Posted by Danielle Berrin
JDate may be a little confused about its mission.
The online dating Website, which touts itself as “the premier Jewish singles community online” had a PR firm dredge up wedding-season publicity by releasing a list of the Top Five Jewish Celebrity Weddings of the past year.
Except, only one of those weddings actually counts as a Jewish one; the other four are intermarriages.
So you can see how silly it is, here’s the list:
The only couple on this list who had an authentic Jewish wedding is Seth Rogen and Lauren Miller (the reference to the “female rabbi” is a hint, and since IKAR’s Sharon Brous would never perform an intermarriage, this one counts). Natalie Portman was also married by a rabbi, albeit one with more lax standards, because her spouse Benjamin Millepied did not convert before the ceremony. As for Priscilla Chan, Paul McDonald and Daniel Craig (who at least played Polish-Jewish resistance fighter Tuvia Bielski in the movie “Defiance”) conversion never appeared to be part of the conversation. In fact, after Zuckerberg and Chan’s wedding, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote a story about how the impact of their intermarriage was so unremarkable.
But that’s beside the point. JDate’s job is not to sell, or soften, intermarriage.
According to a statement on their Website, “JDate’s mission is to strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions are sustained for generations to come. To accomplish this we provide a global network where Jewish singles find friendship, romance and life-long partners within their faith.”
Except, apparently, for when they want to promote their brand with the exact opposite message.
People should marry the best possible life partners regardless of religious affiliation (though shared values tend be important in the sustainability of long term relationships and religion imparts many values), but for a Jewish dating Website that claims to encourage in-faith marriage to use completely self-negating Hollywood flash to expand their patronage is just weird.
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June 20, 2012 | 12:47 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Call it sibling rivalry.
Although less than 40 miles apart, holy, historied Jerusalem and delightedly unholy Tel Aviv barely have anything in common.
Ask any inhabitant from one city for thoughts about the other and you’ll probably hear that those citizens live “in another universe” — a veiled insult often paired with an eye roll.
Like any real pair of sisters, Tel Aviv sees Jerusalem as mired in the past, beholden to the ultra-Orthodox right, an ancient religious promise perennially embroiled in conflict. Likewise, Jerusalem sees Tel Aviv as just another cosmo-soaked Cosmopolis, rootless and secular, fueled by capitalism and spiritually bereft.
As Ernest Becker pointed out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Denial of Death,” family feuds are no joke: “We like to speak casually of ‘sibling rivalry,’ as though it were some kind of byproduct of growing up, a bit of competitiveness and selfishness of children who have been spoiled. ... But it is too all-absorbing and relentless to be an aberration, it expresses the heart of the creature: the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation.”
As Israel’s two bright stars, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are locked into a fight to define the ethos of modern Israel. With the world looking on, which culture will prevail: the New Town or the Old Ways?
On a recent visit there, as a guest of Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, it became plain that these poles exist within Israel’s film industry. Jerusalem preserves the past; Tel Aviv seeks the future.
At the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a cultural mainstay that attracts nearly 65,000 to its annual Jerusalem Film Festival, what is old is golden.
Anchored on a cliff beneath the Old City, the beautiful movie palace of stone is a bastion of cinema’s glory days. Founded in 1973 by Lia Van Leer, Israel’s first lady of film, the cinematheque is a throwback to what is classic, traditional, authentic. Its walls are covered with movie posters and artsy stills; its archive stores more than 30,000 film prints, including 11,000 negatives of “pre-state material” (read: Zionist agitprop) and at least a single copy of every Israeli movie ever made. In that chilly storage room on the bottom floor, the smell of vinegar is strong, the scent of expiring celluloid in slow decay.
Talk at the cinematheque turns nostalgic and sad on the subject of its future. The old ways are fading in the light of a new world: Two elderly donors who have lent longtime support have just died, and luring young eyeballs from their personal screens to the silver screen seems a Sisyphean task.
Recently, the creative team had to swallow hard and install a second digital cinema projector, the common currency for screening movies these days. Although it felt self-negating: “To me, digital is just not the same, not as beautiful as film,” film curator Daniella Tourgeman said wistfully. Pointing to a small, 98-seat theater where independent, documentary and avant-garde movies are screened, she added: “We need the upstairs commercial hall in order for this room to exist, but this room is important because it is why we exist.”
To jazz things up, the cinematheque has added Friday night movie screenings (“We’re the only place in town open on Shabbat,” Tourgeman said) and operates a charming full-service cafe that stays open late for nightcaps. Next month, they expect nearly 8,000 people to attend the film festival’s snazzy opening night when Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” screens beneath the stars in a former water basin called Sultan’s Pool. Annually one of the hottest tickets in town, it’s what you might say is the cooler cousin of the drive-in movie.
But over in Tel Aviv, they’re not only watching cinema, they’re creating it.
After the advent of commercial broadcasting in 1993, most of the country’s film and television artists fled to Tel Aviv, where there were jobs. Tel Aviv University’s film department, which the university hopes to parlay into a full-fledged film school someday, has emerged as one of the most promising film programs in the country (Israel has five). The department has graduated Oscar-nominated filmmakers Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”) and Yaron Shani (“Ajami”), as well as TV writers Gideon Raff, creator of “Hatufim,” which inspired Showtime’s “Homeland,” and Hagai Levi, creator of “BeTipul,” which was later sold to HBO as “In Treatment.”
At the university’s International Student Film Festival earlier this month, an entire day was devoted to new strides in new media. Martin Sabag, CEO of HT Group, one of Israel’s most popular technology Web sites, made much ado about “the second screen” — the idea that a growing number of people who watch television are simultaneously multitasking on a smartphone, laptop or tablet. “There are more TVs in the U.S. than people,” Sabag said.
No longer will you just kick back and relax. Coming to a theater near you is technology that allows you to sync your smartphone with a streaming movie, allowing you to interact with the plot, like in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. And at home, “Avatar Life” is a new social networking apparatus in which a camera tracks your every move and re-creates those gestures in your Avatar on screen. Even shopping will never be the same, as interactive storefronts will allow you to browse and shop even if a store is closed. And, ladies, you’ll never have to see a dressing room again: A new program can project your likeness onto a display screen while you select whatever retailer’s wares you’d like to try on.
All of which is stunning, and frankly, a little bit frightening.
“You won’t need to get up from your sofa to order things,” Sabag said.
Instead, cameras will watch you, trace you and mimic you. Screens will respond to motion, not just touch. If you thought the Wachowski brothers’ “The Matrix” was an outrageous idea, this conference proved it a prescient one. Soon, we will literally be inside the screens we watch.
“TV is becoming a more personal experience,” Sabag said about the way we’re now doubly plugged in while watching entertainment. No longer passive or pensive, it’s another excuse to tweet or tag. “It’s not about family anymore. It’s not about friends.”
It kinda makes me wish the world had more cinematheques.
June 14, 2012 | 5:00 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I don’t know how she did it, but the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Dodes got a one-on-one with Woody Allen. The young reporter met with the press-shy filmmaker last week at his New York office to discuss his upcoming release “To Rome With Love”, which premiered last month at the Cannes Film Festival. What she came away with is a rare, in-depth, albeit predictable dialogue with the prolific virtuoso whose latest film will serve as the opening night selection for the Jerusalem International Film Festival. It’s an ironic choice, of course, for Jerusalem, which attracts nearly 8,000 Israelis to their outdoor cinemafest under the stars (the film screens in a valley just outside the Old City), since Rome and Jerusalem have a rather sordid past (let’s just say the relationship suffered a serious setback when the Romans sacked and destroyed the Jews’ beloved Second Temple).
Among Allen’s usual pontificating about meaning and nothingness, his own perceived smallness and disinterest in modern mechanisms such as technology and movie reviews, there are some gems. On why he no longer casts himself as romantic lead: “I’m too old now, is the problem. I like to get the girl”; or why he’ll never retire: “If all the funding [for my films] dried up, I could always sit home on my bed and write”; or why he doesn’t appear on panels, at awards shows, or watch any of his movies after final cut: “It’s not healthy to either regret or luxuriate in stuff that’s in the past.”
Dodes: Some say your view is that life is pointless, and others say you’re a romantic realist who believes in being true to yourself. Which is it?
Allen: I think that’s the best you can do, but the true situation is a hopeless one because nothing does last. If we reduce it absurdly for a moment, you know the sun will burn out. You know the universe is falling apart at a fantastically accelerating rate and that at some point there won’t be anything at all. So whether you are Shakespeare or Beethoven or Michelangelo, your stuff’s not going to last. So, given that, even if you were immortal, that time is going to come. Of course, you have to deal with a much more critical problem, which is that you’re not going to last microscopically close to that. So, nothing does last. You do your things. One day some guy wakes up and gets the Times and says, “Hey, Woody Allen died. He keeled over in the shower singing. So, where do you want to have lunch today?”
Read the full interview at the Wall Street Journal
June 13, 2012 | 7:01 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
There’s a surprising new cure for writer’s block circulating among Hollywood’s elite. But, shhh, don’t tell, God is much more effective when disguised as a “higher force,” a less-loaded term for a religion-phobic environment.
At least that’s the way a pair of Hollywood psychotherapists, Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, regard the God figure in their new book, “The Tools” (Random House: $25), which promises to transform lives by way of a Jungian-inspired “new spirituality.”
Although you wouldn’t know this if you read a March 2011 profile of the pair in The New Yorker, which noted the 12 or 13 Oscars won by their patients but mentioned variations on the word spiritual only twice (once in a quote), and allowed a description of the therapists’ self-help system as “a prosperity gospel.”
But really, it is a gospel for connecting to the beyond. The book advocates the use of tools with names like “Active Love,” “The Reversal of Desire” and “Inner Authority,” which can be employed in response to an individual’s problem. Feeling a fiery anger flare when your spouse won’t do as asked? Practicing Active Love will connect you to “Outflow,” an infinite, spiritual force filled with goodness and light.
While true prosperity gospels, like “The Secret,” consider the individual’s attitude toward a problem as the key to solving it, Stutz and Michels want to help their patients change behavior — and quick. A tool, they say, is much more than an attitude adjustment: “The most profound value of a tool is that it takes you beyond what happens inside your head. It connects you to a world infinitely bigger than you are,” they write. In order to access this “higher world,” you must use the tools. They’re the new LSD.
Stutz and Michels are hardly the first psychotherapists to concern themselves with the realm of the spirit. Carl Jung was preoccupied with the cosmos, and Otto Rank (born Otto Rosenfeld), a close colleague of Sigmund Freud, focused his post-Freudian work on the psychology of the soul. Concern with how human beings operate in the world is integral to both psychology and religion — the Greek word psyche has been interpreted to mean “life,” “spirit,” even “ghost” and is equated with the soul in much of Greek mythology and philosophy, including that of Plato and Aristotle. It requires a certain amount of chutzpah, however, for two admittedly secular Jews to offer up a new spiritual system.
“I can’t believe in something because someone tells me to,” Michels said about his main problem with religion. “I have to believe in it because I experience it.”
In the modern Western world, so it goes, the individual is everything.
“All that we do is give people tools, and then we leave them to come to their own conclusions about what’s right,” Michels said. “Whereas religion is much more prescriptive.”
Stutz added: “The individual is paramount now, whether we like it or not. So whatever is going to happen has to happen through the individual. You have to be free to make your own decisions. This doesn’t obviate organized religion at all; it’s just, like, another track.”
But their book’s focus on achieving self-realization can seem a bit gauzy in the face of core religious values like altruism. And it lends credence to the argument that spirituality without religion is just an exercise in narcissism. Will using “The Tools” lead to better human beings or just assuage embattled egos?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Stutz said. “How do you both be an individual that’s self-absorbed, and at the same time harmonize with the community? And the answer is sacrifice, but it has to be sacrifice that’s freely willed.”
Both Stutz and Michels had personal struggles that led to spiritual breakthroughs. In his late 20s, Stutz battled an undiagnosable but debilitating malaise that left him unable to leave his house or office. He was forced, he said, into an intensely introspective “inner world,” where his imagination was free to develop the concept behind the tools. Michels, who said that “faith was an f-word” in his childhood home, had a prescient dream that came true. But when the exhilaration of his own clairvoyance faded, he was left depressed. How would he recapture the magic of that spiritual high?
That’s when he stumbled into one of Stutz’s seminars and began using the tools himself and with his patients. Eventually he and Stutz became close colleagues, and Michels helped improve and refine the tools. They don’t worry that once their patients learn the tools, they’ll no longer need the up-to-$400-per-hour therapy they provide. Nor do they consent to the idea that long-term therapy means the tools aren’t working.
“Our idea is evolution, not cure,” Stutz said.
The notion that psychotherapy should be limited in duration is, they maintain, a canard.
“It’s also not really respectful of the deeply mysterious nature of human beings, you know?” Michels said. “A person can be going through something for a year and really need help, and then just kind of rocket out of that stage into a stage where they’re functioning much better. And then they could go through something else, and it doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong or that they’ve stopped using tools, it means that they’re evolving.”
Their main goal, both men said, is to help their patients find meaning in adversity.
“We’ve become a society that really craves comfort and anesthetizes itself from pain,” Michels said. “But if you can handle the uncertainty of the outside world, of your own fate, you actually become more creative. You can tap into deeper resources inside of you, because you’re willing to take risks because you know that life is risk.”
As Torah teaches, in an uncertain world, the best tool upon which one can depend is God.
June 13, 2012 | 1:16 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Beauty compels us to do crazy things—like fall in love or leave our spouse or get plastic surgery. It has mystical powers that elevate distraction into an art, whereby beholders get lost on surfaces, lose all self-awareness and proceed to ignore or deny more deeply held truths. As the poet Jessica Hagedorn writes, “There is real beauty in my eyes when I lose my mind.” This does not apply only to the personal and private but also to politics.
As we’ve seen in the adulation of Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, beauty can even override morality.
Asma Al-Assad’s looks and fashion sense have bewitched the presses. Just ask Vogue, bastion of lifestyle journalism, about their March 2011 profile of her which portrayed the Syrian first family as glamorous, progressive and sane. Of course that was about the same time Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Asma’s husband, began what would become a now 15-month (and counting) slaughter of Syrian citizens (the death toll is estimated at 9,000). Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck was so wowed by Asma’s elegance, she inelegantly overlooked a country on the brink, comically describing Syria as “the safest country in the Middle East”.
Anna Wintour must not have been too happy then, when she had to retract the story (it was removed from their online archives, though Syrian PR czars have preserved it for posterity) and take responsibility for the magazine’s pitiful pandering: “Like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society,” Wintour wrote earlier this week. “Subsequent to our interview, as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue. The escalating atrocities in Syria are unconscionable and we deplore the actions of the Assad regime in the strongest possible terms.”
But the Vogue story made an indelible imprint. Borrowing their buffed up branding of the barbaric regime, the New York Times even found a way to glamorize what Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz called a genocide. “Syria’s Assads Turned to West for Glossy P.R.” read The Times’ June 10 headline. In the story, Asma was described as Bashar’s “beautiful British-born wife”, treating her desirability as objective fact. This is a beauty so magnificent, the Times affirmed, calling it so can not be subjective.
Vogue’s Buck caught a lot of flack for the profile headline “A Rose in the Desert”—which she later recanted on National Public Radio. During the interview, Buck explained: “Vogue is always on the lookout for good-looking first ladies because they’re a combination of power and beauty and elegance—that’s what Vogue is about. And here was this woman who had never given an interview, who was extremely thin and very well-dressed and therefore qualified to be in Vogue.” Buck described Al-Assad, who was born, raised and educated in Great Britain, where she later worked as an investment banker, as “intelligent” and “career-minded.” But more importantly, she told NPR, “she never ate”.
Asked if she regrets the story, Buck told NPR she was “horrified” that she had ever gone near the Assads. She called their denial of Syrian atrocities “disgusting”—but the damage has been done.
Anyone who read the Vogue profile or saw the Times’ glossy photo of the stylish Assads parading down a Paris street will now associate them with haute couture and the high life even as their crimes at home grow more sadistic.
Beauty can be so brutal.
In April, the German and British ambassadors sent a letter to Asma imploring her to “Stop your husband and his supporters…stop being a bystander,” with an attachment intercutting photos of the Syrian Queen with images of maimed and bloodied children. But to no avail.
“Of course it’s not going to have any effect,” Buck told NPR.
The poet Hagedorn might differ: “In Manila,” she writes in her collection Danger and Beauty, “the president’s wife dictates martial law with her thighs.”
June 13, 2012 | 12:55 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The Talmud teaches that mourning does not begin until the first piles of dirt are thrown upon a grave. So it must follow, then, that a person’s death is the final act of their life. Certainly this was so for Yoni Netanyahu, a beloved Israeli military commander and the eldest son of one of Israel’s most distinguished political families. He died leading Operation Entebbe, in 1976, which rescued more than a hundred Jewish hostages from armed terrorists; his final act — rushing headlong into a combat crisis at an unfamiliar airport in Uganda — was indicative of how he lived: courageously, fearlessly, animated by sadness and an implacable sense of mission.
In Israel, his death was chronicled with great historic and dramatic significance. Today it endures as one of those war legends that stand as testimony to national heroism. Indeed, his death was experienced as a national loss. Yoni, the handsome, articulate son of the nation-building Zionist and renowned academic Benzion Netanyahu, was every bit Israel’s child. A book of his letters, published posthumously by the Netanyahu family, portrays a young man who only felt fully alive as an active defender of his nation.
Three decades later, the spectacular cinema of his death still sustains its hold on the Israeli imagination. Many also maintain that the psychic imprint it left upon his brother, Benjamin, formed the future prime minister’s worldview. A death of these proportions, however, has also obscured the more ordinary details of Yoni’s life — his loves, his passion for learning and penchant for prose, his poet’s soul. A new documentary, “Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story,” aims to bridge this chasm by adding to the drama of his death the story of his life. And by way of Yoni’s letters, it plays as a kind of autobiography narrated by the subject himself. As the film’s co-director Jonathan Gruber put it, “This is a story told through Yoni’s eyes.”
“Man does not live forever,” Yoni wrote in one of his early letters, read in voiceover. “He should put the days of his life to the best possible use. ... I don’t want to reach a certain age, look around me, and suddenly discover that I’ve created nothing.”
For all his war heroism, the documentary keeps its focus on Yoni’s personal plight: a man torn between multiple fidelities. In this portrait, Yoni’s greatest struggle came from within himself, endlessly divided between duty to his country and the drives of his heart. “Even though I find the army to be of great interest,” he wrote as a teenager to his girlfriend Tutti Goodman, who would later become his wife, “I fail to see my future in it. There are so many things I want to do and it’s difficult to see myself as an army man all my life.”
Had he been possessed of less talent as a soldier, he might have pursued other avenues with more ease. “From day one he was a very accomplished soldier,” his youngest brother Iddo Netanyahu told me. “He was a natural leader. He never hesitated to act. Besides being a big brother, he was in many ways a semi-parent to [Bibi and me]. He just had this attitude; he was a brother that wanted to instruct you.”
“For the younger brothers and especially for Bibi, Yoni really was their mentor,” the film’s co-director Ari Daniel Pinchot said. “He was the leader of the pack, the one who protected them. Even as they got older, Yoni would write these remarkable letters to Bibi about how to prepare for the army, step-by-step. He was incredibly protective.”
Even as a teenager, Yoni stood out among his peers. “He was great at sports — the best soccer player that I ever encountered,” Iddo recalled. “He was a handsome kid — women loved him — very intelligent, very thoughtful, a brilliant student in high school. He was the kind of person people admired. He was a combination of a thinker and a doer. He had this sort of moral fiber in him, this moral sense that said, ‘I have to do what I preach.’ ”
He demonstrated to his brothers that duty to country was paramount. During the period that they lived in Philadelphia, while their father served as visiting professor at his alma mater, Dropsie College, Yoni grew restless to return to Israel. “I yearn for a place that is narrow, hot, rotten, filthy — a place that’s more than 60 percent desert,” he wrote. In the movie, Bibi described the move to the United States as “a terrible crisis for us,” though it seems to have had the deepest impact on the eldest brother: “The only things people talk about are cars and girls,” Yoni wrote of life in Philadelphia, adding wryly, “Freud would have found very fertile soil here.”
Even though it required leaving his family, Yoni’s calling was in Israel. “He had no false modesty about himself. The kids that he went to school with looked on him as a leader,” Iddo said. “There were those who openly expressed their feeling that he might eventually be ...” — he added, with a hint of hesitation — “prime minister.” Finally, in what sounded like vague regret, Iddo admitted, “Certainly I thought about it that way.”
What Yoni did not live to realize became part of the family story anyway. And at least according to the film’s telling, it does inspire some wonder as to just how deep his influence was on his brothers: “We were very, very close,” Bibi Netanyahu says to the camera. “We were really a band of brothers.”
One of the strengths of “Follow Me” is the privileged view it allows into the Netanyahu family. In addition to interviews with both Netanyahu brothers, several other key family members also appear in the film — including their now-deceased father, Benzion (who initially declined to be interviewed for the film because it was too painful for him), along with Yoni’s former wife, Goodman, who appears in her first public interview in more than 30 years. The film also includes Yoni’s girlfriend at the time of his death, Bruria Shaked-Okon, the last in his closest circle to see him alive.
The structure of the story casts Yoni’s journey in an ominous frame. The opening sequence makes use of the authentic audio feed transmitted within the special operations outfit, known simply as “the unit,” that carried out the highly specialized mission to Entebbe. The events of that day are reconstructed by combining real sound recordings with footage shot inside the actual planes used during the operation, as well as a digital rendering of the raid. Intercutting the deadly drama with the more pro-forma techniques of documentary style, the filmmakers set up a suspenseful narrative so that the audience’s anticipation and anxiety leading to the showdown acts as a kind of mirror to Yoni’s own anxiety over his fate.
For Yoni, death was not some far-off inevitability the way it is for the rest of us; it was something close, a familiar yet unwanted acquaintance. “He did not have a fatalistic view on life, but he knew that life was going to end,” Iddo said, looking back. “He knew that he was doing dangerous things and could die any day. He did not want to die, but he was one of those rare people who did not fear death.”
Still, mortality stalked him with sadness. While serving in the army, he wrote of war “hanging over our heads like a swollen balloon” and how Israelis and Jews “must cling to our country with our bodies” — the sort of desperate sentiments that never really allowed him a life of normalcy. Indeed, it was after he left America, returned to Israel and met Goodman that his deep, inner conflict became amplified.
“If I didn’t have to go out and kill, and if I wasn’t alone, without you,” he wrote to Goodman while he was stationed somewhere remote, “it would actually be nice here.”
The couple married in Jerusalem when Yoni was 21, and immediately moved to Boston so he could attend Harvard. But they had barely made it a year before skirmishes between Israel and Egypt forced him home. His inner torment was again stoked: “A kind of sadness has overtaken me that doesn’t leave me,” he wrote. “I sense it in others who came through war — that harmony that characterizes a young man’s life is not a part of me anymore.” Of his studies, he said, “I can no longer see this as my main mission in life; hence the sadness of young men destined for endless war.”
Filmmaker Pinchot began this project 16 years ago, when he and his wife read Yoni’s letters together while they were dating. He envisioned the film as a love story. “Here is a man caught between two loves,” Pinchot said. “He’s in love with his family and the two women in his life, and he is torn by deep love for his country.” But the inspiration Pinchot took from Yoni’s life — he even named his first child after him — belies the nature of this Hamlet-like love: To the women, he was only half-present in relationships. When Goodman miscarried, days passed before he arrived at the hospital. And later, after the bloody conflict of the Yom Kippur War had inflicted deep psychic wounds, he gave Shaked-Okon the impression that he could never again restore himself to love.
She refused to accept. “I decided I had to make him love me,” she says in the film. “And I worked on it. I worked on it. And in the end, it happened.” But just as with his first wife, who divorced him after four-and-a-half years of marriage, his heart was chronically, neurotically divided. “I’ve been thinking about how to change my life so we can live as a normal couple,” he wrote to Shaked-Okon. “But I have not yet found the solution.”
If he sacrificed his life for Israel, his consolation is an enduring iconic status. He remains fresh in the Israeli imagination, still an emblem of what a true child of Israel might be — imbued with biblical significance and foreshadowing modern Israel’s dominance. As Gruber put it, “I don’t think we as Americans can truly appreciate Yoni’s status in Israel. I once heard an Israeli friend say, ‘There’s Yoni and there’s Hannah Senesh’ — these two mythical figures who sacrificed for the good of their people.”
It must seem ironic, then, that the main criticism of “Follow Me” — the work of two American filmmakers — has been that it functions as hagiography. And at times, it does seem to verge into tearjerker territory, though it must be said, it stops short of canonization. After all, he was the first to admit to his failed relationships and private flaws. He was intensely self-aware and honest, and, for an otherwise macho military man, remarkably forthcoming with his vulnerabilities.
In a way, Yoni’s personal struggle is the embodiment of Israel’s: both are split between self-development and the endless need for self-defense. “We always thought Yoni’s story and character really illuminates the greater Israeli story and character,” Pinchot said. “Everyone in Israel serves in the army; they make careers; they support their families, but then every year they go off to defend their country. They have all the life goals and struggles that we have, but then they have this other element to them, and it’s a remarkable sacrifice that they make. Yoni portrays that like no other Israeli could.”
Yoni Netanyahu filtered his painful, physical purpose through the prism of prose, turning tragedy and suffering into poetry. In the face of the fragility of life, his torment gave way to wakefulness: “The world is truly full of beauty,” he wrote, “and the ugliness in it only highlights the beauty.”
“Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story” opens in Los Angeles on June 22.
June 4, 2012 | 10:57 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the bible, the desert can be a frightening place.
It is redolent of wilderness and wandering, confusion and lack. The prophet Jeremiah calls it “a land of deserts and of pits… a land of drought and of the shadow of death… a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt.”
Hot and plagued by thirst, the desert was so hostile to human intention that it took the Israelites 40 years to journey a distance they might have traversed in a week.
The desert is akin to the realm of beasts and wild creatures, punishment and desolation. In his book Desert Solitaire, the naturalist Edward Abbey describes the desert as disconsolate, a place where man it utterly alone. He writes: “Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse—its implacable indifference.”
The most frightening thing about the desert is that it does not care for human beings.
And yet, it is also the place where revelation occurs, where holy dwellings such as the Tabernacle are built, where God bestows culinary delight in the form of manna, and where the Children of Israel become the people of Israel.
The land of Israel itself, of course, is full of desert. The Negev, which means “dry” in Hebrew covers the southern part of Israel, accounting for more than half of the country’s land. Once thought uninhabitable, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion retired from politics there, setting up house near the city of Beersheva where today there is a university named for him. “It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested,” Ben-Gurion wrote. He believed the future of Israel depended on the development of the Negev, calling it “one of the Jewish nation’s safehavens.”
The prophet Isaiah prophesied that one day, “the wilderness will be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field will be considered a forest.”
While the Negev cannot exactly be described as a forest, it is a place where new life is germinating. Over the weekend, Tel Aviv University brought a group of six American journalists to the Negev, where, in the midst of 100-plus degree heat, we found an oasis: the Carmey Avdat vineyard. Breaking with the desert’s shades of gray, lush green vines sprouting grapes and fuchia flowers cover the landscape; almond and apricot trees grow beside shrubs of the sharpest, spiciest oregano and sage. It is the work of dreamers, of that same pioneering spirit that transformed untamed land into Tel Aviv.
There is also something magical in the desert quiet. There are no horns, no garbage trucks, none of the constant, battering noises of the city. In the Zin Valley, it is actually possible to hear silence. It is, I think, the holy quiet historian Eric Voegelin was referring to when he wrote: “When the world has become desert, man is at last in the solitude in which he can hear thunderingly the voice of the spirit.”
Sometimes the wilderness is a gateway to something transcendently beautiful. It is quiet enough to hear the prayers of one’s own heart.
It is what I imagine Ben-Gurion envisioned when he lay his hopes for a nation in the sands beneath a sweltering sun. Even then, he knew that Jews could only survive in Israel, indeed in the world, if they could turn desolation into dreamscape, a poverty of resources into a place of promise.
Today the Negev is burgeoning with life. It is home to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which boasts five campuses and teaches students how to cultivate the Negev. It is home to Bedouin communities, sprawling vineyards (that grow more than six varietals of wine) and many others marvels that fructified through imagination, innovation and hard work.
The techniques, both old and new, of preserving water in the desert permit this productivity and possibility. The canal method in particular, which essentially collects rainwater is derivative from the ancient Nabatean culture that thrived by creating agriculture in the desert. It is proof that tradition, as well as modernity, has much to offer.
The desert is a metaphor for Israel itself, containing within it impossible realities and mind-bending miracles.
June 2, 2012 | 10:37 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Before I left for Israel a few days ago, the wonderful quote by the explorer Thor Heyerdahl popped into my head: “Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”
From the skies, only natural borders exist. After take off, California quickly became Canada which became the Hudson Bay and then Greenland and Europe and so on and so forth. In physical geography, water and land divide, not class or race or gender or politics. And well, ice; the seemingly endless sheets of white that separate much of Greenland from the rest of civilization is a different kind of border entirely, not something one can really cross but a boundary to be observed. Israel brings to mind both: indeed its very existence seems to hinge on the security of its borders and the sustainability of its internal boundaries.
All of this came to mind since visiting Israel usually entails some mental preparation. It’s not a place you just visit, it’s a place you journey. Time in Israel tends to involve emotion, psychology, ancestry, ideology. It requires travel and learning, and encompasses challenge and connection. It means too much to be treated as a casual visit. And yet, two days in, the experience of being here often feels contrary to that notion.
I was invited to Israel for ten days by Tel Aviv University (TAU) because they are coming upon the 40th anniversary of their film department which they want to show off—and raise $20 million to expand. TAU has graduated some of Israel’s leading entertainers, many of whom have had success in Hollywood including Gidi Raff, creator of “Hatufim” upon which the Showtime series “Homeland” is based, Hagai Levy, creator of “BeTipul” which became HBO’s “In Treatment” and Ari Folman, director of the Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir”. The aim of the trip is to introduce American journalists to TAU’s film department as well as other aspects of Israel’s entertainment industry, and, since it is co-sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, to also ensure that we see the country’s essential sights, eat delicious food, and learn a little history.
There are six other journalists on the trip, all women, mostly New Yorkers, all of whom have been writing or broadcasting for as many decades as I’ve been alive. One woman, who is wrapping up her sixth novel, has a PhD in French Literature which I’m unashamed to say I envy; when I excitedly told her I had just read “Story of O”, she responded with a deep-throated laugh that gave away her opinion of its literary merit. I was comforted that Susan Sontag limned an essay to the contrary.
Though all but one of the other journalists count themselves as Jewish in some form or another (only one described herself as religious, saying, “I definitely want to visit the Western Wall!”) none of them have previously been to Israel. Which made it all the more disappointing that on Shabbat, the itinerary included nothing in acknowledgment. Instead we walked nearly eight hours through Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood—the “Garden of Justice”, originally a suburb of Jaffa that was once home to writer S.Y. Agnon and the first chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rav Kook. Wandering the streets of a major Israeli city, despite the fact that it self-identifies as “secular” on the slowest, quietest day of the week here invited many questions about the customs of the day. The representative from the university was surprised by this but maintained that “with all the money the university is spending on this trip, we couldn’t possibly lose two full days to Shabbat.” I maintain, you cannot possibly experience the fullness of Israel without it. For here, it is not simply a religious ritual but a foundational cultural rhythm upon which the country’s sense of time, movement and pace pivots.
Our walk concluded with an afternoon stroll along a stretch of Rothschild Boulevard, home to an array of Bauhaus architecture, countless cafes and shops and a swanky new condo development designed by architect Richard Meier, responsible for L.A.‘s Getty Center and Wolfgang Puck’s “Cut” restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire. We were told that when a Russian oligarch purchased three Meier units for $27 million, the sale catalyzed the massive social protest that took place here during the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding an end to economic inequality. According to our tour guide, housing prices in Tel Aviv have since gone down 5-10%.
And then there is the sea. At night the wine dark sea, by day deep blue. It breathes behind me, beneath me, as the rolling crash of waves and carried voices of beachwalkers float up through the tower where I’m perched, sitting with the view and my laptop. The visage erases pain, the breeze obliterates heat. As Nancy Huston wrote about the power of beauty, “Over the years, I have watched it attack and corrode borders, then take me with it into foreign territories. Borders are ideas erected between age groups, social classes, all sorts of hierarchical entities, in order that a society may function as predictably and as decently as possible. They are not solid brick walls. Beauty eats them away.”
I once heard it taught that Israel is not only history, memory, and piety, it is the summer day, the sunbather and the sea.