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The Jewish Cultural World: Best of 2018

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Say it ain’t so, but here we go again: The end of one year and the beginning of another. And since I just finished watching the second season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” I thought to myself, why not say something abut this most ‘Jewishly,’ most successful of television shows. Even more so: Why don’t I give you a short, selective list of the best artistic, cultural outputs I read or watched this year.

A few words in advance, though: I chose six outstanding works to recommend to you from six different fields—most but not all—artistic fields. Some of them, may have been published, or screened first in an earlier year, but I read or watched it this year. And so, it would be a selective list, with the caveat that it was created by Jews, and was mostly about the Jewish world, even if not entirely. One last thing: I’m not going to give you links to the works I write about, or information where to buy or watch them. It’s very easy to find that out with a click or two online.

First on my list is the Book of the Year: ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar,’ by the Israeli author David Grossman, which last year had won the ‘International Man Booker Prize.’ Now, even though I used the word ‘best’ at the top, I don’t really like to use that word in regard to literary works. Though this short work of fiction with its unique title, is indeed unique. And entertaining and innovative as hell. It takes place in only one night, in only one bar in the Israeli city of Netanya, and centered on a down-on-his-luck ‘standup comic,’ who is so painfully bad, just as he’s sometimes brilliantly mesmerizing. Through his comic routine, his endless stream of words—with a special invited childhood friend present there—and his tormenting flashbacks, we not only learn so much about his sad life—he actually swears he’s going to kill himself at the end of the night—but about human nature, our own childhood, and a no-holds-barred observations on the political situation in Israel. Truly a small masterpiece.

Second on my list is the Film of the Year: ‘The Angel,” directed by Arial Vromen. This film is an Israeli-American production, a spy-thriller-drama, based on the book ‘The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel,’ written by Uri bar-Joseph. It tells the true story of Ashraf Marwan (played wonderfully by Marwan Kenzari), who was the son-in-law of Gamal Nasser, the Egyptian president during the Six-Day War, and later became an assistant to Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, as well as a double-agent, working for the Israeli Mossad. This being a thriller, and a limited space here besides, I won’t go into the plot in details. What was so fascinating, and portrayed so masterfully by the star actor, was how this young man—who if to believe the story, and I tend to believe it—had saved Israel from even worse disaster in the Yom Kippur War. And all because, with great personal costs, he really was, well—believe it or not—an idealist at heart, who desired peace for both nations.

Third on my list is the Documentary film of the Year: ‘Forever Pure,’ directed by the Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinstein, which had won an Emmy in the ‘Outstanding Politics’ documentary category. The film centers on the ‘Beitar Jerusalem’ Football Club; the most popular, ardent, and controversial soccer team in Israel, long associated with the rightwing Likud political party. It was the only club in the Israeli Premier League without an Arab/Muslim player at the time. Its core fans are zealots, fanatics, and core supporters of both PM Netanyahu and President Rivlin; whom they carried—literally so—to power on their shoulders. And so, when the Russian owner of the club hired two players of muslin origin from Chechnya, all hell broke loose. So much so that their season, the team, the owner all collapsed. But the fans, with their ‘pure’ hatred of all Arabs—their favorite chant is: “Death to the Arabs!”—had won the day. If one want to understand the raw emotions fermenting the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, making it unsolvable, you’d do no better than watch this excellent film.

Fourth on my list is the TV Show of the Year: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” created by Amy Sherman-Palladino. As I mentioned above, I just finished watching its second season. And even though the quality is somewhat inferior comparing to the first season, it’s still ‘marvelous.” And so very Jewish, taking place in Manhattan in the late 1950s, and centered on Miriam “Midge” Maisel—Rachel Brosnahan, beautiful and fantastic—and her transformation from an Upper West Side housewife to a standup comedian (yes, a standup comedian again.) It had swept, well deserved, all the Emmys last year in all the major categories. I say this, even if dramatically, story-wise, the second season is somewhat lacking, the sheer beauty of it, the life of these two Jewish families, the entertainment business back then, with sometimes laugh-out funny Jewish humor is so charming that it’s simply hard to take your eyes off it.

Fifth on my list is Song of the Year: “Don’t Lie to Me,” by Barbara Streisand. Now, while I was never a particular big fan of her singing, acting and directing; and while this song, on her new album, is not a song for the ages; there’s something about its raw emotions, its timeliness, even its naiveté that is so very moving. She sings “You can build towers of bronze and gold. You can make castles in the sky. You can use smoke and mirrors and old clichés … don’t lie to me.” In the chorus, she brings it home: “How do you sleep when the world keeps turning? All that we built has come undone / How do you sleep when the world is burning?” It gives you chills when she blurts: “don’t lie to me!” Obviously, the appeal is for President Trump. Who of course, will never stop lying.

Sixth on my list is the Op-Ed piece of the Year: “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism,” by Michelle Goldberg in the NY Times. I chose this piece, out of the many great articles and opinions I’ve read this year for the fact that it deals with the always important topic, acutely lately, of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and the chorus of lies it generates in the Jewish world and in Israel. And Michelle Goldberg deals with it with the precision of a brain surgeon, and with the bravery of a soldier going to a battle he believes in. Because the crowded forces on the Jewish right, marched on by AIPAC, are stuck against her. “Indeed, it’s increasingly absurd to treat the Israeli state as a stand-in for Jews writ large,” she writes, “given the way the current Israeli government has aligned itself with far-right European movements that have anti-Semitic roots.”
Amen to that, and to the many other artists, writers, journalists and bloggers, who stand—in America, in Israel, and the world at large—against the tyranny of criminal leader trying to become dictators.

* The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

Thieves in the Night



“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night;” Peter iii, King James Bible
“We shake off the old life which has grown rancid on us, and start from the beginning. We don’t want to change and we don’t want to improve, we want to begin from the beginning.” A. D. Gordon, Galilean pioneer.

These two epigraphs set forth the novel “Thieves in the Night,” by Arthur Koestler. He was a renowned Hungarian-British author, most literary regarded for his novel “Darkness at Noon.” He led an adventure-full life, and in 1926 immigrated briefly to then Palestine. For a short period of time he lived in kibbutz Hefzibah, the same kibbutz where I was born 20 years later, the year he also had published this work. As it happened, his application to join the kibbutz was rejected by its members, reason unknown, and that kibbutz is mentioned – sarcastically, I think – a number of times in this novel. The book, which I just read, is dedicated to Vladimir Jabotinsky (he was his secretary for a while), and describes the settlement of a new kibbutz in 1937, and the whole settlement endeavor of the Hebrew people coming to the land of their ancestors from Europe between 1937-39, as well as the struggle against the British rule and the local Arab population.

Here’s a short description from book: “The new settlers found themselves in the center of a landscape of gentle desolation, a barrenness mellowed by age. The rocks had settled down for eternity; the sparse scrubs and olive trees exhaled a silent and contented resignation. A few vultures sailed round the hill-top; the curves they described seemed to paraphrase the smooth curvature of the hills.”

What follows is not a review of the book – though I enjoyed reading it and warmly recommend it to all who are interested in the Zionist endeavor of old – but an introduction to a complicated, conflicted, and most demanding question regarding the settlement of the land back then, and since then. I’m going to challenge myself, and I hope that you’ll join me for the ride, on this treacherous, steep road.

Here it is in a nutshell: What is the difference between the settlement of kibbutzim and moshavim (cooperative agricultural communities) prior to the 1948 war of independence and the 1967 war, and the settlement of outposts, villages and towns in the West Bank – i.e. Judah and Samaria – which followed these wars? Reading this book, where the description of capturing the land – עלייה על הקרקע – is so vivid, including the buying of the lands from the local Arabs, and the fight against them, including their point-of-view of the Hebrew settlers, strike me as so similar to the experience, the endeavor of the current settlers’ movement. Except back then the chalutzim (pioneers) were mostly communists, socialists and idealists, and now they are mostly religious zealots. But if one of them would to ask me, an imaginary settler let’s say, what is the difference, really? What shall I answer? Me – who opposed so much, still do, of what they’ve been doing, and where they’ve been leading Israel since that war of 67, which I fought as a soldier.

First, I would say, back then – again, as described so vividly in this book – the Jewish immigrants, the Olim, were refugees fleeing Europe before the storm of the Second World-War, and later after the Holocaust (like my parents), coming to their ancestors’ land to fulfill the dream, and the ideal, of creating a safe, secure home for the Jewish people. Since they had no such country and home. In contrast, the settlement endeavor that has followed the 67 war, and continuing to this day, is conducted while the Hebrew and Jewish State, i.e. Israel, is already in existence; it is a state amongst the nations. The dream has become a reality. Furthermore, following that 67 war, which was an unequal military victory, the people and their army have proved their strength, securing the country’s prominence, and permanence, in this hostile region.

Second, the settlement movement before the 48 war of independence and the 67 war, was largely legal. Indeed, as describe in details in the above mentioned book. The lands were bought from the local Arab population, who participated silently – most of them, anyway – in this endeavor. The settlers then settled and built their settlements largely on legal basis. The British objected to the flood of Jewish immigrants, and tried to stop it, but though they ruled the land – it was not their land, and they eventually were forced to leave. Following the 67 war, and according to international law, all the settlements in the West bank (and in the Gaza Strip, prior to the evacuation) were/are illegal. Period. The West bank is defined as an occupied land, and Israel as its military occupier. Even more so, the various Israeli governments, following the 67 war, and in accordance with the opinion of their legal experts, have realized that, and therefore designated all the places where settlements were being build – with or without permission of the government – as military outposts. A legal trick that, at least internationally, doesn’t hold any water.

Third, a lot of atrocities – as describe so well in another, newest book about the same topic, the internationally acclaimed nonfiction work by Ari Sahvit, ‘My Promised Land’ – were committed against the Arab population in Palestine prior and during the 48 war of independence. A lot of injustice was done, some inevitably as result of the war, some on purpose. Hence the Palestinian refugees’ problem – not so unlike the Jewish refugees, back then – and their aspirations for a country of their own. Nothing can undo the wrongs of the past; but justice can remedy the situation by creating a Palestinian state. This state can only be created in the West bank, including the Gaza Strip. You cannot achieve that goal if you continue, so I tell that imaginary settler, to settle their land. Even more so, the Zionist endeavor and movement of creating a safe, secure home for the Jewish people, can only be fully achieved and fulfilled, and be internationally justified, by creating, side by side, a Palestinian state.

The settlers since the Six-Day War of 67, and those of today, are also like “Thieves in the Night.” Only now they have a state, a government, and an army behind them. And they endanger, with their endeavor and behavior towards the Palestinians, the whole Zionist dream of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state. Enough is enough – land wise, and otherwise. Living by the sword for eternity is no solution, and ensures and secures no future. We have a state already. It is small – but it is ours. That is the difference. That is the answer.

* Published originally on “The Times of Israel.”
** The “Leave a comment” link is the last tag below, in blue.

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