Category Archives: Israel

“Never a Native” by Alice Shalvi— An Unforgettable Woman

Shalvi, Alice. “Never a Native”, Halban Publishers, 2019.

An Unforgettable Person

Amos Lassen

With the publication of her autobiography, Alice Shalvi is 92 years old. I met her sometime in the late 1970s when I would grade Israel’s National Matriculation Exams in Jerusalem during the summer. She was already legendary and I never cease to be amazed at how  she becomes more and more legendary with every passing day.

“Alice Shalvi is the most famous Israeli whom the average American Jew has never heard of. Revered Hebrew University English professor, principal of the Pelech school, founder of the Israel Women’s Network, rector of the Schechter Institutes, intrepid feminist activist, prominent advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and winner of multiple honors—among them, the Israel Prize, the country’s Nobel—Shalvi nonetheless remains virtually anonymous in the mainstream Jewish world.”

Alice Shalvi possessed a wide-ranging expertise and coherent in-depth analyses of women’s issues. She is a living denial of feminist stereotypes. Alice was married for more than 60 years and religiously, she practices what is regarded as  modern Orthodoxy. She was born in 1926 in Essen, Germany and then went to England where her family took refuge in 1934.

Alice’s memories of the war years are sketchy. She remembers being afraid when the Gestapo raided her house and when her brother came home beaten by Nazi street thugs. In London, she remembers taping the windows, the sirens and gas masks and running to the shelter.

She also remembers growing up with “a gramophone, records of Gigli, Jan Kiepura, famous cantors; opera, cinema, theatre.” She heard the child prodigy Yehudi Menuhin play at the Royal Albert Hall. During the blitz, her family left London for Buckinghamshire. Her mother provided meals for anyone who came to their door and even hosted a Seder for more than 30 Jewish soldiers stationed in the neighborhood.

Her Zionism was nourished by her father, an active Zionist and co-founder of both a publishing company of Hebrew books and a weekly newspaper whose back page featured Yiddish writing. As a child, Alice had a Hebrew grammar tutor. After the war, her family kept a chauffeur, daily household help, and a nanny.

Shalvi was a bright child who had taught herself to read German before turning 4 and often read aloud to other children. She invented imaginary alter egos to amuse her friends and amused adults with plots of movies she’d never seen but whose stories she’d imagined. She had been denied a formal Jewish education, she eavesdropped on a friend’s father’s Hebrew drills.

When she came to England, her classmates called her “a little refugee” but by the end of the school year, she was at the top of her class. She fell madly in love with English literature and was an ardent monarchist. When King George died, she wore a black armband.

She was determined to eliminate suffering and this began one rainy day while she saw a hungry old man in rags, soaked to the skin, shivering in the doorway, and felt powerless to help him.

She entered Cambridge a year earlier than her age group and spent her free time with the Jewish Society and joined a Zionist study group and discussed Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Leo Pinsker and was elected its president. In 1946, she attended the World Zionist Congress as a junior delegate. After Cambridge, she went to the London School of Economics and got a degree in social work You get the idea; she was a star.

It was not all happiness, however. She felt like an alien in England “not only Jewish but a foreigner, and though my flawless accent did not betray my foreign birth, my ignorance of … upper-class British traditions and mores would.” At Cambridge, she felt ill-prepared. Physically,  “I did not meet ideal standards. My bust was too small, my hips too broad.” She was ashamed of being “plump.” Before she had a boyfriend, she retreated into one of her fantasy alter egos, “a witty, physically more attractive person far more successful than me in winning the attentions of the opposite sex.”

When anti-Semitic remarks became unbearable, she detached from her “Jewish self” except in the privacy of her home. At the same time, she felt immense guilt for her ignorance of the Holocaust and became aware of “a startling paradox: while the extermination of European Jewry was in progress, I was enjoying what were undoubtedly the happiest years of my adolescence, safe and secure amidst the natural beauties of rural England.”

Her first visit to Palestine was in 1947, a month after the U.N. voted in favor of partition and two years later, she made aliyah. Her achievements as an educator, public speaker, social justice activist, and public intellectual are well known and her life paralleled Israel’s growing pains. However, Israel did nothing to relieve her self-doubt and shame. She had hoped to do social work with Holocaust survivors but discovered her “qualifications were inappropriate” and by accident, she found a job teaching English at the Hebrew University (her former students include Hebrew poets Yehuda Amichai, Dalia Ravikovitch, and Dan Pagis). Her confessions here are a testament to the durability of the female impostor syndrome and the emotional fortitude required for a woman to function in a judgmental patriarchal world.

We read of the unspoken and the unspeakable as Shalvi revisits episodes that sensitized her to gender inequity: The sexist pushback she got from higher-ups when she was the founding chair of the English department at the Institute of Higher Education in the Negev, the misogynistic humiliations that doomed her application for the position of dean of Ben-Gurion University, her service on the Namir Commission shich had been tasked by the Knesset with proposing legislation and other changes to improve the social, economic, and political status of women, her tenure as principal of Pelech, a high school that aims to provide Orthodox girls with both a secular and religious education, where she faced conflicts between Orthodoxy and modernity, her role as co-founder and chair of the Israel Women’s Network, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing women’s status through advocacy, consciousness-raising, litigation and legislation. She initiated new projects, like Nashim, the journal of Jewish feminist studies, created a Centre for Women in Jewish Law, and ended up as the institute’s president. This is a book about a little refugee who, despite suffering self-doubts lived a very large life.

“SHOOTING LIFE”– Living in Sderot

 Shooting Life

Living in Sderot

Amos Lassen

‪Sderot. The area is tense with a feeling of imminent danger and the locals pay the price. Igal Gazit, an unemployed film director from Tel Aviv, moves to Sderot and takes up a teaching job at the high school, leaving his daughter Maya behind with his ex-wife.

‪Igal’s first meeting with his new students doesn’t go well. The students, sensing that he is patronizing them, make fun of the ‘enlightenment’ he brings from Tel Aviv. However, Igal promises Amalia, the principal, that all the kids will pass the State Film Exams. The road to fulfilling that promise is one that the students will never forget.‬

“Muck: A Novel” by Dror Brustein— A Tale of Jerusalem

Burstein, Dror. “Muck: A Novel”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

A Tale of Jerusalem

Amos Lassen

Two poets in Jerusalem have no idea that their lives are going to change forever. Jeremiah is struggling and wondering that his becoming a writer is just a waste of time. He had just been criticized by the great critic, Broch. Mattaniah is just the opposite; he is ready to give what it takes to be a successful writer but (there is always a “but”) he has a secret that no one should ever know. Mattaniah’s late father was king of Judah.

Jeremiah despairs and as he does he has a vision that Jerusalem is doomed and therefore Mattaniah will not only be forced to ascend to the throne but will thereafter witness his people slaughtered and exiled. Jeremiah worries over telling this to his friend and wonders if this could be a false prophecy. He knows what can happen by imposing beliefs upon someone else and to paint a bleak picture of the future is surely not satisfying. How can he tell a friend and rival that his future is bleak? What grudges and biases can come out of this? Then there is the question of whether vocalizing a prediction gives it credence. If it does come true, what becomes of Jeremiah? As Dror Bernstein asks, is he “a seer, or just a schmuck?”

By now you might have guessed that this is a retelling of the story of Jeremiah that also looks at “the dispute between poetry and power, between faith and practicality, between haves and have-nots.” It is a brilliant, comedic and subversive. There are not many who can get away with retelling stories that are centuries old and part of religion but Burstein does so wonderfully.

If you have read any Philip Roth, you see the influence immediately; the satire is very strong This is also suspense and a story that is relevant to the modern nation of Israel. Once again what Jeremiah has to say is not paid attention to. There is brilliance in bringing together historical allusion with realism and ancient events are reset in modern times. There is no limit to the amount of innovation here but we see that the author had a great time writing this book that is filled with puns and illusions. The story is both strange and strangely apocalyptic as it dissects “the joys, horrors, and paradoxes of trying to live a moral life in the modern world—let alone in ancient/modern Israel.” 

“THE ANGEL”— The Spy Who Made Camp David Possible


The Spy Who Made Camp David Possible

Amos Lassen

Ashraf Marwan realized as early as the late 1960s, that Egypt and the rest of the Arab world had aligned themselves with the wrong super-power. The Soviet Union’s socialist economy would eventually collapse, leaving Israel’s increasingly close ally America standing tall. We now that he was right and looking out for himself and to avoid long-term disaster, Marwan became a one of the most highly placed intelligence sources in the Mossad’s history. We learn of this in Ariel Vromen’s “The Angel”, a Netflix Production. Marwan was Nasser’s not-particularly-beloved son-in-law, but Sadat thought more highly of him (he also appreciated the close alliance between himself and his late predecessor’s family). As a result, Marwan served as his envoy to nearly every Arab leader requiring a little special handling (especially Gaddafi) and was privy to all of Sadat’s war plans. Most of those plans would come across the desk of Mossad chief Zvi Zamir. It was difficult building trust between him and his Mossad handler, Danny Ben Aroya on both sides.

In “The Angel”, we see all the intrigue that was going ongoing on in Cairo, featuring Sadat and Sami Sharaf, Marwan’s sinister former boss during the Nasser regime. There seems to be a constant threat of mistrust between Marwan and the Mossad and it becomes tedious. We would think Zamir would give a lot of rope to a source this highly placed. Yet, the film does a nice job of squaring Marwan’s actions with his patriotic loyalty to Egypt. If I did not know that Marwan died in 2007 (under mysterious circumstances), I would think that the script was trying to protect him.


Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari is excellent as Ashraf Marwan, even brooding charismatically and he is backed by a fine supporting cast. Israeli-born, LA-based director Vromen keeps the clockwork tightly wound and does a nice job of conveying the era. It is a nicely crafted period espionage drama, but it is not the definitive portrait of the Mossad’s heroic service that we yet to see.


The film tries to fill in the blanks in the secret life of Ashraf Marwan, who spied for Israel in the lead-up to the October, 1973 war. We know that he was the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and close aid to his successor, Anwar Sadat and that he spied for Israel in the lead up to war and provided warning of the imminent Arab attack. Everything else about Marwan’s clandestine activities cannot be confirmed.


Zvi Zamir, the Mossad director during the Yom Kippur war, called him “the best source we have ever had.” Simultaneously, Egypt claims he was a double agent, feeding Israeli intelligence exactly what Sadat wanted them to think. After his mysterious death from a balcony fall in 2007, Marwan received a hero’s funeral from his homeland but was eulogized in Israel as well. The movie functions is an entertaining history lesson, with the opening narration explaining the preceding Six-Day War, and the lasting effects of Israel retaking the Sinai Peninsula. Vromen does an excellent job fleshing out both sides of the conflict and keeping things accurate. While more time is spent with the Egyptian characters, like Sadat (Sasson Gabai) and Marwan, the Israeli characters such as Mossad agent Danny Ben Aroya (Toby Kebbell) are given time to gain sympathy for their struggles. the movie only falters when exploring its lead character and that is because of the ambiguous nature of Marwan’s exploits. Vromen takes plenty of liberties, and rightfully so.


The filmmakers go so far as to connect Marwan’s exploits to the eventual 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed by Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It’s a poor storytelling decision since the film gives us no reason to believe that the person we’ve been watching would do anything so high minded and selfless. Truth is, we have no idea what was going through his mind and never will, but the filmmaker’s job is to make us believe and here is where the film fails. “The Angel” gives us a protagonist with purely selfish intentions at first. His powerful father-in-law does not respect him and he seeks revenge. Later we see Marwan grapple with his gambling addiction – perhaps money was the most significant factor in him contacting the Mossad. There’s a major shift in the final scenes, when Marwan lays bare his true feelings: He’ll do anything for peace! He just wants to avoid war and conflict at any cost.


The film is filled with as much plot and background data as one of Marwan’s reports (including an opening voice-over that quickly sums up an entire war), and this approach does unfortunately hold us at an arm’s length since we’re never able to stop long enough to get a true sense of the people behind the pages handed from one man to the next, but that does not make this any the less fascinating. “The Angel” gives a fast-paced, exciting and well-made depiction of everything Marwan did decades earlier to lead to roughly forty years of peace

“GHOST HUNTING”— Wounds That Never Heal


“Ghost Hunting”

Wounds That Never Heal

Amos Lassen

 Palestinian director Raed Andoni uses his own personal experiences in this documentary that is a direct socio-political account of the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Film has the ability to change the darkest and most traumatic experiences into edifying and inspiring works of art and “Ghost Hunting” is one such film. It is a hybrid between documentary, fiction and experimentation with which its director tries to exorcise the demons that have haunted him since his imprisonment in a detention center in Israel.

Andoni recreates the prison in what looks like a garage or hangar and we see the torture, recreated with such rawness that it is impossible to know to what extent these men are simply acting. We are forced to face a terrible and cruel reality head on and without any filters, one in which the word humanity loses all meaning. Men become beasts whose only reason for being is survival. The simulation of the horror is so palpable that at times we wonder where the border between fiction and reality really is. We can only wonder about the psychological state of mind of the victims of torture years after being subjected to torture. The insanity that we see is interspersed with beautiful animated sequences that give a quiet lyricism to the film.

What we see is the re-enactment of the experience of torture in prison, acted out by ex-prisoners who have personally lived through such experiences. We are in Palestine and the torture takes place in Israeli prisons. Andoni chose to intertwine the “making-of” of a re-enactment film on torture in prison with the re-enactment film itself. We quickly understand that a sharp distinction between the “making-of” of a film and the film itself is simply impossible to be drawn. One of the central experiences for the viewer is the slow vanishing of the distance between these two facets. We clearly feel that the emotions, the pain, and the violence that the tortured feel. Several violent scenes occur, which are not only performed for the film but some of which come out spontaneously.

The re-enactment becomes almost a continuation of the very recent experiences, expressing the necessity of making these experiences visible or the fear of forgetting experiences that cannot be forgotten anyway. The ex-prisoners participating in “Ghost Hunting” are not just witnesses insofar as we see them in the process of becoming witnesses of their own experiences. They are “performers” of a re-enactment that simply becomes an enactment; a new direct experience of the prison and of the torture. Therefore, we are the actual witnesses.

This is a film enactment, in which fictional intentions are constantly turning into a documentation of reality. This is a film that reflects on the facts of filmmaking, and this self-reflective aspect of the film and we see this in Read Andoni’s constantly interrogating (torturing) himself throughout the entire film. It is during the end credits we learn that the film is dedicated to Abdullah Moubarak, one of the participants in the project, who returned to prison shortly after the shooting and this becomes not only a film about memories from the past, but a cry in the present as well as a look to future.

“Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine” by Marcello Di Cintio— Looking at Palestine Through Literature

Di Cintio, Marcello. “Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine”, Counterpoint Press, 2018.

Looking at Palestine Through Literature

Amos Lassen

Marcello Di Cintio first visited Palestine in 1999, and as with most outsiders and what he knew was a story of unending struggle, of stories of oppression, exile, and occupation. This is what he had learned from the media. However in “Pay No Heed to the Rockets”, he shares a story that is more complex and that is the Palestinian experience as seen through authors, books, and literature. He explores what literature means to modern Palestinians and how Palestinians make sense of the conflict between a life of imagination and the daily violence of survival. He traveled the long route through the West Bank, into Jerusalem, across Israel, and finally into Gaza and he met with poets, authors, librarians, and booksellers to learn about Palestine through their eyes, and through the stories of their stories.

Di Cintio travels through the rich cultural and literary heritage of Palestine. He uncovered a humanity, and a beauty, often ignored and/or unnoticed by news media. This is a fresh story about Palestine and it begins with art instead of war.

We read of a powerful and perceptive look at Palestinian culture in a memoir that is both travelogue and literary appreciation We learn about libraries and bookstores that are dedicated to preserving and promoting a cultural history threatened with elimination and novels that are being written in prison on cigarette wrappers. We see that on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian who wish to live their lives free of the hatred that is the result of the conflict. We know little about everyday Palestinians but journalist Di Cintio means to change that by sharing his nearly 20 years of visits to the West Bank and Gaza and the writings of Palestine’s many literary figures. We see literature, history, and politics come together and take us to the modern Palestinian literary scene while introducing us to the rich diversity of voices that make it up.

“Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo” by Seth Anziska— Ensuring Palestinian Statelessness

Anziska, Seth. “Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Ensuring Palestinian Statelessness

Amos Lassen

Those of you who know me know that I am not a political person and n fact, I really dislike politics except we are speaking about Israel. I become really upset when people who have never lived there are ready to criticize whatever Israel says or does. I spent more than half of my life there and while it was not always good for me, I completely understand why Israel must exist and that we must support her. Israel has been around now for seventy years Israel and she has done some amazing things. For forty years Israel has honored a peace treaty with Egypt that is widely viewed as a triumph of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. Yet the Palestinians who would-be beneficiaries of a vision for a comprehensive regional settlement that led to the Camp David Accords in 1978 still remain stateless. Seth Anziska’s credentials certainly qualify him to have his say on what has happened here and here he looks at how and why Palestinian statelessness persists. In “Preventing Palestine”, he examines the complex legacy of the agreement brokered by President Jimmy Carter.

Anziska bases what he has to say on newly declassified international sources and charts the emergence of the Middle East peace process, including the establishment of a separate track to deal with the issue of Palestine. From the very beginning of the peace process, Anziska tells us “Egyptian-Israeli peace came at the expense of the sovereignty of the Palestinians, whose aspirations for a homeland alongside Israel faced crippling challenges.” With the introduction of the idea of restrictive autonomy, Israeli settlement expansion, and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the chances for Palestinian statehood narrowed even more. I was there during the first Intifada in 1987 and it, along with the end of the Cold War brought new opportunities for a Palestinian state, but many players, refused to see Palestinians as a nation or a people and continued to steer international diplomacy away from their cause.

“Preventing Palestine” brings together excellent political analysis, extensive original research, and interviews with diplomats, military veterans, and communal leaders to give us a new interpretation of the struggle for self-determination.

Politically in Israel, the Camp David Accords are acclaimed while the Oslo Accords are bitterly debated between Left and Right. Anziska shows us the strong connection between the two agreements and the extent to which Oslo drew on Camp David’s autonomy plan. Reality was obscured by hostile political agendas and unabashed bias. Seth Anziska reveals the complex forces that have prevented Palestinian statehood and contributed to the destructive dynamic on the ground. He looks at the failures of the so-called Palestinian-Israeli peace process and why they failed and resulted in injustices for the Palestinians. We see how the breakthrough peace agreement between Egypt and Israel created a roadblock to peace between Israel and the Palestinians and has done research to back this up. While reading this, it is clear why a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn’t been achieved. We see the objective political reality where a people’s rights are marginalized by a military power unchecked by international order and largely supported by the United States. This is a story of Israel’s success, but one that paradoxically leaves it facing an assertive existential enemy.

Anziska’s gives us a compelling analysis of the unexpected continuity that runs throughout the years of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and it is so important that we understand what we have here.

We already know the outcome of the contest at this point but that does not stop this from being a thrilling and gripping read. Anziska reveals the willingness of Americans and even Egyptians to go along with the Israeli campaign. I have read so much about this of late, but I can assure that this is a book that needs to be read if you are to understand.

“Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems” by Hanoch Levin and translated by Atar Hadari— Finally in English

Levin, Hanoch. “Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems”, (English and Multilingual Edition), translated by Atar Hadari, Art Productions, 2017.

Finally in English

Amos Lassen

Nineteen years after Hanoch Levin’s early death from bone cancer, the great Israeli playwright’s bleak, searing poetry is finally translated into English. Levin was a great Israeli playwright, an author, and a poet and above all else, he was a man who dared. He was born in born in 1943 and death was the one and only true muse, the great and bottomless well of inspiration. The cause of death was bone cancer and he was only 56-years-old. Death permeates, in some way or another, nearly every poem of this recently published collection which has been translated by British poet and playwright Atar Hadari. The volume, which received a prestigious PEN Translates award in England, is the first, and long overdue, book of Levin’s poetry to be released in English, and it is a cause for celebration.

Levin’s dramaturgical work had been formative for generations of Israelis. He was both revered and reviled for his radical left-wing politics, his iconic satire, obscenity and absurdism. He wrote 56 plays, and garnered numerous awards for them, but he only published six books of poetry, a genre, it seems, Levin reserved for his most intense, varied, and poignant thoughts about mortality. Levin’s work is the “profane, rude, unavoidably direct and modern answer to Ecclesiastes.

”Oh miserable dead, this isn’t California,

this is the dark grave and this is death!

So shall a son leave his father and mother

and man leave his wife and cleave unto his death”.

Here, Levin is giving generations of the dead a pep talk—lest they forget their predicament. The poet is playing with the well-known biblical verse, Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” But whereas Genesis optimistically points toward formation of new familial bonds—a chain of them—in Levin’s rendition, the true and final beloved, is the cessation of it all.

The volume is bilingual, and reading the original alongside Hadari’s translation, one notices that the opposite of sunny “California” is the musically resonant, dark grave. Reading this closely can make California no longer feel like California.

Despite Levin’s immense popularity, not a great deal is known about him. As Israeli scholar Freddie Rokem wrote in the introduction to The Labor of Life, a selection of Levin’s plays published in English translation in 2003: “In comparison with most of his contemporaries in literature and the arts, at least in Israel, who quite willingly expose themselves to the media, consciously creating a public persona and expressing their opinions about political and other issues, Levin fervently guarded his privacy throughout his career, giving only a few, rather angry interviews during his first steps as a writer.”

Igal Sarna’s essay, “The National Poet’s Mother,” has translated and included in abridged form in this volume. “Hanoch Levin spies on the neighborhood, I spy on Levin.” Sarna, who wrote this piece when he was just starting out as a writer, is now a renowned journalist and author. He describes his failed attempts to get through to Levin. It was worse than a failure: As Sarna put it, even “more surprising was the silence of his friends, even those he’d not seen for many years. … When I approached them, they sought his consent. Levin preferred them not to speak with me.” It was as if, in deference to the author’s desired privacy, those in his circle had taken a vow of silence.

At one point, however, Sarna found the South Tel Aviv building where Levin grew up. There, he found the poet’s mother, and something clicked: “In the abandoned buildings, used heroin syringes from the night before rolled on the floor; inside I also found Malka Levin, who spoke to me through the crack of the door. I was holding on to the door handle, she was pulling from the other side.”

Sarna says that it is “very Polish [i.e., Ashkenazi], to hide. … You care very much what other people think about you. It’s the shame. Especially when you’re poor, when you grow up with a weird mother.”

Levin’s parents immigrated to Palestine from Lodz in 1935, and Levin’s childhood was overshadowed by poverty and a keen awareness of all of his relatives who had perished in the Holocaust. On top of that, when Levin was only 13, his father died of a heart attack. The death of a father at a young age leaves one unprepared, and exposed. Poetry is a of hiding.

Levin’s first poetry collection, “Morning Prayers” (1965) which is, included in this volume, describes the life of an impoverished neighborhood and its inhabitants’ reaction to the death of one of their own. The opening poem “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” is both a satire on the well-known psalm and a literal attempt to compose a new kind of a mourning ritual, an elegy that is totally different from a kaddish. The narrator speaks directly to the dead body remembering:

… the smell of onion was wafting.

Then your wife leaned across,

then the neighbor came in a fright the way a neighbor does,

then the doctor came and certified the hour of your death

with his breath all toothpaste minty fresh.

The rain fell and fell on the synagogue.

At the first service they wondered where you went,

at the second service they already knew.

The tone is completely disaffected, detached, and almost disdainful. Levin’s attention to smell, particularly the unwanted and misplaced smells of onion and the doctor’s breath, brings home the sad smallness of the world surrounding the dead man.

This poem is the opposite of a prayer. Whereas prayer—on this occasion, kaddish—is a song of praise, this is a song of disdain. Prayer seeks connection but Levin’s poetry asserts loneliness and alienation. Prayer points to eternity, while Levin is bent on finality. Instead of piety and repentance, Levin uses humor and sarcasm. And yet, sublimity is here, too. A skeptic is entitled to a religious experience as much as a believer is.

Levin was really able to show that Israel is “a country of survivors, and it’s ugly.” Indeed, in his poetry, and in his plays, Levin depicts Israelis in less than flattering ways. Look at the character in “Morning Prayers”:

… Berta Levi’s already sitting by the window,

cracking nuts.

Her buttocks, two noble hefty weights of tender flesh

Bow to one another graciously as she walks,

now rest in their residue, the flowered cushion.

Her breasts, two curious good-fellows with swollen faces,

Rise up against the bra, belisha beacons to those who’ve

lost their way

There are no borders in Levin’s satire—women and men, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, rich and poor, pious and secular. Some feel that the reason his poetry had not been translated is because Levin never exercised good taste or political correctness.

“Hebrew is a much more compact language than English, so a real difficulty was making the much longer sets of beats in English keep moving.” Moreover, Levin sporadically and unexpectedly uses rhyme; often for emphasis of a sarcastic remark. Translation itself is a problem as Levin’s poetry

is not merely Hebrew, but Hebrew pertaining specifically to the world of Jewish ritual practice and culture. Levin’s characters are old-world and closer to the characters one finds in the works of Isaac Babel, I. B. Singer, and even Shalom Aleichem.

His heaviest poems are those written by Levin in the final years and months of his life, and addressed to his wife. He was very aware of his spreading cancer and he referenced it in brutally honest, disturbing, and heartbreaking lines. In the poems from this cycle, in death’s proximity, Levin admits to fear, disappointment, visions of his beloved with another, and goes at length into details about decomposition and yet these are love poems. The sublime enters through a strange and unexpected backdoor and even though he was a cynic and a skeptic, he felt passion and love.

The poems here are profound, disturbing, and deeply affecting. In “Morning Prayers”, he depicts the scene of the resurrection of the dead (which he clearly did not believe in).

And all the dead will wonder

How tall the trees have grown and how grey their grave

And still they’ll look and wonder at themselves

And Messiah pass among them and laugh

Handing out to each of them a mint cough drop.

I have been something of a Hanoch Levin groupie and this began when I first saw “Yaakovi and Liedenthal” and then saw new productions of “The Bathroom Queen” and “You, Me and the Next War”. I remember totally “The Great Whore of Babylon” and “Rubber Merchants” and “The Trials of Job”. I could watch them over and over. There is one poem that appears in one of Levin’s plays that I have fallen in love with “Checkmate”. Below is my attempt at translation:


My child, where did you go? My good child where are you?

A knight that is black strikes a white knight.

My father won’t return, he is never coming back

A white knight rams a black knight

There are tears in the homes and silence in the streets,

As the king is playing with the queen.

My child will never wake, he sleeps, he will not grow.

Black knight downs the white knight

My father is in the darkness and will never again see light

White knight downs a black knight

There is weeping in homes and silence in the streets

as the king is jostling with the queen.

My son who was at my breast is now in the clouds

Black knight fells a white knight

My father is in my heart but his heart has stopped

White night fells a black

There are funeral wails in homes and silence in the streets and

the king keeps playing with the queen.

My son where are you now, my dear son, where have you gone and why?

The white knight and the black knight are dead.

My father won’t return, he’s never coming back

There are no knights— black or white.

There are screeches in the rooms and silence in the streets,

on the empty chessboard there are just the living king and queen.

“FLAWLESS” (“HANESHEF”)— Three Teens


Three Teens

Amos Lassen

“Flawless” is the story of three teenagers from Jerusalem who sell their kidneys to pay for cosmetic surgery and prom dresses. As a secret uncovers they realize nothing is as it seems. Tal Granit and Sharon Maimon co-directed. The film has been nominated for 12 Ophir Awards (Israel’s Oscar) and among them is a nomination for best actress. Stav Strashko is a 25-year-old trans actress who landed that nomination.

Strashko, who has made her name in recent years as a top international model, has scored another first as she is the first trans nominee in Israel. “I always saw myself in women’s roles.” “I’m proud to be the first trans [nominee] — it’s a milestone,” she said. Strashko grew up as a boy who identified as girl and this prepared her for a career in acting. “My whole life I played something that I wasn’t.”

In the film, she plays Eden, a transgender teen desperate to raise money for a breast enlargement operation ahead of the prom.“Strashko, who was born Stanislav in Ukraine, was discovered by a modeling agency after leaving her home in Tel Aviv at the age of 16, at first taking on androgynous roles and later modeling as a woman, including a campaign opposite musician Joe Jonas for Diesel.” In Israel, Strashko came to public attention when she took part in the “Big Brother VIP” TV show. She has since become a prominent figure in the LGBT community.


“RED COW” (“PARA ADUMA”)— Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel

“Red Cow” (“Para Aduma”)

Coming-of-Age Sexually, Religiously and Politically in Israel

Amos Lassen

“Red Cow is a coming-of-age film that takes place in Israel during the days leading up to the assassination of Rabin. Benny is a 16-year-old girl who was orphaned from mother at birth. She is the only child of Yehoshua, a religious, right wing extremist and she is at that critical juncture when she is forming her sexual, religious and political awareness. The film is set on one of Israel’s orthodox Jewish settlement where Benny has sexual awakening and ideological unraveling. This is a sensitive and assured first feature from Tsivia Barkai Yacov who also wrote the screenplay. We see a community that is rarely explored on screen. The film shows the difficulties of being a young woman in a devout patriarchal system. We also are taken into the complexity of burgeoning female desire and a complicated queer romance.

I can assure you that based upon my own experiences as an orthodox gay Jew that the film is disarmingly authentic. We have a female-centric window into the Middle East filled with intimate insights into a girl defying societal expectations. Benny’s (Avigail Kovari) outsider status is sealed from the outset, her androgynous name and blazing red hair stand out in her settlement home of Silwan in East Jerusalem. An introduction explains the significance of the feature’s title and its links to the Torah, so that we are aware of the importance of Benny’s task of caring for a newborn pure-red calf. We see the potential parallels between the girl and the animal in her care. Although Benny and her extremist father Yehoshua (Gal Toren) might not realize it at first, both are beacons of change.

According to his beliefs, Yehoshua is convinced that salvation is now imminent. When Benny searches for her own faith beyond strict religious instructional classes with the community’s other women and generally assisting her father, she finds it in a burning desire for newcomer to the settlement, Yael (Moran Rosenblatt). A fast friendship soon becomes nervous clandestine flirting, and then passionate secret trysts. The forbidden tenor of their romance is omnipresent throughout. She tells Yael even before things become physical that she is surprised by the intensity of her feelings..

It’s with naturalism and nuance that director Yacov who herself is a native of an orthodox Jewish settlement herself, conveys the teen’s emotional state. She experiences deeply-felt urges that threaten to overtake her entire life while also clashing with the teachings she’s increasingly beginning to abandon thus placing her in a precarious position should the affair be discovered. Benny’s growing distance from Yehoshua and everything he represents is also handled with subtlety— as a relationship fracturing with each passing moment, but with slow and ragged cuts. The film moves between the use of walls, fences and shadows to stress the boundaries surrounding Benny and these mirror her restless fervor.

Kovari gives a performance of internalized turmoil, and uncontainable longing. Her chemistry with Toren is palpable, their glances say everything their characters can’t.