detective, whose job is to free the women whose husbands deny them a divorce and a new life, finds that in his own home lurks a secret that threatens his world and marriage. “Unchained” has received 12 nominations for the prestigious Ophir Award including:

Best Drama Series Award

***

Best Director in a Drama Series Award

***

Best Actor in a Drama Series Award

***

Best Actress in a Drama Series Award

“The Book of Israela” by Rabbi Rena Blumenthal— Now and Then

Blumenthal, Rena. “The Book of Israela”,  Resource Publications, 2018.

Then and Now

Amos Lassen

In Rabbi Rena Blumenthal’s, “The Book of Israela”, we meet Kobi Benami in Jerusalem of 2002 at the height of the second intifada. He is a middle-aged psychologist whose life is falling apart. He has been thrown out of his house by his wife who is tired of his philandering and his daughter has refused to speak to him. The new clinic director has put him on probation for his indifferent work habits. Life, for Kobi, is not particularly good right now. Just at this time, he gets a new patient named Israela, a woman with quite a story that is filled with strange  biblical references. Her husband, Y, is questionable—  he may or may not exist. She hasn’t seen him in months and she is being stalked by “his prophet-like emissaries who span a wide spectrum of Israeli society–Orthodox to secular, right-wing settlers to left-wing urban elites”. They are held together by their condemnation of her, her devotion to Y and her ties to  The Outstretched Arm, a sinister organization that Y supposedly runs.

Kobi soon finds himself as part of a surreal encounter with the anthropomorphized story of ancient Israel. He becomes preoccupied with questions about the nature and existence of Y and because of this, is forced to confront his own dysfunctional life patterns, his family’s past, and the war that rages around him.

Kobi becomes our narrator and he gives us a strange and honest portrait of contemporary Israel that is dealing with Abrahamic monotheism. The ancient prophets (or possibly just several crazy people) follow and haunt Kobi because of  Israela.

Kobi has no faith and his story is told as a biblical metaphor about God’s relationship with Israel. We read of Jewish historical and mythical experiences and these bring us close the hapless psychologist whose life becomes one of turmoil. We meet two men who are totally different— Kobi and an American Orthodox rabbi but both of whose lives force them to look at and analyze their pasts so that they can find new ways to face their futures.

Kobi’s problems are caused by his own doings. The story is set at a time when because of intifada, many look to the clinic for help and the number of suicide bombers is increasing. Kobi has little or no interest in his patients until Israela, whose story he finds fascinating, even though he is sure that she is delusional. Her claim to be married to an older man, Y, who controls a powerful, but little known, organization seems suspect. She says Y loves her, but Kobi suspects that she is an abused wife.

When emissaries from Y find Kobi and explain their understanding of Y and Israela’s relationship, things change. These emissaries  include an extreme right-wing settler and a leftist who believes Israel has mistreated the Palestinians, believe that Y has Israela’s best interests at heart, even though she has betrayed him.

I immediately realized that what I was reading were biblical stories retold and I find these to be very clever. In recognizing the original stories, we see an extra level to what is being told here. (However, it is indeed possible to read this with no knowledge of the Bible).

I find it fascinating in that I was totally ready to dislike Kobi, I changed my mind as I read even though his behavior left a great deal to be desired. When I read that he was the son of Holocaust survivors, his actions are put into perspective yet this does not excuse him. I must admit that there were several times during which I debated whether or not to continue reading— there were simply too many open situations for which I could see no forthcoming solutions but I decided to continue hoping that all would come together. As it is, I found this to be a satisfying read but one I had to work at. In fact, I am sure that there are aspects of the book that I missed and when time permits, I will read it again (something I rarely do).

Reading  a variety of perspectives on life in Israel today combined with social commentary through and biblical illusions can be great fun. It is Israela who makes this all possible by opening the story that drives Kobi and the rest of the plot. It took a while but I realized the genius that is between the lines of the text.