Sacrifice

Yom HaZikaron begins at sundown. This evening and tomorrow some of us memorialize those fallen in war and as victims of terror in Israel. Note two points. First, it is not a holiday about Jews who have died, but about any soldiers who have died on behalf of Israel. Though the vast majority have been Jewish, some of those who sacrificed their lives for the country were not. Second, the day is also defined as a memorial for the victims of terror as well, and these were mostly civilians. Though most of the publicity refers to fallen soldiers, the full and proper name of the memorial day is: Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah (יוֹם הזִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה) “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.” Originally, the day commemorated and was a “General Memorial Day for the Heroes of the War of Independence.”

23,645 deaths of soldiers were commemorated, up 101 from the year before, and the deaths of 3,134 terror victims were also commemorated. The solemnity of the day is hard to convey to those outside Israel. The one minute of silence this evening and two minutes at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow morning are but a small part of the ceremonies. Normal broadcasting stops. Traffic totally stops when the siren for silence sounds. Throughout the land, there are memorial services, intimate family ones, communal ones, mostly in synagogues, and large civic and military ones.  The day commemorates the sacrifices made to establish and maintain an independent state of Israel. You cannot have the latter without the willingness to give one’s life as a sacrifice.

For example, the American Declaration of Independence (tomorrow, I will compare the Israeli and American declarations) ends with these words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.” In many nations, independence is only achieved because of the willingness to sacrifice. However, in Israel, sacrifices of one’s possessions – animals and grains in an agricultural society (korban  קָרְבָּן) – are radically distinguished from self-sacrifice. The former is intended to bring man closer to God; korban means ‘be near’. The latter are in service of bringing humans closer to one another in forging the spirit of a nation. The former takes place to compensate for sins; after the destruction of the temple the second time, worship, prayer and philosophic reflection replaced such sacrificial acts. The latter take place even though sins may be entailed.

 As Golda Meir once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” To take the life of another is a sin, whether in self-defence or in murder. That is inscribed in the flesh of every male Jewish child. Nahmanides taught, and it is widely believed among Jews, that the near sacrifice of Isaac memorialized replacing all human sacrifices with animal sacrifices. I believe that the near sacrifice of Isaac is memorialized in the token cutting away of the prepuce of the male penis to signify that for some causes, such as that of a nation, fathers are willing to sacrifice their children. The circumcision inscribes into the body that fathers, to some degree, cannot be trusted for they are willing to sacrifice their children in war to achieve a greater horizontal nearness among men.

As I indicated in a blog several days ago, some evangelical Christians believe that they sacrifice themselves in service to a pagan Trump because Trump will serve God’s purpose in bringing about a believed restoration of the Christian (white) nation. Trump is turned into a mere instrument for a higher purpose and for the past. However, sacrificing oneself for one’s nation is not a higher purpose, but a future purpose. It has a time dimension. It says that the sacrifice is necessary for the future of one’s nation and for your children’s children.

What about when God sacrifices humans? In last week’s portion, He did precisely that. And before an altar. After a very long description of the various modes of sacrifice, their purposes and rituals and the very lofty ceremonies installing Aaron as the High priest and his two sons as priests, God incinerates those same two sons.

א  וַיִּקְחוּ

 

 

בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

 

The only clue that God had a rationale is the reference to a strange or alien fire that Nadab and Abihu used in the sacrifice. Were they killed because they were innovators and did not adhere absolutely strictly to the regulations set down by God? That is the main interpretation of Moses’ rationale in verse 3. “Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.” This and a myriad of other rationales were offered over the years by commentators – the two brothers had come to their jobs tipsy; their garments were not in immaculate order. Many others using more twisted but somewhat ingenious hermeneutics.

But the verse can be read in a very opposite way – the two sons were not unintended contrarians too distant from God’s precise commands, but, rather, the sacrifice of the two boys by God’s fire was intended to bring humans even closer to God. Just as later it would be said that it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that humans can become one with God, so his portion of Leviticus it is through the incineration of the priests one time, and one time only, that man can be brought nearer to God. That is why Aaron was silent and neither protested nor lamented the loss of his two boys.  That is why the whole nation was commanded, not to bewail the loss, but to “bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled.”

God planted fire in the human body in the image of the Lord. It is a passion which can lead humans to create. Or it can turn into an alien flame that will end up incinerating oneself.

Over the last two days I saw two more films. In Phantom Thread, a movie directed by Paul Thompson Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly plays a very creepy couturier (Reynolds Woodcock – the name is meaningful) who is an obsessive compulsive mother’s boy who uses women as doormats and designs dresses that, with rare exceptions, are terribly ugly, but are viewed as the epitome of high style taken to be expressions of beauty and the pleasures such beauty brings. What they really illustrate is that fashion taken as art is really a fad of a specific time and place, a trick performed by an artisan to take women in, just as Woodcock does on the interpersonal level. Woodcock takes movement and form and encases it in so much material and so many restrictions that the dress turns into a method of reifying a woman. That is the real secret of the messages he sews into the linings of the dresses he makes.

Another movie I saw last evening contrasted this pretense of exquisite sensibility to overcome the grubbiness of materialism and possessive individualism with a different approach. For it was a bi-op of J. Paul Getty rooted in the drama of his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping by Italians for a ransom.  In Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, Christopher Plumber – who replaced Kevin Spacey in the first effort – in his own way is as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, but he plays a more one-dimensional figure, a scrooge who will not even pay a ransom for his grandson, John Paul Getty III (Paul played by Timothy Hutton). Far less creepy than Woodcock, but perhaps even more repulsive, Getty worships reified art and artifacts and despises people. Getty is as fine a dresser as Woodcock, but he uses his grubby possessive materialism to acquire exquisite works of art for their “eternal” beauty. If Woodcock longs for the warmth of his mother’s arms, Getty simply wants to stick it to his dad who never thought he would amount to anything.

The foil for both men are two very independent women, Alma (Vicki Krieps) who is a waitress raised up, in spite of small breasts, wide hips and broad shoulders, to become the muse and model of Woodcock, but who turns out to be an independent force in her own right unwilling to take Woodcock’s efforts to diminish and demolish her while Woodcock only offer sideways glances of recognition and flattery. Gail (Michelle Williams), Getty’s daughter-in-law, married to his dope addict son, is devoted to her children. She is a very different mother than the one presumably Woodcock had, for she is nurturing, caring and self-sacrificing, but not suffocating, even though she personally has almost nothing material to give.

Phantom Thread is a baroque gothic “romance.” All the Money in the World is an action film portraying a real rather than fictional character and an archetypal real-life former C.I.A., Fletcher Chace spy played by Mark Wahlberg .  But the two movies are both about men interested only in sacrificing others, especially women, for themselves, rather than sacrificing themselves for others. Getty is an avatar of possession while Woodcock is an avatar of obsession, the first to use infinite wealth to purchase great art, the second to use his relatively modest wealth to turn a dress into a work of art and his interpretation of aesthetic perfection that is as weird as he is.

The creepiness of both major male figures in the two movies and their foils can be summed up from the women’s point of view by a poem of Mary Carolyn Davies that I used in a play I wrote almost sixty years ago:

Women are door-mats and have been

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

There is an ironic note. The one item of obvious fiction in the Getty film is about fire. Gail’s son and Getty’s grandson, Paul, was supposedly an arsonist who got kicked out of school for burning it down and then uses fire to escape his captors near the end of the film. Both initiatives and actions seemed totally out of character because Paul seemed incapable of the initiative to counter God’s fire with his own independent and alien fire. Instead he burned up the rest of his life with heroin smoke until he became a paraplegic. A little historical research goes a long way in helping with interpretation.

Self-sacrifice is to be revered when it serves to knit humans together but when it is used to run away from oneself, the path of destruction follows. It may, however, and often does mean running into the line of fire. And when that happens, we do well to commemorate the sacrifices.

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The Dance Macabre

I received three communications directly or indirectly concerning Israel’s Yom HaZikaron or Memorial Day. The only direct one follows and is self-explanatory:

ONE

Greetings from Jerusalem. We are here witnessing what Yom HaZikaron really means to Israelis. Spending yesterday at Mount Herzl and being there with so many young Israelis paying a tribute to those who have died on behalf of Israel, has been a very emotional experience for both of us, myself and my wife. It shall and must be shared with our young diaspora generation in Canada and the States. Seeing, feeling the pain of parents, family members and an entire nation can be only understood when you hold the moment close to your heart as your hand is reaching to touch and feel and to understand.

I am very much honoured to be part of this Israeli’s Memorial Day and experience the indescribable true spirit of the nation.

TWO

The second communication was oral. Like the third, it was a response to the film Foxtrot. This reader of my blog went to see the film even though I had indicated that I was not recommending readers see the movie. She did see it and walked out two-thirds through. But the reason was very different than the source of my advice. I did not want to recommend that the movie be seen because I found the emotional tearing to be just so great in the depiction of how parents feel about the loss of their son in the IDF. This took place in the first and third acts. My reader responded to the second act. (SPOILER ALERT!)

In that act, four Palestinians in a car are inadvertently killed by gunfire from Israeli soldiers. Under their commander’s orders, an excavation machine is brought to this remote and desolate army checkpoint, a large whole is dug and the whole car with the four dead young people inside is buried and the earth scraped back over the hole.

My reader left because what she saw on the screen was a calumny aimed at the Israeli army. She knew the Israeli army would never do anything like that. She thought that this act of the movie would only serve anti-Israel propaganda.

I agreed with her than many if not most viewers would interpret Act II literally instead of as a hyperbolic metaphor for Israel engaging in a cover-up concerning the effects of the occupation on the soul of Israel. Nevertheless, I defended the right of an artist to engage in poetic licence in such surrealist writing and dramatization. My reader remained unconvinced.

THREE

A third reader saw the film, read my review and wrote his own brilliant analysis of the symbolic meaning of the film. He, too, was jarred by the second act, but for very different reasons than myself or my other reader. As he writes, “Act two is a variation on the theme of the fog and chaos of war that does not work for me.” (AGAIN, FULL SPOILER ALERT!) With minor edits, that feedback follows:

At the end of your review of the film, Foxtrot, you invited comments. Here are a few thoughts.

We are glad we went to see the film. We are also glad that none of our friends joined us. It is a difficult film to watch, particularly as a parent, as you indicated.

In your review, you emphasized the metaphor of the foxtrot dance. I am not a dancer and had to look up foxtrot on wiki. A foxtrot was a dance which minimized the chance of inadvertent physical contact. The foxtrot was respectable in earlier days. As such, the foxtrot was the anti-tango.

Who was dancing the foxtrot in the film? I would suggest that, in the first act where the parents receive the news of the fate of their son, the dance is between the young soldier’s family and the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The agents of the state are trying to be empathetic in the synthetic manner of civil servants who are just doing their job. If they do not know the answer to a question, they say it is not in their job description to know. Beware of clergy and, in particular, chaplains who are working from a manual of administration and related policy directives. In this dance, the civil servants do not do a good job of respecting physical boundaries.

As I recall, they inject a drug into the mother who had fainted without first asking consent of the husband or advising him of the action they are taking. They push the father to drink water and fiddle with his cell phone, without permission, to prompt him to hydrate himself every hour. Has he been medicated too? Water appears to be another important recurring metaphor in the film. In the first act, it is restorative and helps one regain equilibrium.

In the second act, the soldiers know the word foxtrot from the international phonetic alphabet for radio communications: alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, etc. One of them casually mentions that foxtrot is also a dance. There is a scene where a soldier does a little dance on the roadway. I would suggest, however, that the real dance in the second act is between the soldiers manning the checkpoint and the travellers on the road. Each group is careful not to touch the other. That dance changes when a beer can rolls onto the dance floor.

There is a lot of water imagery in the second act. Although the soldiers are in the desert, water appears to be a threat to them or at least a significant nuisance. They slog through pooled water by their makeshift encampment; the metal box in which they live is slowly sinking into the waterlogged ground. They do not appear to be stationed in a life-giving oasis. Water adversely affects their work. There is a storm one night when they check the documents of the couple whom they compel to wait outside their vehicle in the downpour. The abundance of unwanted water makes the desert setting surreal. (my italics)

The camel, itself a water symbol, ambles through the checkpoint from time to time and reinforces the impression that the desert is an unreal place. It is ridiculous to see the barricade be raised and lowered each time to let it pass. Of all the travellers through the checkpoint, the camel also turns out to be the dance partner who was, literally, the only real threat on the road. The other dance partners are pretty well indistinguishable from the soldiers. The various occupants in the vehicles they stop do not dress in ethnically different or identifiable ways. One merchant appears to be carrying a load of garish toys. A robotic toy soldier is left behind to goose step on the highway until it falls over by itself still kicking. Every detail in the second act reinforces the feeling that the desert checkpoint is surreal. (my italics)

In the third act, I would suggest that the dance is between the father and mother of the soldier. At the outset of the act, they are beyond the touching stage. They are not living together. They are still parents, together. They reminisce. The father mentions a couple of times that he was the happiest when they were living by the sea in earlier times. In the third act, water is again a positive, life-affirming image. Although grounded in bitter reality, they are unable to agree on the ultimate meaning of their son’s last sketch from the desert. They are entering a softer reality of individual projected thoughts helped along by a bottle of wine and their son’s stash. Still, the parents’ dance is the only one of the three that conveys hope. The last dance represents more than just the movements of people who are playing out their roles – and represents more than a formal social dance between hostile strangers.

So, should one applaud after the music finally stops?

Act one suggests that when the dance is real, things get surreal. The very real news of the death of the son is followed by a banal, but also surreal, bureaucratic process. Ultimately, the news becomes unreal too. I would have clapped my hands after the first dance.

Act two suggests that when the dance is surreal, very real things can happen. The need for a barricade and dance of inspection in the middle of a wet spot in the desert appears bizarre. The reality is, however, that death wants to cut in and dance too. Act two is a variation on the theme of the fog and chaos of war that does not work for me. I would have refrained from clapping after the second dance.

Act three suggests that one can dance by the sea at sunset with the one who used to love you. I would not clap after this dance either unless it was in a Hollywood musical.

Regardless, in my opinion, Foxtrot does work as a sum of its parts. As I mentioned at the outset, I am glad that we went out in the ice storm to see the movie. lt is just difficult to know to whom to recommend this film.

A FOURTH ACT OR AFTERWORD

First, as a foreword, I offer a brief, and possibly controversial, potted history of indulgences that at first may appear totally unrelated and even far-fetched. The institution developed over two successive and distinct phases, with a number of mutations within each phase during the Middle Ages. The practice continues into the present. For example, almost ten years ago, the Apostolic Penitentiary issued a decree granting indulgences to those who undertook a pilgrimage during the Pauline Year to the Basilica of Saint John outside the Roman walls.

Indulgences were instituted to relieve parishioners of penances. The first phase of their development began with the Crusades and the wars between Christendom and the advancing militant Muslim faith. The Muslims had a clear psychological advantage in their war with the Christians. If one of their warriors died in battle for their faith, they were considered martyrs and guaranteed a place in heaven. In contrast, Christian soldiers who died in battle without confessing and receiving the final rites, not only lacked such a guarantee, they went to purgatory. You can readily see why this posed a morale problem for the Christian armed forces.

The Pope issued a decree which said that any soldier who died in battle for the Christian cause had acted as if he had confessed his sins and would be automatically forgiven without any formal proceeding. The initiative, though welcomed by soldiers, was also greeted by widespread criticism. What about the wounded? What about those permanently handicapped? What about those who lost legs or arms or their very wits? Why should they not be blessed with an indulgence? In response to the criticism, the application was broadened. During the First Crusade in 1099, Pope Urban II expanded the scope even further and remitted all ecclesiastical penance for any armed pilgrim setting off for the Holy Land.

Many civilians who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land were also martyred by “terrorists.” The application was broadened again. Many Christians lacked the strength or the ability to fight. They were handicapped in some way. For many Christians, the hardships of life, the risks to the flesh and the punishment for sins, were far more onerous than anything that happened to a Christian going to war. The application of the first type of indulgence was changed again. First extended to civilians martyred on the crusades, it was extended to those who were, for some reason, unable to volunteer in the Christian struggle against Islam and paid for a proxy to go to war on his behalf. Thus, did the Indulgence of the Cross mutate into a form that not only raised morale in the religious wars, but raised a good part of the money needed to fight those battles.

The Crusades ended. But the taxation system in the church had come to rely heavily on indulgences as a source of funds. Further, the Church had changed its focus and shifted its energies to building the enormous ornate cathedrals of the Middle Ages. The development of the Indulgence was now detached from the Crusades. You could earn an indulgence by making a pilgrimage to Rome every hundred years; the Jubilee Indulgence.

The Church, however, ran through the money raised for the centenary in only 23 years. The application was changed again. The Church instituted a pilgrimage every 25 years instead of every 100. This Jubilee Indulgence was once again modified to allow it to be a reward for pilgrimages to a myriad of sacred sites and institutions. Soon, one could buy oneself out of or limit the effects of punishment in purgatory for indulgences could be earned in return for purchase of a “sacred” trinket or even for a donation to a “good cause.” As Martin Luther charged, the Church had become corrupt to its core in the process of raising funds to erect its great edifices.

Initially, the 95 theses that Martin Luther had nailed on the church door in Wittenberg was simply an academic disputation. Such was the case when Martin Luther first traveled outside Wittenberg to Heidelberg on 25 April 1518 to defend his theses before the German General Chapter of the Augustine monks. There was no scandal. There were no protests. It was simply another theological academic debate. However, half way between the six months between the event in Heidelberg and those in Augsburg, a momentous event took place that had nothing to do with intellectual debate and everything to do with political hysteria.

But first Augsburg. Last year, Augsburg, Germany, marked its 500th anniversary. Far from being a remote outpost in the desert, Augsburg was central to the Reformation. Many historians argue that the long religious war in Europe between Catholic and Protestant began in Augsburg rather than Wittenberg. In contrast to the proceedings in Heidelberg, Martin Luther was summoned to the free imperial city of Augsburg by the Cardinal and papal legate, Cajetan, to face charges of heresy. In the papal trial for heresy between 7-20 October 1518, Luther refused to deny his Theses as demanded by Cajetan. Luther instead challenged the morality of indulgences and questioned the Pope’s authority.

This moment is very famous in history. Between Heidelberg and Augsburg, a far less well-known event took place in July 1518 in the free city of Strasbourg where grain and grapes met in an economic marriage. The event was the Dancing Epidemic. In that communal psychosis, 400 people in the end participated in day and night dancing so that many, exhausted and dehydrated, died from the strenuous exercise. This was not, as widely conveyed at the time, a punishment from God, but was the culmination of built-in resentments developed over years at the penury of the peasantry and the gerrymandering and restrictions of electors in a period of weather turmoil. Freezing rains in April followed by a scorching summer of drought alternating with torrential rains ruined crops and possibly resulted in new fungal diseases, associated with LSD, that infected the local crops. (CF. Carlos Bracero, “The 1518 Plague of Strasbourg: A Dancing Fever,” 2013) Ergot poisoning from moldy rye seeds was a possible initiating event. Alternatively, encephalopathy associated with streptococcal infection- Sydenham’s chorea – was another possible health issue among young people that could have set off the craze.

While canons, monks and nuns lived in luxury and paid neither taxes nor with their lives to defend the city – very similar to the position of the plutocrats of today – Martin Luther’s 95 theses had set the downtrodden masses on fire to express their outrage at the Church in wild and frenzied physical displays. This hysterical mania followed from earlier greater restrictions on and repressions of the working class and, when some planned a revolt, the participants were beheaded and hung for high treason. The madness of the masses now threatened to disrupt the whole social order and the political leadership responded with new forms of indulgences – opening community centres and outdoor sites to hopefully contain the frenzy.

No more polite and controlled dancing, but a wild frenzy would adumbrate the widespread revolt against the Church set off by the events at Augsburg. In the wild dance of the soldier on that barren outpost in the desert in Foxtrot, is Samuel Maoz being prescient about the outcome of the mad and seemingly unprecedented times through which we are passing? Does the metaphor of the dance have even more political and social significance than my reader brilliantly pointed out in the film?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and Darkness

by

Howard Adelman

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day in Israel, begins at 8:00 p.m. on Monday evening. At dusk this Sunday evening until 8:00 p.m. tomorrow, Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, Israel’s national Remembrance Day is observed to commemorate those who fell since 1860 in the cause of establishing and preserving the State of Israel. More formally, the day is called: l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah…”We Will Fulfill the Last Will of the Fallen – to Defend Our Home in Israel.” 1860 is chosen as the beginning date for counting, for that year marks the first time that Jews were permitted to live outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem since the Second Temple fell. Those fallen include not only those who died in battle, but those who were victims of terrorist attacks. The number 24,000 has been accepted as the approximate total of those who have died for the sake of Israel, but 60 service personnel and 11 civilians were added to that total since Memorial Day in 2016. Many more died in that effort as you will read. This blog is dedicated to them as well.

 

It should be no surprise that many events preceded these two holidays. I chaired a discussion about the state of contemporary Zionism and Israel in mid-week in which Emanuel Adler depicted the drift in Israel towards illiberalism which, in retrospect, could be interpreted as a nostalgic tribute to Amos Oz, the co-founder of Peace Now. On Saturday morning, our Torah study group focused on the parts of the text that justified Jews living in and possessing the land and the reasons why ancient Israelite leaders who lived and/or died in the diaspora wished to be buried in Israel. Reasons offered were legal, political, security, psychological pushes and sociological pulls. The Saturday morning sermon in synagogue was given by Galit Baram, the Israeli Consul General in Toronto; she was born in Jerusalem in 1969 and studied archeology and English – which she speaks perfectly – at Tel Aviv University. She did her MA in American studies and after graduation became a political assistant in the Foreign Ministry of Israel. Before coming to Canada, she was Director of the Department for Palestinian Affairs and Regional Cooperation.

I may write about one or more of the above topics over the next few days. However, today, to commemorate the beginning of Yom HaZikaron this evening, I will review the film Natalie Portman directed and in which she starred as the mother of Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which we saw, almost coincidentally on Netflix last evening. I gather the film received mixed reviews when it showed at Cannes and at TIFF, where I missed it, and then when it had a general release. I thank God for Netflix. Though the reviews of the film were positive generally, most were tepidly positive. In contrast, I loved the film and think Natalie Portman was very courageous as well as creative in directing a film with as much of a literary ear as a cinematic eye in full respect to the writings of Amos Oz.

In one very positive review that I did read following its TIFF showing, published on 14 September 2016 in Esquire, Stephen Marche called the movie “urgently relevant and unlike anything else.” Though I agree that the film is unlike most other movies, Marche argued that what made it relevant was the debate over the Iran nuclear deal that developed a schism between Americans – at least Democrats – and Israel and between American Jews and the remainder of the American public. Though I belong to the Jewish minority who favoured the deal, A Tale of Love and Darkness was not suddenly relevant because of the deal. Otherwise, it would be irrelevant today. And it is not.

Although Marche’s review expressed an extraordinary admiration for the film, Marche was wrong, not only about the relevance issue, but in his take on the film. The movie remains highly relevant even when the Iran nuclear deal has slipped into the background in both Israel and the U.S. as most have accepted that, whatever other dangers the deal may have helped facilitate in the tensions between Iran and both Israel and the U.S., the situation in North Korea reminds us how beneficial the Iran nuclear deal was and remains. Marche argued that, “The film is a study of the moment when Jews changed from being a people in the diaspora to a people with a country. The birth of Israel is so much more than a setting here—it is the existential reality that shapes the characters.”

That is not true. The film offers no such study. Further, people shaped Israel in turn. History is not simply in the background scattered through the film as incidental events to mark time and determine character. Nor is it an issue of either a politically relevant film in the background or Marche’s contention that, “ultimately life is about your fucked-up family. That’s the insight at the heart of A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The emphasis on the personal and the intimate is not the insight. And the choice is the very reverse of either/or, of background and foreground, of cause and effect. For Amos Oz, and for Natalie Portman in the way she directed the film, it is a matter of both/and. The political and the personal are dialectically intertwined and ultimately inseparable, each throwing light upon the other.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is not simply remarkable because it veers away from the sentimentality of the shtetl, as in Fiddler on the Roof, or the redemptive theme of films like Schindler’s List. It is extraordinary as a movie that tries to give a cinematic expression to a literary vision. Certainly, the movie is neither sentimental nor heroic. It is both and so much more.  But the heroism is of a dear friend of Amos Oz’s mother hanging up a sheet on a clothesline and then shot and killed as a sniper bullet cuts through the laundry. It is the heroism of a small boy playing in the dirt who was also shot and killed by a sniper. The film is true to Oz’s 2002 memoir. The emotions are raw. The wounds are gaping. No bandage can fix them like the bloody finger Amos Oz’s father suffered after another of his clumsy mishaps. And no lecture or intellectual argument can fill the gap of our incomprehension. There are no sermons in the movie.

I write this because I was sure that I had read Oz’s book – after all it was the largest selling literary work in the history of Israel – but when I watched the film, I could not remember anything. Perhaps that is because I read enough about it to come to the imaginary conclusion that I read Amos Oz’s memoir. Perhaps there were other Freudian reasons for my belief or my forgetfulness. About three decades ago, Oz and I were having a shabat breakfast at the home of a mutual friend in Jerusalem. We got into an hour long silly debate about fashion and his contention that the fashion industry controlled what we wear. I was attending the fashion show in Israel the following week and he thought it preposterous that I, as a philosopher, loved fashion shows. I contended that fashion then – it continues today – is more a reflection of popular culture than a determinant of it. There was no resolution to that debate because we were not listening acutely to one another.

And Oz is an acute observer who listens to his heart. The best scene in the movie based on the memoir is one of the few without Natalie Portman who plays his mother (Fania) and is the central figure in the memoir and the movie other than Amos himself. Oz (Amir Tessler) is a young boy prior to the War of Independence in post WWII Palestine who is sent to play in the garden of an Arab official when his caregivers, friends of his parents, attended a party there. In the garden was a beautiful Arab girl on a swing who spoke Hebrew fluently and had the ambition of becoming a poet. Oz was entranced and clearly infatuated. As we watch her young baby brother playing in the dirt and then Oz climb a tree and act out playing Tarzan, whose solitary life with animals and personal strength and daring mesmerized him, in the audience we wait with “bated breath” as the cliché goes to see whether Oz will fall and even fall on the small boy as he has already fallen for the beautiful Arab girl.

A weak link in the chain breaks and a small but significant disaster follows. For Oz, disasters are the results of an accumulation of minutiae and usually unforeseen events rather than a cataclysmic sudden shift in history which is a product rather than a cause. This is true in the history of a nation and in one’s personal history. The result was, as Oz wrote, that “everything was silent all around you in an instant as though you had been shut up inside an iceberg.” For violence is as much about a failure of communication as it is about intractable differences. Between and among Jews as well as between Israel and her enemies.

Early in the film, we see Amos Oz’s father being connected by phone. The timing of the call must be arranged. The technical details have to be put in place. Communication is obviously very difficult. Who is Arieh calling in America or Europe? It turned out he was calling Tel Aviv and the call is quickly aborted to be arranged at another day and time to be confirmed by post. The film is as much about the failure in communication, the failure to connect and the gaps, the abysses, that result.

The film, based on the memoir, is a juxtaposition of opposites and their interplay, love (mother) and darkness (father), romantic Zionism and realpolitik, Jewish idealism and the harsh reality of Jabotinsky’s vision imprinted in his father but largely omitted from the film, the romance of Rovno in Poland/Ukraine where Amos Oz’s mother lived with servants and chandeliers and then the darkness of exile and the Holocaust, fantasy and reality in our minds, Jewish Polish (sweet) versus Jewish Russian (somewhat sour) borscht in the minutiae of Jewish cooking culture, generosity versus truth – Oz’s mother advises that it is better to be generous and have a sensitive heart than to be honest, between idyllic scenery and a barren landscape of narrow and claustrophobic alleys in the so-called City of Peace that is Jerusalem destroyed over and over again by successive invaders, movie versus memoir, word play (Adam, Adom, Adon and Dom) which non-Hebrew speakers mostly miss in a film which has many such moments of insight, metaphors such as gates which open and the abyss which we face, a world in which a cauliflower can hold up the sky and a world portrayed where the sky was literally falling in post-WW II Palestine and newly independent Israel, between paradise and hell, between compassion and prudence, between intellectuals and bullies, between the pale faces of poets and the deep tans of a sabra on a kibbutz, between intellectuals and heroic soldiers, but also between hapless dreamers and bullies, some of whom could be seduced with words and stories, between the rebirth of an Israel based on a two millennial dream and the loss of passion and idealism with the emergence of the state according to Oz and when Oz’s mother stopped telling stories, between the eternal innocence Oz’s mother saw in her son’s soul and the deep guilt ever present in the writing of Amos Oz, between an open and a closed world, between blinding whiteness and equally blinding blackness when blackbirds or crows cover the sun and the sky, between children whom you love more than anything and children who outlive you, outgrow you and who in some parts of their being must reject you. “Every mother ends up crying alone.”

His mother and he are caught between fire and the water from which Oz as a boy in a dreamlike story traversing the landscape dressed as a monk alongside his mother, also dressed as a monk. Both were pledged to silence, but his mother succumbed and he survived. On the journey, the young Oz dreams of rescuing a drowning maiden versus the reality of fire, the reality of the fantastical story, told to him by his mother, of a gentile woman in Rovno who burned herself alive when rejected by her child and called a whore after she fled her abusive husband into the arms of a lover,

In spite of it all, the love of Jerusalem versus the ironic darkness of Tel Aviv where Oz’s mother eventually takes an overdose of her anti-depression medication in January 1952 and dies in the home of a sister, either Sonya or Chaya, I was not clear which. The two sisters had chosen the new life of Tel Aviv versus the dark passages of the history of Jerusalem. The suicide takes place against the background of a debate over whether to reject German reparations – the position of the idealists, primarily from the right – and the pragmatic view that the money was needed to resettle refugees.

The film does have a historical line. Though the movie begins in post WWII Palestine, there are flashbacks and references to Rovno, now Rivne in Ukraine, where 25,000 Jews once lived in pre-war Poland. The film refers to 23,000 Jews who were marched into the Sosenski Forest and murdered, though the number represents the total killed since 2-3,000 were killed prior to that fateful two-day march and another 2-3,000 were killed afterwards when the ghetto was destroyed. But the flashbacks and references precede that period of darkness when Fania Mussman enjoyed the comforts of an upper middle class life that was such a contrast with the hardships she endured in a small cold apartment in Jerusalem.

Someday I will catch the short documentary made prior to Natalie Portman’s movie by the daughter of Amos Oz, Fania Oz-Salzberger, named after his mother, Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli scholar and historian who wrote one book with her father, jews and words (not capitalized), in which the two declared that “ours is not a bloodline, but a text line.” Amos inherited the word play and love of words from his father. The documentary traced Fania Mussman’s travels with her mother to Palestine with her two sisters, Amos Oz’s aunts, Sonya and Chaya, for the three sisters were ardent Zionists educated at the famous Tarbut School in Poland.

It was Zionism that saved the family from the Holocaust and saved Amos Oz for the world. However, the mother of Fania, Sonya and Chaya, instead of offering blessings for her salvation because of her daughters’ Zionist idealism, never forgot or let anyone else forget the wonderful life they had left behind in what was once Poland in a region in which Jews once consisted of 25% of the population. Amos Oz’s memoir is full of Rovno, but it exists only as very shaded background in Natalie Portman’s film.

The movie, A Tale of Love and Darkness, really begins with curfews and attacks from Arabs and then all-out warfare after the UN Resolution on partition was passed in November 1947 and Arab countries invaded the nascent Jewish state when independence was declared on 15 May 1948. The siege of Jerusalem and famine followed. Oz’s father, Yehuda Klausner (Gilad Kahana) called Arieh, a pedant about words, a librarian and an author who resisted writing books with any popular appeal, incompetently planted greens in their small garden as Oz collected empty bottles to make Molotov cocktails and sand for sandbags. Short sighted, with two left feet, Arieh had used words to win the hand of beautiful Fania, only to gradually lose her to her dreams and eventual depression.

Finally, the 1949 Armistice Agreement arrived and the determination of the line, called, without any sense of the irony, the Green Line that would prove to be anything but temporary in the world mental landscape or a source of new growth. But the semi-final act of the film occurs several years later with the Tel Aviv floods of 1951-2, of which we were reminded in 2013 and 2016, and Amos could not save his mother from drowning in her depression. According to Oz, dreams should never be fulfilled, the messiah should never come, because that will only bring the onset of disaster, the very opposite message of Independence Day that will begin to be celebrated tomorrow. Amos Oz tried to act out the romantic vision of his mother and, as depicted in the movie, left his father to live as a farmer on a kibbutz. But when his father came to visit him on the kibbutz in the film, and Amos sits upon a tractor, Amos Oz could not hide from either others or himself that he had the pale soul of a writer rather than the dark tan of a sabra, bronzed Jews who could swim as Amos Oz dubbed them. His mother chose deep sadness in place of ordinary pretense and the grandiloquent fantasies of the stories she told her son but could not sustain. Amos Oz chose to write – and live.

Taken to its logical conclusion, or, at least, back to its fundamental premise articulated in the depressive state of Amos Oz’s mother, romantic utopianism leads to the reverse, deep depression. “I know nothing about anybody; we all know nothing; better to die not knowing.” Truth be told, we only live in a balancing act, balancing on a tight rope between messianic perfection and cosmological ignorance. But that is not a truth with which the romantics who sacrificed their lives for the dream of Israel could accept. Oz never gave up his dream but has always accepted reality sufficient to survive. He wrote brilliant books with wry humour, the one element of his writing largely sidelined in Natalie Portman’s magnificent movie; she does capture some of his incisive irony. But Amos never forgot to cry for his dead mother.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Three Movie Reviews.15.04.13

Three Movie Reviews 15.04.13

by

Howard Adelman

Blue Line

The Cave – Nekama

Rainbow – Keshet Be`Anan

Today is Yom Hazikaron (יום הזיכרון‎), Memorial Day, the day set aside to commemorate the Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day (Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael v’l’Nifgaei Peulot Ha’eivah יום הזיכרון לחללי מערכות ישראל ולנפגעי פעולות האיבה‎). This evening Yom Ha’atzmaut (יום העצמאות‎), Independence Day begins commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948 which then fell on the 15th of May but is celebrated in accordance with the Hebrew calendar on the 5th of Iyar. The above three films have everything to do with Yom Hazikaron, the second on the list in a perverse way, but all three have nothing to do with Yom Ha’atzmaut. That is to say, all three movies are about the military, but all three have nothing to say about politics. I saw all three at one showing last evening at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF). The first was a delight. The second was wonderfully acted and very moving. And the third was magnificent.

Blue Line is a 20 minute 2011 short in Hindi, Hebrew and English made by Alain Sauma for French television. The film opens with a shot of blue painted boulders in a line, widens to a gorgeous shot of green hills and a small pond, and widens again until we see a UN peacekeeping observation post and then an Israeli observation post on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The scene is gorgeous and is probably intended to be located in the north-east in North Baalbek and the borders of Baalbek, Beka‘a, Hasbaya or North Rashaya. Based in Beirut, Sauma generally shoots commercials, such as a beautiful very short film asking for support for Gaza called Bring Gaza Back. He also shoots propaganda films against terrorism. This film has the usual stereotypes of armies, whether in the Israeli army or working as Indian peacekeepers. There is the soldier who wants to keep strictly to orders. Then there are the humanitarian soldiers who try to apply common sense when dealing with a small incident but in a zone that makes humanitarianism seem not only risky but a potential trigger for resumed fighting across a cease fire line. The action is initiated by a boy minding his cow in Lebanon and falling asleep on the job as his cow wanders across the cease fire line. The film is whimsical. Its humanity warms your heart until, in the end, the story is juxtaposed against the real war.

The Cave (Nekama) is an Israeli 22 min. short directed by Yoav Cohen, one of 13 Cohens who are filmmakers in Israel. He made the film as a student at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem. At first you are unsure what is going on. The fifty year old casually dressed bald man seen making a fire in a cave looks like an Israeli Mossad or Shin Bet agent. Then you see that he has a captured a youth in uniform, tied him up and gagged him. The kidnapper of the soldier speaks fluent Hebrew. Is the tied up youth a fellow from the Lebanese or Jordanian army or one of Arafat`s soldiers? If I was an Israeli, I would have recognized the insignia and caught on before three minutes of the film had passed. The soldier is Israeli. The kidnapper is an Arab, named Yusuf – it is not clear whether he is an Israeli Arab or from the West Bank. He has kidnapped the soldier and tied him up. Is this not where the Blue Line ended? No, for Yusuf has not kidnapped the soldier for political reasons, but to exact revenge for what he and his wife went through at the hands of Israeli soldiers. The acting by Yusuf Abu-Verda playing Yusuf is simply brilliant. The film is beautifully shot with a red camera so the details within the cave stand out. The script is almost poetic. It is a must see movie.

Imagine The Hurt Locker looking artificial beside this 41 minute film directed by Eliran Elya called Rainbow or Keshet Be`Anan. Documentary film footage is shown of real Israeli troop going through the sand and rocks in search of body parts for proper burial of dead soldiers whose armour carrier had been attacked and blown up. This took place in Gaza and this archival film is interwoven through the movie. The film is about a troop of half a dozen soldiers sent into Gaza to guard the body part collectors. When they are shot at, the soldiers take cover in a house that they find is occupied by a Palestinian family with a sullen father, a rather animated older grandmother and a brood of children, one in bed suffering from asthma. A wayward Israeli army photographer is found and forced to take cover with them; the photographer was assigned to their unit and simply went ahead on his own. We know from the start that the enterprising photographer obsessed with getting his shots will spell trouble. The claustrophobia of the house in which they take refuge makes the castle in the Israeli film Beaufort look roomy.

Again, there are a variety of types. The troop is made up of the self-centred soldier and the romantic wayward and even rash one, the do-gooder and the responsible Michael, the commanding officer, who tries to keep his troops safe without imposing unnecessarily on the trapped Palestinian family as the soldiers are periodically shot at by snipers. The film see-saws from situations of fear to the movements of well trained soldiers, from boredom to the religious soldier praying, from one soldier taking water belonging to the family when his own runs out to the medic helping the child. The film is fast-paced and taut, carried by suspense and fear but lightened up by camaraderie and care. Until the climax!

The director, Eliran Elya, and Producer, Oren Rogovin, were there for a Q&A. We learn that this exact situation took place when he was in the army. Rainbow was both the code name of the mission and the house that they had lined up to occupy while they protected the gatherers of the body parts. The White House was the source of the sniper fire but I would not read any political symbolism into that. With minor alterations, what is portrayed actually happened. Shockingly, this superb film was made with all volunteer labour and total dedication and cost $2000. The film is a fitting tribute to Yom Hazikaron.

The film was all the more poignant for me, as I am sure it was for so many Israelis. I recalled when my grandson was in the paratroopers on the Gaza border and his best friend was killed a few yards from him by a grenade from a grenade launcher. I phoned him not long after the event and what he said kept going through my head and cutting through my heart as I watched the film.

May peace come and may no more civilians be harassed or injured or killed and no more Israeli soldiers` lives sacrificed.

Three Movie Reviews15.04.13.doc