Category Archives: Israel


“The Wedding Plan” (“Laavor et hakir”)


Amos Lassen

In the Hasidic community, marriage is the most important thing in a woman’s life even though she has little to say about the man she marries. In fact, it seems that marriage is to provide social acceptance and companionship and it does not seem that love has anything to do with it. There are marriage brokers for those who need help in finding the right mate and director Rama Burshtein show us here what we need to know about marriage in an insular community.

Michal (Noa Koler) became religious over a decade ago and is about to get married in a month to Gidi (Erez Drigues). However, Gidi suddenly breaks it off sending Michal into an existential crisis. She is determined to get married and she even books Shimi’s (Amos Tamam) catering hall and this means that she has just twenty-two days to find a husband. Michal contacts a marriage broker and has many dates, but as the big day approaches she begins to doubt her faith. You see Hasidic Jews expect God to provide them with a spouse.

This is an Israeli romantic comedy that focuses on an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman’s search for love through her unwavering faith in God. Michal is a 30-something Hasidic Jew who is increasingly frustrated by the aspects of life that she feels excluded from without a husband. Her community pities women over twenty-years-old who are not married and within the Hasidic community there is great respect placed upon companionship, love, children.

When the film begins we Michal in conversation with Hulda (Odelia Moreh-Matalon), a homeopathic practitioner who uses fish innards and bread dough to accent her consultations. Michal’s presence is immediately felt as we see her frustration of being single. Michal decides enough is enough and so she books a wedding hall for the eighth day of Chanukah and places her faith in God to send her a husband. Michal goes on comical dates with unsuitable bachelors, bares her soul to her sisters and then realizes that the man of her dreams was under her nose all along.

Michal’s character is genuine and engaging and Koler portrays her with wonderful conviction and tenacity. At first, we think that this is a film about societal values but it is also about faith and belief.

“PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW”— From New Orleans to Tel Aviv

“Presenting Princess Shaw”

From New Orleans to Tel Aviv

Amos Lassen

Samantha Montgomery is 38 years old and lives alone in one of New Orleans’ toughest neighborhoods. During the day she works as a caregiver for the elderly and at night she becomes Princess Shaw, singing soulful originals at poorly attended open mic nights and posting homemade a cappella clips on YouTube for just a handful of viewers. One of her followers happens to be Kutiman, a.k.a. Ophir Kutiel, an Israeli musician who lives on a kibbutz outside Tel Aviv and mashes up YouTube videos from all over the world to create new musical pieces. Princess Shaw had no idea that he had found videos.

Director Ido Haar goes back and forth between Shaw at work and on YouTube in New Orleans as Kutiman sits in his Tel Aviv apartment and watches Shaw’s performances in preparation to compose his work. He and Shaw do not yet know one another and Haar works to preserve the effect that events are being candidly shot and not recreated after the fact.

We do not get to now when Haar began filming Shaw whose life is at first presented in what would have to be several months before Kutiman’s compositions go on the net. As seen at her job, at a local open-mic night, and speaking with family members about her upcoming efforts to audition for “The Voice”, we sense Haar turning the screws on Shaw’s desires. In a sense this ruins the film and if you continue to read, you will understand what I mean.

When Shaw went to Atlanta to check out the music scene and meet some relatives and she learns of the chronic sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend when she was a child. As shot and edited, the scene involves Shaw and two female relatives, each of whom comfort one another and shed tears of pain over the past trauma as well as tears of joy that they have persevered. Haar’s presence lingers as a question the film never addresses and is especially imperative since this moment comes before the public release of Kutiman’s work. It is curious that Haar was there in the first place and we want to understand if he had prior knowledge of Kutiman’s work before its release. I am curious to know when this became a documentary. There is something missing here.

The final third of the film confirms that this is an underdog narrative. Kutiman’s videos get the attention of the New York Times and other national outlets and this brings about a demand for a handful of concerts. Shaw hops a flight to Tel Aviv, where she prepares with Kutiman and other band members for a show. We see that Haar’s filmmaking has no essential narrative information, particularly the economic specifics of what Shaw’s sudden (and relative) fame entails. Specifically, it’s not clear how much she’s being paid for her work, or even if at all. The first third of the film states that Shaw lives in poverty and is unable to keep the lights on in her cramped apartment yet this seems to be forgotten later. A passport and airfare to Israel are not cheap.

On the other hand this is a film that portrays the difficulty of overcoming childhood abuse and deprivation making it a sad but uplifting film. Samantha channels her pain and disappointments into songs she writes and sings on YouTube and we learn that she was neglected as a child by her mother and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend.

The filmmakers chose Montgomery wisely; the depth of her personal pain and the earnestness of her striving and optimism give this movie substance it might otherwise lack. According to Montgomery, director Haar originally followed several of Kutiman’s YouTube “collaborators.” Slowly this film became a story about Montgomery, Kutiman, and their beautiful relationship. Kutiman deserves credit for the joy he brought Montgomery by appreciating her art, by enhancing it, and by being inspired by it. This is what Montgomery who is poor, undereducated, and lonely wanted. Watching the tears of joy flow from her eyes when she hears Kutiman’s version of her music but there are still difficult questions. Kutiman neither pays nor asks the permission of his many “collaborators.” This free use of artistic works uploaded to the Internet expresses the philosophy of the free culture movement, which objects to stringent copyright laws and other exercises of ownership and financial control of art. Yet the irony here is that, in some sense, Kutiman’s efforts to use others’ work and polish it into better, more marketable art makes him the kind of person that many talented but financially naïve artists look for to promote their work. It’s not that Kutiman exploits them financially. It’s just that these are real people who are attached to the work he collects and uses, so you can’t help but feel that they ought to be asked permission. On the other side, in Montgomery’s case, Kutiman’s appreciation marked the first time she ever felt encouraged in her art by someone she respects. Because of that it is hard not to love Kutiman for the hope and self-respect he gives her. We are left with an unanswered and valid question— if there is a marketplace demand for their collaborations, will Montgomery make enough to quit her day job. The movie does not tell us Montgomery announces that she and Kutiman collaborated on an album that’s nearing release.

We get a look at Samantha’s as a young single woman struggling to find an outlet for her voice. , She tries to make the best of a troubling job and difficult living situation and she uses singing as mean of self-expression and personal connection. Her efforts to generate a career out of performance often disappoints and she frequently plays to empty clubs on amateur nights and a chance to audition for “The Voice” flops.



The Best Shorts Collection (Israel)

  A Sampling



   *    First Prize: Cinéfondation, Cannes Film Festival,2016   

   *    Ophir Award for Best Short Film: the Israeli 

         Academy of Film and Television 2016


On a hot summer day Anna, a sewing workshop worker, finds herself unexpectedly alone without her son. She goes out roaming the streets of her small desert town, looking for a man who can touch her, even for just one brief moment.


The Mute’s House


   *    Oscar Documentary Shortlist 2016 

   *    Best Short Documentary: Jerusalem Film Festival,                  2016


A building in Hebron, which was deserted by its Palestinian owners, is called “The Mute’s House” by 

the Israeli soldiers stationed there and by the tour guides who pass by. The building’s only occupants 

are a deaf woman, Sahar, and her eight-year-old 

son, Yousef. The family’s unique story, which unfolds against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is told through the eyes of the young and charismatic Yousef, as he goes through his daily routine in both 

the Jewish and Muslim areas of a city torn apart by hatred and violence.





  *    Promising Director Award

       Tel-Aviv International Student Film Festival, 2016             

*    Best Student Film by Student Jury Award:                  VGIK International Student Festival, Moscow, 2016


Mushkie and Sari are roommates – new immigrants 

to Israel, religious, and best friends. When Mushkie experiences an embarrassing medical problem she must open up to Sari about the double life she has been leading, which tests the limits of their friendship.


The Principle of Grace


  *   Best Student Film: Haifa International Film Festival, 2015

  *   Best of Fest Award: NYC Shorts, New York, 2016


Rita, a nurse for the Social Welfare Department, is accompanied by Mali, a student, as she makes her 

house calls. Rita explains to Mali that it is important to be tough and unsentimental with each client, no matter how heartrending their situation may be. But at the end of the day, in an act of uncharacteristic kindness, Rita decides to revisit one of her patients.

“Zionism: A Very Short Introduction” by Michael Stanslawski— Short and Sweet

Stanislawski, Michael. “Zionism: A Very Short Introduction”, (Very Short Introductions), Oxford University Press, 2017.

Short and Sweet

Amos Lassen

I often find myself at a need for something to bolster the definition of Zionism today with all that is going in the State of Israel. I used to think of myself as being fairly proficient when speaking about it especially after having lived in Israel for many years and having come through the Zionist youth movements. The classic text, “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hetzberg is wonderful but a bit too bulky to carry around so when this small book was published, it proved to be just what I needed. Oxford University’s “Very Short Introduction” series is an excellent way to get information quickly and concisely and there are books on almost every topic.

The traditional definition of Zionism “is the nationalist movement affirming Jewish people’s right to self-determination through the establishment of a Jewish national state in its ancient homeland”. Who knew when Zionism was born that it would become one of the most controversial ideologies in the world. Its supporters cheer its success in liberating the Jewish people after thousands of years of persecution and at securing the creation of Israel. Opponents however claim that Zionism relies “on a racist ideology culminating in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and is one of the last manifestations of colonial oppression in the world”. Since the late 1990s, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has become central in world news and media has sharpened the controversy and politicized any attempt to understand Zionism and its significance as an intellectual and cultural movement. It must be seen as what it is— a movement.

Michael Stanislawski has the credential to presents an impartial and disinterested history of Zionist ideology from its origins to the present. This little book charts the crucial moments in the ideological development of Zionism, including the emergence of modern Jewish nationalism in early nineteenth century Europe, the founding of the Zionist movement by Theodor Herzl in 1897, the Balfour Declaration, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, the Six Day War in 1967, the rise of the “Peace Now” movement, and the election of conservative prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Stanislawski gives a balanced analysis of these controversial events and explains that even with the wonderful success in creating a Jewish state, there are still profound questions about the long-term viability of Zionist ideology in the destabilizing Middle East.

“FOUR BY FOUR”— The Beach that Isn’t


The Beach that Isn’t

Amos Lassen

 Shay Kanot’s “Four by Four” is a wild comedy about three colleagues at a Tel Aviv high-tech company who follow their adrenaline-junky of a boss, Motti (Or Zehavi), on a road trip to the perilous Sinai Peninsula looking for a secret beach resort. However, the beach doesn’t exist.  It was made up by of one of the junior executives, Oded (Oshri Cohen), who is trying to impress Motti and get a long sought-after promotion. But Oded is not alone in wanting a raise; so do Tal (Shlomi Koriat), a geek from marketing, and Dima (Avi Dangof), a racist and a quirky Russian programmer.

When Motti decides to go in search of “Oded’s beach”, things go crazy. Oded tries to cancel the excursion as he considers the repercussions of  his lie, but is unable to do so. The four reach Sinai, cross the border into Egypt and get lost in the desert. Then they are kidnapped by hostile Bedouins and only manage to escape with the help of a triple-amputee Eritrean asylum seeker and the daughter of a sheikh who wields AK47-wielding and who dreams of participating in a singing contest on Israeli TV. 

Now in the desert Oded has to confront his friends and admit that he lied and endangered their lives. Just as things seem to be at their bleakest and most hopeless the four manage to get out of trouble. Now all they have to deal with is who gets the promotion?

“Waking Lions” by Ayelet Gunda-Goshen— Saving His Family and His Name

Gundar-Goshen, Ayelet. “Waking Lions”, Little Brown and Company, 2017.

Saving His Family and His Name

Amos Lassen

Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon who seems to have a perfect life. He is married to a beautiful police officer and the father of two young boys. While speeding along a deserted moonlit road after an exhausting hospital shift, he accidentally hit an Eritrean migrant and when he realized that the man was beyond help, he fled the scene. When the victim’s widow, Sirkit knocked at Eitan’s door the next day his wallet and claiming that she knew what happened. Eitan learned that her price for silence was not money but something that would shatter his safe existence and plunge him into a world of secrets and lies that he could never have anticipated. When he hit the man, he felt sorry and this was just the beginning of his sense of guilt that causes his almost personal life to come apart.

“Waking Lions” looks at the moral ambiguities of Eitan’s situation with equal attention paid to the impact of its repercussions on his wife, Liat. Because he felt pressure from his work, decided to clear his head and put puts his new SUV through its paces in the middle of the night as he drove home from a very taxing day working at the hospital. It is that he hit the man and when Eitan got out of the car to see to the man (who he learn later is called Asum), he noticed that his car suffered no damage He determined that Asum was dying and quickly Eitan jumped back into the car and drove off leaving behind no trace that could identify him as the person who accidentally killed his victim. What he did not know was that he had left his wallet at the scene and this caused consequences to ensue.

Those consequences include blackmail. Eitan was forced to act or the accident would become public. He was trapped in a complex and illegal situation and very afraid. He was a man could have made life better for so many yet who found himself unable to think. Writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen provides a lot to think about here. Would someone with a stronger conscience have confessed to this unintentional killing? The morality of his actions are at the focus of this novel as we see the results of an instantaneous , decision haunt him and his family.

This is a thriller and a social comment on the little publicized issue of marginalized illegal immigrants in Israeli society and we only realize this when we learn that Asum was illegally in Israel and was one of many others who came to Israel from Eritrea. As we think about how Eitan reacted to the accident, we understand the meaning of his dilemma. We pay careful attention to how we arrive at our sense of morality. We see that Eitan is pliable and that his wife is unaware of what he is dealing with. Sirkit is cunning, a woman who does not agree with the ethic of how all live. She is a pragmatic woman who is determined to survive at all costs. What I found to be the most interesting aspect of the book is that

The plot is almost secondary to the political implications of the story that makes us think about integrity and the nature of guilt. Because this is a translation, there will be readers that can have a hard time with the style. As I read, I had the Hebrew edition beside the English translation and could easily see where the difficulties came about. There is a great deal of detail that might cause some to feel that they detract from the overall story. For me, I welcomed them because they reminded me so much of places I visited when I lived in Israel. Beersheba comes more to life on the pages of the book than it does in reality and the fact that it exists as the gateway to the Negev, the desert of Israel with its sweltering heat adds to the pressure that the entire novel holds. I was aware of the situation of migrant Africans who come to Israel as a place of refuge.

Be ready for a story with twists (and those twists have twists) that have the reader turning pages as quickly as possible. We see the huge differences between insider and outsider and while the very complex relationships that exist in Israel are unique to the country, we see a social dynamic that is very similar to what we have here.

“The Israeli Republic: An Iranian Revolutionary’s Journey to the Jewish State” by Jalal Al-e Ahmad— A Future that Might Have Been

Al-e Ahmad, Jalal. “The Israeli Republic: An Iranian Revolutionary’s Journey to the Jewish State”, Restless Books, 2017.

A Future That Might Have Been

Amos Lassen

Jalal Al-e Ahmad was an influential Iranian writer (he died in 1967) who spent his life teaching and as an social critic, activist and writer. He helped lay the groundwork for the Iranian Revolution. In 1963, he made a two-week trip to Israel and upon his return, he penned his article “Journey to the Land of Israel” in which he looked at the history and current political landscape of the Middle East and is a documentation of his visit to Israel. It caused an uproar after being published in Iran. The anti-Western clerics whom he had taught were very upset about what he had to say, especially because he saw a future model for Iran derived from what he saw and learned on that trip.

That article is the basis for “The Israeli Republic” and we see that Al-e Ahmad claimed that Israel and Iran actually mirror one another in various attitudes but especially in attitudes toward religious authority, politics and economic populism. As we might imagine, the fact that he liked these aspects of the country upon Iran’s status quo did not sit well with the leaders of his country. We now have his writing in English for the first time and we see Al-e Ahmad as an idealist and what he has to say can very well change the way we look at the Middle East. We see this once Iranian leader as a polemic and modernist, both qualities that we do not often find in others in Iran.

His “Journey to the Land of Israel” was basically a justification for his trip there as well as an account of what he saw especially and it greatly upset Ayatollah Khomeini, the cleric who held the title of founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

We must look back a bit in history and realize that in the 1950s and 1960s relations between Iran and Israel were growing even though the Shah never formally recognized the Jewish state. Nonetheless there existed military, intelligence and economic ties between the two countries. Iranians were often treated in Israeli hospitals and there existed Israeli advisers and contractors living in Tehran. However, the Muslim powers that were rising like Khomeini saw this as examples of the Shah’s perfidiousness as if to say, he was pandering to the West.

Undoubtedly, Khomeini and Ali Khamenei (a young seminary student who later became the supreme leader of Iran) were upset that Al-e Ahmad praised Israel and even more upsetting was that he dared to do so in print. This was a radical move especially since he did so in language that is traditionally reserved for Muslim religious clerics. Al-e Ahmad said that Israel was a religious state that was led by clerical leaders who were not quite prophets but more than politicians. He dismissed Arab nations as puppets of the West and saw Israel as provocatively posited as the ideal Muslim government.

By what we read here, we are reminded that before the Iranian revolution there was a relationship between Iran and Israel and this is something that is easy to forget when we think about where Iran is now in terms of Israel. Because Al-e Ahmad was a canonical writer who other leaders of the Islamic Republic admired, his feelings toward Israel seems uncanny and very titillating. Today his writings are considered to be curiosities and even a memorial to what might have been. Can we now think about the similarities between Zionism and the Islamic Republic? Al-e Ahmad stressed the characteristics of Israel as an “Islamic utopia” . This, still today, is unsolved. His interest in Israel came from presenting Israel as an alternative model and a mixture of Western industry and native culture but we must also consider that Al-e Ahmad’s view is ambiguous. On one side he sees Israel as the aforementioned utopia and a place where the division between East and West does not exist. On the other side Israel is seen as “the sure bridgehead of Western capitalism” that has a “coarsely realized indemnity for the Holocaust”. The West has sinned and the East pays the price. It is not necessary to agree or disagree with any of this yet it is food for thought on many different levels and the ideas here are great for playing “what if”. What is written here is very modern and for many it may change the way we think about the Middle East. The article by Al-e Ahmad is a record of his idealism, insight, and ultimate disillusionment toward Israel.


“FREAK OUT”— A Transformation

“Freak Out” (“Mesuvag Harig”)

A Transformation

Amos Lassen

Matan (Itay Zvolon) is a soldier with an administrative role in the Israel Defense Forces who is sent for a week of patrolling at a remote army base in the north of Israel. As he deals with homesickness and feeling out of place, he becomes an easy target for the other soldiers who enjoy provoking him. However, it is not long before strange things happen at the base, leaving all the soldiers fearful.

The film looks at the Israeli military experience, an experience that is terrifying, darkly humorous and thrilling. Over the course of the film, Matan undergoes a transformation into a man (by army standards). In Israel, the army is a rite of passage that carries substantial social significance in Israeli society and it signifies the transition from boy to man. Violence and killing are intrinsic values in the process of transition from adolescence to adulthood within Israeli society. The movie also deals with the Israeli fear of Arabs and Islamic terrorism, a fear shared more recently in societies in Europe and North America.

The filmmaker, Boaz Armoni, has said that “Freak Out” comes from his own personal experience. The film describes social phenomena and behaviors that he remembers from my military service and he gives us an alternative perspective on Israeli society. It was important for me to create a film that maintains the Israeli feel, inside a genre that is considered ‘inferior’ where I come from. We feel the influences from other horror and thriller movies from the 19 as well as from the early Israeli comedies that marked Israel film for so many years.

Matan is joined by three other IDF combat soldiers as they’re deployed to patrol a remote base in Givat Kfir, the North of Israel, for a week. Their job is to protect a radioactive transmitter hat blocks cell phone signals and the soldiers must be on high alert from any attacks from their Arab neighbors. As time progresses, the soldiers realize the base is not all what it seems.

Matan is something of a nerd and has never seen combat. Up until now, he has spent his army days working in offices on computers as a military assistant. When he’s called up to compulsory patrol service, he’s disheartened to find he’s been put with a group of three wild combat soldiers— Yishai (Eran Peretz), Roy (Ofer Ruthenberg) and Uzi (Assaf Ben-Shimon) who clearly enjoy a laugh and see Matan as easy prey to poke fun at and exploit. Their constant pranks and humiliation upset Matan who repeatedly texts and calls his mother for support. Even though he tries repeatedly to go home and get a different work order, he is forced to stay the week with the rowdy soldiers. Even his superior, Stas (Kye Korabelnikov), who Matan thought was an ally, uses him as the four soldiers leave base to spend a night out on the tiles. Once up on the watchtower, a frightened Matan realizes he’s not alone.

Matan is bullied in a role he’s not qualified or mentally prepared to do and we immediately see that he’s going to struggle to during his seven days of torment. It’s quite upsetting to see this and the humiliation is pretty difficult to watch and when things begin to become ominous, we know it’s not going to end well. A bunker lit in red holds sinister secrets we’re not sure we want to uncover especially after the film’s opening scene. Tension mounts as the fear intensifies and we begin to wonder if anyone survive.

Claustrophobic scenes and the isolation of northern Israel keep us on the edge of our seats. This is a very effective horror thriller in terms of storytelling even if the film unravels a bit towards its finale. It’s a bit obvious where the film is leading, especially when we come to the final third, but the high quality of performances from the small cast make it a thoroughly entertaining movie. What really pulls us into the film is the terrible way that Matan is treated. If I have any complain at all it is that perhaps the

horror angle could have been developed or polished a little better to improve the movie yet the build up is so well paced and executed that we are immediately gripped.

“MAGC MEN”— Father and Son

“Magic Men”

Father and Son

Amos Lassen

Avraham (Makram Khoury), an elderly Greek Holocaust survivor and an estranged Israeli magician, and his Hassidic rapper son, Yehuda (Zohar Strauss) embark on a journey with absurd encounters that ultimately leads them to a final confrontation of father and son. Avraham is jaded and has renounced his religion and he resents his son who is a pious Hassidic rapper. Avraham decides to return to his native Greece to find the man who offered shelter and taught him magic during World War II and he feels compelled to bring Yehuda as his guardian. Arriving in Greece against the backdrop of its recent financial crisis, father and son are forced to confront prickly relationship with the help of a kindhearted prostitute, Maria (Ariane Labed). In reality, this is a not just a road trip— it is also a journey for absolution and reconciliation.

There are enchanting moments of humor and affection and beautiful cinematography as well as excellent performances. (Makram Khoury won the equivalent of the Israeli Academy Award for his performance). The film was directed by the team of Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor who also wrote the screenplay with Sharon Maymon. The film brings together the memory of the Holocaust, a journey in search of family origins, a religious conversion, Greece, rap music, magic, a bit of Zorba and a Greek whore with a heart of gold. “Magic Men” strives to win us over, using a range of formulas and giving them to us in a visually and musically attractive package.

Yehuda is a former rapper who chose to embrace a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish lifestyle but has not quite given up his music. Since his return to religion, he and his father have been estranged. Yehuda’s religious conversion catalyzes a break with the father and becomes a symbol of generational rebellion. Unfortunately, the way that this is handled here is superficial and the scenes with father and son are melodramatic and lack depth. Their eventual reconciliation is expected from early on and it is presented shallowly and with too much sentiment.

Avraham’s visit to Greece was to look for the boy who saved him from the Nazis 60 years earlier and taught him to do magic. Through this search, we meet Maria the contented prostitute who gives the film an attractive female presence. The search for the boy causes the plot to become a chain of scenes that are conspicuously trying to please and move the audience. Nonetheless we are moved by the gorgeous Greek landscape.

Makram Khoury’s performance is restrained and precise and it is what really saves the film from its own problematic writing. Zohar Strauss is believable as the son, but his performance is limited by weakness in character development. The basic subject has been handled in other features as well as documentaries.

Directors Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor found that their own grandfathers had gone on a similar journey back to Poland. The Greek setting adds a novel twist, and the film has an opportunity to glance at the recent financial crisis in Greece while the hero revisits his past.

The creation of the three main characters is the best thing about the film. Avraham can be intolerant and disdainful of others, but there is something appealing about his independence and adventurous spirit. He is 78 years old and wants to travel alone, but his family forces him to tolerate the company of his son, Yehuda. Avraham is contemptuous of his son’s piety, and although this is never explained, we can’t help but assume that his experiences during the Second World War shattered his faith once and for all. The orthodox Yehuda doesn’t conform to stereotype. He’s not quite as rigid as when we first see him and his insecurities make him endearing.

“MOUNTAIN”— A Visit to the Mount of Olives

“Mountain” (“Ha’har”)

A Visit to the Mount of Olives

Amos Lassen

The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is the oldest active Jewish cemetery in the world, it proved fertile soil for Yaelle Kayam’s imagination. She took a story from the Talmud about a rabbi who no longer desired his wife and moved it to the area. The cemetery on the Mount of Olives is ironic in that there is so much sadness in all of the beauty that is there and this is a personification of Tzvia (Shani Klein) who lives at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Separated from the cemetery by a wire fence (in accordance with Jewish law), she is the patient and frustrated wife of rabbi, Reuven (Avshalom Polak) and their four children. We are taken into the rhythms and rituals of religious life. There is a recurring shot in which we see Tzvia stretching into life while the call to prayer drifts through the window and her husband conducts the Shacharit prayers. We become aware of the boredom of her mundane life in every frame as the camera hovers behind her as she smokes a cigarette at the sink, or looking out across Jerusalem from the window of her home. As if this is not enough, her husband Reuven is no longer interested in her and fatigue has taken over the their lives.

Tzvia is dissatisfied both emotionally and physically at home and finds solace amidst the tombstones of the cemetery as she goes there to read the poetry of Israeli poet, Zelda. The book is old and battered and has obviously been read many times. One night, Tzvia who is reserved and a traditional woman meets a small community of pimps and prostitutes operating out of the cemetery and she forms a strange, silent bond with them. They allow her to sit and observe in exchange for home-cooked food. Suddenly, the routines previously presented begin to shift and change slightly.

We become aware of Tzvia’s shifting moods and mental states by subtle changes and adjustments to the look of the picture – colder colors in the home emphasize her changing moods and handheld camerawork seems to become more evident if and when her spirits and heart rate are raised. Yet, Tzvia remains largely inscrutable, and while Klein elicits great empathy with a woman eroded by the monotony of her life, her inner-self remains a mystery. Her actions themselves are left unknown during the end of the film and whatever impact they might have is elusive.

“Mountain” depicts the unlikely transformation of a married Orthodox Jewish woman who lives and works beside one of the holiest sites in the Middle East into a fully realized woman. The Mount of Olives that is located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem gets its name from the olive groves that once covered its slopes. The sprawling site has been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years, and holds approximately 150,000 graves. It is also the site for Christian worship, as several key events in Jesus Christ’s life, as relating in the Gospels, took place there. Ironically this hallowed ground is the backdrop of the film as a religious woman sees the seedy underside of Israeli life involving prostitutes and drug dealers.

We see the prototype religious woman who does all things to keep her home kosher, providing for her children and for her seemingly loveless husband ion Tzvia . Director Kayam has stated that the film was certainly not meant to ridicule gender roles within a religious family. It means to challenge the standard views of an indifferent marriage, and explore notions of female interiority and self-discovery. Having Tzvia and a religious woman was to make her come across as pure and to emphasize the stereotype of the religious woman.

“She is religious, but it comes more from my own experiences,” Kayam said. “The idea of having her religious was meant to make her appear more righteous, more pure. And it has more to do emphasize more of the archetype.

Tzvia is the mother of four kids. They recite their prayers before and after every meal, and are dropped off at the school bus to attend Yeshiva. She is married to a teacher named Reuven. Tzvia spends her days doing wifely chores inside and outside her home, which happens to be surrounded by the ancient cemetery spread out over the Mount of Olives. Reuven pays little attention to her or her female needs  and her stifling monotony gradually worsens and he is very lonely.

Tzvia begins to witness new and bizarre, even seedy scenarios, involving prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers, at the graveyard. These seamy elements affect her profoundly and bring her dead soul to life. She becomes a voyeur to an exotic world, a world which had long been completely foreign to her.

Even though the narrative is apolitical, the deliberate choice of having the film set on the Mount of Olives is radical. This is an honest portrait of the limits of orthodox religion in an effort to explore female interiority.

With a title like “Mountain”, there will be suspicions of it being a metaphor for jump and as we watch we ask ourselves about the vagueness that we see. The conflict within Tzvia is introduced early in the film, when she casually describes her home as a “petting zoo” to a group of Orthodox women passing by—one of many self-conscious moments that doesn’t land as intended. We certainly get a sense of frustrated expectations as we see that Reuven is losing interest in his wife. They do not really communicate and we know nothing about their history— the sparse dialogue leaves their history together a void. This is counterbalanced by lively family scenes and photographic sweeps whenever Tzvia leaves the confines of their home. People from the world outside of the Mountain (tourists, and a good-natured Palestinian groundskeeper, Abed [Haitham Ibrahem Omari]) remain at a cautious distance, until Tzvia sees a clique prostitutes and johns doing their after-hours business among the tombstones. The encounter ignites a curiosity within her, and soon she’s attempting a rapprochement with the lowlifes turning tricks just feets from her home.

I had to stop and wonder if Tzvia’s glimpses of the lurid, debased outside world are liberating unto themselves, or if the woman’s curiosity is a sad symptom of loneliness in an increasingly loveless marriage or even both of these. She tries to have a cigarette with one of the prostitutes, only to have the younger woman to harangue her worse than she could possibly have imagined. This is something of a confirmation that allows Tzvia to keep coming back, with home-cooked food as she seeks a kind of mute companionship with the underclass.

Despite the film’s obvious theme of the sacred versus the profane, Tzvia’s life has pleasures and monotonies all its own; her four young children make for the culture of a small colony unto itself, and one of the more incisive family details comes when Tzvia has to tell her husband that their oldest daughter is merely pretending to be obedient when he’s around, because he’s not around often enough.

The issues that Tzvia faces are vague and the film withholds bigger connecting concepts that never come. Once again, I am amazed at how far Israeli film has come. There was a time (even when I lived in Israel) that it was almost impossible to get an Israeli to watch a movie made in Israel. That is definitely not true today.