Candles of Cultural Hope

Every night of Hanukkah, Robbie Gringras writes of a piece of Israeli culture that provides a glowing light to his life in Israel. Enjoy!

Eight candles of hope – Candle #8 – A welcome disinvitation

December 24, 2014 by

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One of the more painful weeks in Israel began with the horrific murder in the Har Nof synagogue of three people at morning prayer. It concluded with the response-song by Amir Benayoun.

Benayoun is a talented and powerful singer – religious, Mizrachi, tortured and original. He is so respected that the new President of Israel invited him to perform at the President’s residence for an event commemorating Jews from Arab Lands.

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Straight after it was discovered that one of the Har Nof murderers had worked for years at the grocery store just round the corner from the synagogue, Amir Benayoun recorded a song. Called Ahmed, it is seemingly “sung by” an Arab called Ahmed. The chorus goes:

It’s true I’m just ungrateful scum
It’s true but I’m not to blame –
I didn’t grow up with any love
It’s true that the moment will come
when you turn your back on me
and then
And I’ll stick a sharpened axe in it.

It was clearly a cry of pain, with no small amount of deep confusion (the musical style of Benayoun’s singing is so Arab!). It was also an ugly piece of racism. Benayoun’s defence that the song was about one particular person and not all Arabs simply didn’t hold water.

Israel’s President, right-wing Reuven Rivlin, did not hesitate. He immediately cancelled Benayoun’s participation in the festival at the President’s residence. And stated very clearly that it was because of the song.

I light my final candle of hope for my new President, who is committed to bringing light into the darkness.

Eight candles of hope – Candle #7 – Connected

December 24, 2014 by

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It’s reality TV. But not like you’ve known it.

To be honest, I don’t know – perhaps the ingenious format of “Connected” is a well-known format outside of Israel, too – but its incarnation in Israel is fantastic.

Each season a group of unconnected interesting, fascinating, sometimes famous people, are given a camera or two for a month or so. They film themselves all the time, interacting with the camera as they would to a very personal video diary, or a running stream of consciousness.

None of them meet – they are in different worlds. One might be a stand-up comedian, another a writer, another the unsuccessful daughter of a successful TV presenter – the connections are made in the editing room. Each episode is themed, and the editor jumps us from character to character, exploring the theme.

It’s not cheap. It’s not sensationalist. lior daddeadIt doesn’t (seem to) create monsters to hate, or freaks to ridicule. On the contrary. We see the humanity, the tenderness, the hilarious, and the challenges of real life.

This season I’m in love with the sensitive, unstable, vulnerable and gifted Lior Dayan, son of actor and director Asi Dayan (whose death we experience through the eyes of Lior in one episode – see photo), and grandson of Moshe Dayan. I loved the bit when he’s playing with his baby son who pokes him in the eye, “Don’t do that. We have a thing in the family about eyes,” says his father patiently.

Seventh season of Connected: Seventh candle.

Eight candles of hope – Candle #6 – Gett, the trial of Viviane Amsalem

December 23, 2014 by

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My wife and I went to see the film “Gett” the other week.

It is a wonderfully acted, expertly scripted, infuriating film about a woman whose husband will not grant her a divorce. Since Israel’s divorce courts are orthodox religious courts, the law is constricted by the idiosyncrasies of orthodox divorce law.

The entire film takes place in the cramped rooms of the rabbinic courts of Haifa, and features some of this generation’s greatest mizrachi Israeli actors. The jokes are abundant, as are the frustrations.

We saw the film in a cinema right near Haifa. It was a packed house. As the movie progressed, after Viviane’s request for a divorce had once again been postponed, the sound of people moving uncomfortably in their seats changed. The tutting and oofing started up. Towards the end we were all actually shouting at the screen, united in our exasperation at an untenable situation. The villain had won. And the villain was the legal system itself.

As I walked out of the Cineplex, I was full of energy. “There is no way,” I thought to myself, “there is no way that this film will not change this country’s attitude to divorce and agunot. It is too powerful. Too persuasive.” Indeed it turns out that February’s annual convention of Beth Din rabbis is going to screen the film for all the dayanim to watch.

I light my 6th candle in honor of powerful art that insists on change for the good.

Eight Candles of Hope – Candle #5 – Website 929…

December 22, 2014 by

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Apologies to non-Hebrew readers, but my fifth candle has to be for the unbelievable online project, 929. This just started yesterday, and I’m buzzed.

The thinking is to invite everyone to read a chapter of the Tanach every day. On the site are videos, illustrations, and short articles by all sorts of fascinating and diverse people, responding to said text. It’s simple, beautifully designed (to my eye), and absolutely inspiring.

972To read Genesis verse one: “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”, and then look over to the comments space and see Etgar Keret’s oh-so-Keretian question: What happened in verse zero? An absolute delight.

Backed by the Ministry of Education and various charities. Totally free. Provided for all citizens of the world who read Hebrew.

My fifth miracle candle.

Eight Candles of Hope – Candle #4 – The Jews are coming!

December 21, 2014 by

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One day an entire curriculum of the History of the Jewish People will be built around the new comedy sketch show, The Jews are Coming. They hit it all – Bible, Talmud, Inquisition, Dreyfus, Ben Gurion, Eichmann, and even Yigal Amir. Although they do have a little difficulty finding ways to end the sketches, they normally hit winners throughout.

This sketch plays on the Purim story, and translates the Hebrew “zonah” in a very gentle fashion. “Whore” would be a more accurate rendition. As well as offering humorous, feminist critique of the ancient text, it also makes a lovely sideways reference to the way in which girls’ Purim costumes get more and more sexual every year…

The jokes do not only fly at surface level. There is even a recurring game show involving Rashi and Cassuto, two quarrelsome Bible scholars, shooting barbs at each other in the studio as they did, some thousand years apart, in the biblical literature.

My fourth candle is dedicated to the light of Israeli comedy, drenched in history and Jewish text.

Eight Candles of Hope – Candle #3 – Shemi Zarchin and the Mizrachi experience

December 19, 2014 by

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My third candle was for Shemi Zarchin. He is a screenwriter, film director and novelist who creates beautiful rich and complex women characters in particular, and in particular hits on the Mizrachi experience in Israel. I still think that Aviva My Love was one of Israel’s best films – exploring creativity and exploitation, as well as the working-class Mizrachi world of Tiberias. The two sisters with their “we don’t talk about that” catch-phrases of intimacy and love are a delight, and Asi Cohen puts in one of the great performances of Israeli film.

Zarchin’s novel, “Some Day”, came out recently in English translation. I don’t know how it translates, but I imagine that the magical realist plot and characters will storm past any awkwardness of language. It is a story of overflowing passion, extreme both morally and emotionally, and one of the best books I’ve read.

So the candle I lit last night, the third of this festival, was lit for the words, the people, and the life that Shemi Zarchin brings to Israel’s cultural and political discourse.

North Americans can stream Aviva my Love from here, and the book Some Day is available in English here.

Eight candles of hope – Candle #2 – Israeli taxi-drivers

December 18, 2014 by

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monitThe distance between my work and my home means that I take at least 4 taxi rides a week. I love Israeli taxi drivers.

You get to sit up front – to sit behind is to imply a class distinction, which would be frowned upon – and you are expected to converse. Unlike others I know, I really enjoy this – especially if the driver is insistent on lecturing me on his opinions that are very different from my own.

I see every taxi drive as an opportunity to learn, and to see outside of my bubble. Friends, work colleagues, family, facebook – all of these connections serve to reinforce my separation from those who do not think like I do. Taxi rides force me to come to peace with the nature of a democratic diverse society. There are real people out there who have crazy ideas, and they have a right to be heard, even if I know they’re wrong…

Last night Asaf (I always ask for names) regretfully turned down my offer of some cashew nuts because he’d undergone some dental work. He shared with me that he’d spent years as a combat soldier, had caught three bullets and been stabbed twice. “I don’t know what fear is,” he said quite simply, “But man, when that dentist comes up to me… I’d prefer Gaza!”

As we got chatting it turns out that he has interesting opinions on micro versus macro economics, and that our military strategy is all wrong. We are, apparently “defending ourselves to death”, and the Iron Dome system is going to cripple us financially. We should be investing in better ways to attack them, not defend ourselves. Destroy not just their homes but also their entire families’ homes. “But hey,” as he said, noticing my ever-raising eyebrows, “this is a conversation for a long-distance trip to Tel Aviv, not just up the hill from Carmiel to Tuval…”

As he dropped me off, I realized I was smiling. Although I hugely disagree with him, he’s a lovely guy. A full human being. He gets a vote too, and he gets a say.

Candle #2 for people who teach me the world is broader than my opinions.

Eight candles of cultural hope – Candle #1 – Teapacks

December 17, 2014 by

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I was at a performance of the newly-reunited Teapack band last night. It being a gig in Jerusalem, on the first night of Hanukkah, with Kobi Oz as band-leader, the show was put on hold to light a Hanukkiah candle on stage, together with all the blessings. (One band-member wore a “Kippat Barzel”- “Iron Dome/Kippah” on his head)

kipatbarzelIt was a lovely moment. What with the warfare in the summer, the oil spill in the Arava, and the pending elections, I’ve been kind of miserable. The Teapacks evening forced me to remember the light in the darkness.

So this week I’m going to write up my eight candles in the Israel darkness: Eight events, cultural phenomena, or just eight thoughts that make me feel optimistic about life in Israel. Bearing in mind the doomsday predictions on all sides, they may well be my eight Hanukkah miracles.

Teapacks are my first candle. The gig was sold out, people of all ages were singing along and realizing once again how prophetic were the lyrics of the young Kobi Oz. Back in the early 90s when he sung of how “people are rolled up in newspaper”, he was referring to a neglected underclass few mainstream Israelis knew. Now in 2014, the song was for all of us.

Back then when he sang in clear-eyed longing for the messy multi-cultural community of the Old Bus Station, he was referring to a shared experience of a specific place. Now, singing to an audience 50% of which only knows the New Station, the Old Bus Station became a state of mind to be yearned.

The band themselves have grown up. Whereas they used to sing songs that mocked their parents’ worries for their children: “Listen to your parents – why aren’t you more careful?” they themselves are now parents, sporting grey hairs and hints of bellies. They have families, we in the audience now have families, and – reinforced by the candle-lighting – we all that night felt like one family.

To feel like a Jewish family together in a public space, only a few weeks before potentially polarizing elections, that qualifies as my first Hanukkah miracle of the festival.

 

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