A Complex Fate: Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Nation, June 12, 2019
An Evening About Naomi Shemer, Icon Of Israeli Culture And History, With Roy Rimshon
Isranet, June 2019
On the evening of June 11th, over a hundred guests were gathered in Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue for an event hosted by the CIJR. Its Chairman, Jack Kincler, began the program by welcoming the event’s distinguished guests, such as former Justice Minister and Attorney General Irwin Cotler, Israel’s Consul General for Eastern Canada, David Levy, as well as yours truly, a student intern.
The Chairman then let Roy Rimshon, an Israeli teacher and the evening’s speaker, take the stage. Over the course of an hour and a half, the guests were delighted with a touching and well-constructed presentation of Naomi Shemer’s life. A prolific songwriter – born to pioneers who immigrated to the land from Lithuania, she grew up in Kibbutz Kinneret in the Jordan Valley in the 1930s and 1940s, and later resided in Tel Aviv – she wrote and composed over 1000 songs about the Jewish people and Israel that instantly became an integral part of Israeli culture. What made these songs so special was her remarkable talent for writing biblically-influenced poetry in Hebrew, especially at a time when the language was only starting to be commonly used; her talent for perfectly combining words and melody; as well as her versatility of styles: she could just as easily write songs for children, about politics or about Judaism. Having lived in that region most of her life, including the almost 20 years before the State of Israel was established, her connection to the land was particularly strong.
Rimshon, himself a former resident of Kibbutz Kinneret, fused this presentation with detailed descriptions of life on the Israeli kibbutzim, Independence Day, the highs and lows of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, and of other significant periods of Israel’s history that Shemer’s life and songs came to embody and symbolize. Rimshon gave this presentation with great passion conveying tangible emotion when telling stories about the hardships of Shemer’s personal life whom he called “his personal hero”: the fascinating stories and situations in which she wrote her iconic songs and about the iron will of Jews who fought against all odds to defend their kibbutz from seemingly unstoppable Arab armies. For example, she was tasked in October 1973 with writing a song to support Israeli soldiers fighting in the Yom Kippur War and their families during its first days when young soldiers, unbeknownst to their families, were dying by the hundreds. Shemer originally wanted to translate the Beatles’ Let it Be to Hebrew, but after her husband convinced her to not use a “goy’s song”, she rewrote the song’s melody and lyrics in the span of ten minutes, and immediately performed the newly-arranged and newly-written song, Lu Yehi, on live radio for the entire country, an example of her brilliant musical and poetic talent.
Rimshon enhanced his presentation by rare pictures and recordings of Naomi Shemer’s life, such as a photo of her performing a song atop a boulder in her kibbutz when she was only three years old, as well as historic footage, such as Israeli soldiers breaking into tears when reaching the Western Wall at the conclusion of the Six Day War. Of course, an evening about this icon of Jewish music would not be complete without listening to her beautiful songs, which Rimshon enthusiastically interspersed during his presentation. The crowd hummed and sang to Shemer’s classics, most notably to Yerushalayim Shel Zahav that she composed only three weeks before Jewish soldiers retook Jerusalem in 1967 when the reunification of Jerusalem was only a far-off dream. Unbeknownst to many in the audience, the final stanza of that song was added by Shemer minutes after learning about the retaking of the Old City, revealing, once again, her extraordinary creativity.
Rimshon concluded his presentation with a final video, Naomi Shemer’s B’Rosh HaShanah song, to which members of the audience spontaneously started dancing the hora in the head of the hall. It was such a joyous conclusion to Roy Rimshon’s emotionally gripping presentation of Naomi Shemer, arguably the Jewish people’s most talented songwriter.
Jacques Chitayat is a CIJR intern
What The Popularity Of ‘Shtisel’ Tells Us About Judaism’s Non-Orthodox Majority
The Times of Israel, June 22, 2019
Would the builders of New York’s Temple Emanu-El ever have imagined that their congregation’s sanctuary would one day be packed to the balconies with thousands of devout followers of a black-hatted Orthodox rabbi and his family? That was the scene last week when the citadel of high Reform Judaism on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was overtaken by “Shtisel”-mania.
Fans of the Israeli TV series about the day-to-day dramas of a Haredi — that is, ultra-Orthodox — family in Jerusalem filled the Fifth Avenue synagogue to see the show’s three stars discuss their surprise Netflix-streamed hit. Demand was so intense that the organizers — Emanu-El’s Streicker Center, The Jewish Week Media Group and UJA-Federation of New York — added a second night when the first quickly sold out. Some 4,600 attended over the two nights, according to the event’s sponsors.
The “Shtisel” stars had just come from two events in Los Angeles and would soon head across the Hudson to another synagogue event in New Jersey. Wherever they went, excited fans followed, some flying in from far away to hear from their small-screen heroes.
The first night at Temple Emanu-El, the three “Shtisel” actors — Dov Glickman, who played family patriarch Shulem Shtisel; Michael Aloni, who played his son Akiva; and Neta Riskin, who played daughter Giti — and show producer Dikla Barkai seemed as surprised as anyone at their show’s success, marveling at the crowd of thousands assembled before them.
They recounted their more modest initial expectations for the show. Aloni said that “Shtisel” did not exactly have the hallmarks of an international hit: There were no sex or car chases. “We all shared this feeling that we were doing something great that no one would watch,” he said.
Yet this quiet show about private family dramas in Jerusalem’s insular Haredi community made a big splash. In Israel, where “Shtisel” first aired in 2013, its popularity bridged the secular-religious divide. Its two seasons cleaned up at the Israeli Television Academy awards, while TV-less Haredi Jews found ways to watch avidly and surreptitiously.
But it wasn’t until Netflix picked up the show in December that “Shtisel” got a second life as an international sensation. Now there are plans for a third season (though the show’s producers might need to work out a deal with the Israeli Actors’ Association over sharing overseas sales revenue) and also for an American version set in Brooklyn.
The popularity of “Shtisel” first became apparent to me when I realized that everyone in my tiny Orthodox shul seemed to be watching it. But I didn’t fully appreciate what a phenomenon the show had become until a nonreligious friend who is uninvolved in organized Jewish life told me that “Shtisel” was one of the only shows she had watched in the past two years.
“Shtisel” fandom is not a parochial allegiance. Look no further than a 13,000-member Facebook group devoted to the show, where fans from across the country and around the world — Jews and non-Jews of varied religious backgrounds — probe the show’s depths and obsess over its minutiae, from analyzing its handling of bereavement to gushing over Aloni’s good looks.
To what does “Shtisel” owe its popularity? For starters, it’s just excellent TV: superbly written, well-acted, with compelling characters and rich storylines. There’s also, no doubt, a certain voyeuristic appeal: an opportunity to gaze into a mysterious and cloistered world.
For many Jewish viewers, I suspect, curiosity about our Haredi kin is a significant part of the show’s attraction. We non-Haredi Jews can appreciate that Haredim are connected to us, that they are, in some sense, our mishpocha (family). Yet our connection to the Haredi world is attenuated by a profound religious chasm. “Shtisel” allows us to bridge that divide from the comfort of our couches. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Why Is This Israeli Drama Such A Hit With Palestinians? Because It Tells The Truth
The Spectator, June 8, 2018
‘The rule in our household is: if a TV series hasn’t got subtitles, it’s not worth watching,’ a friend told me the other day. Once this approach would have been both extremely limiting and insufferably pompous. In the era of Netflix and Amazon Prime, though, it makes a lot of sense.
There’s something about English-speaking TV — especially if it’s made in the US — that tends towards disappointment. Obviously, there have been exceptions: The Sopranos; Band of Brothers; Breaking Bad; Game of Thrones. But too often, what’s missing is that shard of ice in the creative heart that drama needs if it’s to be truly exceptional.
American drama is a slobbering puppy dog. No matter how dark or weird it’s subject matter, there’s invariably a fatal moment where it suddenly rolls over onto its back and begs you to tickle its tummy. Its urge to show you how secretly lovable it is is more powerful than its desire to be great art. Perhaps I’ll go into more detail on another occasion, but The Looming Tower and Ozark are both victims of this tendency.
“Fauda” (Netflix), on the other hand, doesn’t give a shit whether you think it’s caring or sharing or has a wholesome moral core. It’s Israeli. It’s not there to make friends. Or take prisoners. And as a result it’s honest, true, gripping, real — and definitely your new favorite TV series.
You can see immediately why it has been a huge hit in Israel. It’s a thrillingly gritty series about an undercover Israeli Defence Force intelligence unit whose job is to fight mostly Palestinian terrorists. There’s moody, downbeat ox-like Doron (played by Lior Raz who, before becoming an actor, did this sort of thing for real); handsome Mickey Moreno; ludicrously hot Nurit; careworn but pragmatic Captain Ayub. They’re tough, fit, committed, brave; their banter is terse; they love one another like family; they’re the defenders of their fragile, perpetually threatened civilisation.
And, by extension, of our civilization. Their womenfolk are bareheaded, open, sexually promiscuous; they drink beer and smoke bongs at barbecues; their bars serve the same array of spirits, play the same dance music, entertain the same beautiful young things you’d find in London, Paris, New York, Tokyo; they’re religious, some of them, but not oppressively so. Life is good, the economy is booming, the future is bright.
Not so the world on the other side of the wall — so alien it might as well be Mordor or the land of the Wildlings and the White Walkers. The men all chain smoke (about the only thing they have in common with the Jews), but drink only endless sugary drinks (coffee or juice) or water. Women lurk mainly in the background, behind veils. Homes are much shabbier, except when you’re senior in Hamas which buys you a bit of bling. The general mood is one of sexual repression, simmering resentment, dogged piety — enlivened only by the constant threat of violence. You really wouldn’t want this world view to ending up the winner.
Yet amazingly the Palestinians love this series too. Or perhaps not so amazingly, because it does them the service of taking them seriously, even treating them with grudging respect. Their brooding killers are intelligent, capable, single-minded, devout — the ultimate expression of a culture which combines the Mafia’s obsession with honour, blood feuds and family loyalty with unswerving submission to the will of Allah.
So apart from providing edge-of-seat entertainment (drawn-out scenes of unbearable tension suddenly bursting into car chases or shoot-outs or explosions), compelling character acting and location shots so atmospheric you wonder how they were ever able to film it (especially in places like Nablus), it gives you a far clearer understanding of what’s really going on in the Middle East than anything you’ll ever see on the BBC. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
A Complex Fate
The Nation, June 12, 2019
Vasily Grossman is hard to pigeonhole. A Jewish novelist and journalist and not a party member, he was one of the Soviet Union’s leading war correspondents during World War II, first at Stalingrad, then with the Soviet Army moving westward. He wrote powerfully about the destruction of the Jews of the Ukraine and Poland. His big postwar novels, For the Right Cause and Life and Fate, drew on his wartime experiences, and at one point it seemed he might be a plausible contender for the role of the Soviet Tolstoy. But the novels, especially Life and Fate, had too strong a Jewish theme for the Soviet authorities. They also suggested a basic similarity between the Soviet and Nazi political systems, so he often had trouble with the censors, though his work was never under a total ban. Life and Fate was confiscated by the KGB in 1961 before publication, but his other writings stayed in print, and he remained at liberty and died of cancer a few years later.
Grossman was never a favorite of Soviet dissidents, being too Soviet-minded for them and coming too early, and during his lifetime he had prickly relations with the main reform-minded Soviet journal of his day, Novyi Mir. While Western literary critics were often lukewarm about his work for stylistic reasons, Life and Fate nevertheless finally found a niche with Western readers who enjoyed its big, multicharacter war-and-Holocaust narrative and its clear moral line, relaxed narration, and vivid realistic settings culled from his journalistic days. No doubt those readers also approved of the implicit message that Soviet Communism and Nazism were much the same thing.
When people write about Grossman, they often start by complaining that he is insufficiently appreciated. That is an odd comment about a writer whose work achieved great popularity in his homeland and—mainly after his death—abroad, but there is a grain of truth. He is not in the Western or Russian canon of top Russian writers or great Soviet dissidents and truth tellers. The Americans Carol and John Garrard published a biography (The Bones of Berdichev) on Grossman in 1996, stressing the Jewish subject matter of his novels and the pivotal impact of his mother’s killing, along with the rest of the Jewish population of Berdichev, under German occupation. In 2005, World War II historian Antony Beevor, with Luba Vinogradova, published Grossman’s wartime diaries (A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army 1941–1945), a salutary reminder of his perspicacity and reportorial talents as well as his celebrity as a Soviet war correspondent, and a recent Russian-language monograph by Yurii Bit-Iunan provides an exhaustive examination of Grossman’s work in the context of the byzantine intrigues and struggles with the censors that characterized Moscow literary life in the 1950s and ’60s.
What Alexandra Popoff’s new biography seeks to add to the mix is not altogether clear. Like other Grossman biographers, she argues that he has not been adequately appreciated. His prose, in her view, “hasn’t aged,” and his ideas “are essential to understanding Russia’s totalitarian past and authoritarian present.” She praises him as having “the mentality of a man from the free world” and implicitly makes an even stronger claim for his moral status in her epigraph, from Elie Wiesel’s 1972 Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters: “His daring, his frankness were drawn from his very despair. So was his revolt.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
On Topic Links:
The Road From Yiddish To Politics: Rabbi Levi Welton, Jewish Press, June 24, 2019 — Not many people can say they are responsible for introducing an entire field of study at Harvard University.
Israel’s Covert Mission To Destroy A Secret Syrian Nuclear Reactor: An Excerpt From The New Book ‘Shadow Strike’ By Yaakov Katz, MILG-POPS, May 17, 2019 –– Under the cover of darkness, the pair of Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters flew low to evade radar detection. Inside, the commandos – disguised as Syrian soldiers and armed with AK-47s instead of their usual M-16s—were doing one last review of their equipment. The heavy-lift Sikorsky choppers carried old and camouflaged Syrian- model military jeeps which the troops planned to use for transportation once they were on the ground.
Picture Perfect: 8 Bold Israeli Photographers Wowing Art Insiders: Sarah Peguine and Michal Freedman, No Camels, June 27, 2019 — Art photography is taking an increasingly dominant place in the contemporary art scene. In Israel too, museums and collectors are itching to acquire the latest artworks of leading Israeli photographers.
The Cultural Revolution at the National Library of Israel: Ruth Ebenstein, Fathom Journal, June 2019 — There are signs of a revolution at the National Library of Israel.
The CIJR’s French-language Briefing is published every Friday. Today’s topic is, Un Vent de Guerre souffle Sur L’Iran. See: https://www.isranet.org/cijr/isranet-communique-un-vent-de-guerre-souffle-sur-liran-28-juin-2019/