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A Process of Inner Peace

Filmmakers turn attention to unifying secular, religious Israelis.

April 11, 1999|FLORE DE PRENEUF | Flore de Preneuf is a freelance writer in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — A rock band guitarist and singer in his teens, Ido Drori turned to Orthodox Judaism when he reached 21. Suddenly, bars, girls and junk food are off-limits as Drori withdraws from mainstream society. He drops out of the band, commits himself to religious studies and sticks to a strict kosher diet. His modish sideburns grow into the side curls worn by the devout.

The musicians in his former band think Drori is on a weird trip, out of reality's reach. So does his family. "I miss him," says Drori's mother, as if yeshiva studies and matchmakers had propelled her son onto an alien planet. By turning religious, Drori crossed one of the deepest fault lines in Israeli society.

Secular and religious Israelis live in different parts of Israeli cities and towns, come into contact as little as possible and hold strong prejudices against each other. But a new generation of filmmakers is trying to bridge the gaps. Like Gilad Goldschmidt, 32, who filmed Drori's yearlong transformation for a documentary, young directors and writers are dealing with the gulf of misunderstanding that separates Israel's warring camps: Ashkenazim (European Jews) versus Sephardim (Jews who came to Israel from North Africa and the Middle East) and religious versus secular Jews.

In the '80s, Israel's screens were filled with political movies known derisively as "Israeli Officer Falls in Love With Palestinian Girl"--films that dwelt on the human tragedy of a 50-year conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. Bored by the Israeli-Palestinian tug-of-war, filmmakers in the late '90s are exploring Israel's internal social divisions and conflictual Jewish identities in stories that draw from their personal experiences.

The shift in themes occurred with the beginning of the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians in the mid-'90s when questions of life and death receded and domestic issues came to the fore.

"People were very optimistic. We thought we were beyond the existential needs of the state and began to focus inward," said Amy Kronish, curator of the Jewish Film Archive at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. "What people discovered was a society in the throes of an intense cultural struggle."

The tension was palpable recently, when a quarter million religious Jews demonstrated in Jerusalem against the Supreme Court, an institution that has tried to bolster the rights of secular citizens while threatening some of the privileges that the religious community has enjoyed since the founding of the state of Israel. (In recent months, the Supreme Court has ruled against systematically exempting Jewish seminary students from serving in the army and against the monopoly of Orthodox rabbis in several public institutions.)

The battle lines often divide families. In the documentary "I Thee Wed," Anat Maskens, 35, examines her father's sudden embrace of religion after 30 years of marriage. He rearranges the household and tucks out of sight anything that does not suit his newly religious lifestyle.

"The books that were mine are packed away in the attic," complains Anat's mother, still secular. "I'm shrinking and my husband's return to the faith takes up all the space." The filmmaker's father thrives at the synagogue. Her mother wilts, spending lonely Sabbaths on the beach.

The taste for personal, identity-seeking movies also reflects a nationwide interest in roots as Israel's melting pot collapses and two-party politics lose ground to myriad identity-based parties. Russian immigrants, Sephardim, secular leftists and religious patriots all have separate representatives in parliament.

"Everyone wants to look at himself and try to understand where he came from," said Sharon Amrani, graduate of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem.

Amrani, 28, director of the award-winning short film "Bonfire Night" last year, is a former Jewish seminary student raised in a large Orthodox family, transplanted only a generation ago from Iran to a crowded suburb south of Tel Aviv. In "Bonfire" he tells the story of a religious Sephardic family very much like his own, whose values are challenged by the material attractions of the outside world.

Amrani knows the conflict firsthand. In his first year in film school, Amrani used to pray in the projection room every day. Since then, he has put religion on hold to concentrate on his work. But he remains attached to the idea that "to make films is another way for [me] to catch God."

Amrani's films also provide a more nuanced glimpse of Sephardic life. Until 10 years ago, the media was the preserve of secular, light-skinned Jews and their movies were full of cartoonish stereotypes of the religious and the Sephardim. Eastern Jews were typically big-hearted fools who provided comic relief.

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