The concept of the viral YouTube video “One Wish for Iran, Love Israel” was simple: Ask folks on the streets of Jerusalem what they want the people of Iran to know in anticipation of Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration this past summer as the nation’s president.
Creator and Angeleno Joseph Shamash said the idea was “to show the Iranian people a different message than what they’re used to getting in the media from Israel, which is: We want to bomb you.”
In response, the video posted in early August by a collective of young filmmakers known as the One Wish Project has racked up more than 90,000 hits.
And there’s the potential for more success: Shamash was just accepted Oct. 25 as a PresenTenseLA Fellow to take the One Wish Project and make it into an educational tool. PresenTenseLA is a social entrepreneurship incubator program of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that provides business and venture development assistance.
Shamash identifies as a Persian Jew; his family hails from Isfahan, Iran, although they emigrated permanently in December 1978. Growing up in Dallas in the 1980s, though, Shamash had no interest in either facet of his identity.
His family moved to Los Angeles when Joseph was 11, and in eighth grade he got himself kicked out of Hillel Hebrew Academy for lighting a fire behind a teacher’s turned back.
“At that point, I didn’t want anything to do with Judaism,” he explains now. “My parents wanted me to go to [the Modern Orthodox high school] YULA, and I sabotaged my entrance exams.”
His collaborators’ stories are less dramatic, but they all follow a similar vein. Jeffrey Handel, One Wish’s producer and cinematographer, says his West Los Angeles childhood was “as unaffiliated and unreligious as one could be, with the exception of spending Shabbos dinner and the occasional seder with observant cousins.” Raphael Sisa, who serves as their producer, was raised in Brentwood by Turkish Jews, recent immigrants from Istanbul who attended High Holy Days services but didn’t insist on any kind of formal Jewish education for their two sons.
All three men came to their Judaism as adults. For Shamash, it was a bout of “existential questioning” in his late 20s that led him to classes with Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld and LimmudLA, which eventually brought him to quit his job on “The Dan Patrick Show” and staff a Birthright trip to Israel as a means of exploring his own identity. It was there that the first seeds of the One Wish Project were sown.
“A lot of the conversations I had with [participants] were, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is Israel. This is totally different than whatever I expected it to be. I thought we were going to be walking with bullets flying by us in a total war zone,’ ” Shamash said.
That disconnect between the media portrayal of a war-torn Middle East and the relatively peaceful day-to-day reality got him interested in the questions of, “How do you show Israel? How do you show life on the ground?”
Beginning in December 2011, he spent 20 months learning at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. During that time, Shamash met Andrew Lustig, who was already starting to get attention with videos of his spoken word poetry about modern Jewish identity. One of Lustig’s poems was written for the “One Wish for Iran, Love Israel” project, and there is footage of Lustig reciting it interspersed with people talking about their wishes.
Handel, a friend of Shamash and an experienced cinematographer, was already in Israel, studying at Yeshivat Darche Noam, and he brought one of his classmates, Sisa, on board.
“People came at the right time,” Shamash says of the connections that made the film possible.
Lustig said in an e-mail to the Journal that he believes art like this can make a real difference.
“Without a doubt I believe that art can change things on a large scale. No question. But the real change happens inside of people. The real change happens when someone sees someone that they have learned to distrust and they find something human in them.”
That’s one thing Shamash hopes comes out through the film.
“Persian people are so kind and open and hospitable and nurturing,” Shamash said, characterizing the strife between Israel and Iran by saying that “the people conflict doesn’t exist — it’s a government conflict, a political thing.”
The question is, then, is the video being seen by people in Iran?
“It’s hard to tell how many Iranians have seen the video because of the limitations on YouTube, but according to the analytics we’re at 126 (which is a good number in Persian Jewish households),” Shamash wrote in an e-mail to the Journal on Oct. 28.
The film has recently been translated into Farsi, and Shamash has a few contacts who are helping to get the word out.
“We can make a beautiful film on a variety of topics, but if people don’t see it, how good it is, really?” he asked.
Perhaps the One Wish team’s next project will be better poised to reach its target community. The plan is to tackle the religious/secular divide in Israel, again asking people on the street to share their thoughts on the tricky and often divisive issue.
“We definitely don’t shy away from controversy, “ Handel said. “And ultimately, our aim is to humanize people on opposing sides of an issue, while at the same time being as honest in our portrayal of actual sentiment on the ground.”