On Thursdays between 2:00-5:00 PM I can be found in world repair. It’s less strange than it sounds. Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), in addition to being a key idea in Jewish discourse, is the name of a service-learning program that offers Jewish young adults from around the world an in-depth experience of Israeli society.
During the course of 5 or 10 months, these young adults live in south Tel Aviv and in Jaffa, and engage in volunteering and study that offers them a better understanding of the reality of life in this corner of the Middle East.
If once the conventional wisdom was that we need to show Jewish tourists from abroad the beauty and magic of the promised land, to whet their appetites for its joys and pleasures, today a different approach has taken hold – let’s invite our Jewish brothers and sisters from across the sea to see Israel as it really is. Come journey with us not only on the scenic journey through Masada, the mountainous Jordan and the Kotel, but let’s also give them a chance to see the back yard, such as the one found in the area of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station and the impoverished neighborhoods of Jaffa.
These folks do not come here to be impressed; they come here to take part in the project, to influence, to give and above all – to belong. These stormy days that are passing over all of us are not passing over the participants of Tikkun Olam, world repairers.
Last Thursday I arrived to Tikkun Olam to meet the participants of the new semester, and to start my series of lectures on Israeli society through the lens of cinema. A bit before I started, the group’s coordinator asked me for a couple of minutes so that she could brief the group on the security situation in the south of Israel and to the Pillar of Defense that arose in its footsteps.
What can I say, whoever has not had the chance to see the Israeli reality from the viewpoint of outsiders has missed a golden opportunity to get a humorous and tragic perspective on the basic raw materials of our lives.
The coordinator described the situation precisely – rockets falling on the south of Israel and the IDF attacking in Gaza, and explains the home front guidelines – to remain alert when in public spaces, and to know where the protected areas are that they will need to go to in the event of a siren.
The program participants (all in their 20s), respond with a volley of questions: what is the chance that the war will reach Tel Aviv? In the event that missiles fall in the Tel Aviv area, will the program evacuate them from the danger zone and order them plane tickets home? How can they inform the U.S. embassy of their whereabouts in Jaffa and south Tel Aviv so that, in an emergency, the embassy can locate them and ensure their wellbeing?
And the question of all questions – “When you tell us to stay generally alert, what does that actually mean? We understand that we need to be aware of suspicious items, but are there other warning signs that we, who aren’t from Israel, need to know how to identify?”
The last question sparked within me a geyser of dark humor – “Yes. If someone gets on the bus and yells ‘Allah hu-akbar!’ you should jump out the window.”
Twenty eyes turned to me with an embarrassed and confused look. First, because you need to be Israeli to understand the joke, and second, because it’s not totally clear to these foreign visitors why it is so pressing for a teacher of cinema to tell a joke at this exact time and place when there’s a war on the horizon.
Dark Humor as Protective Armor
And so, it is pressing to the teacher and to the Israelis to use humor as one uses protective armor. In order to form a basis for my argument, I rush to open the class with a scene from Walk on Water, Eitan Fuchs’s film from 2004.
Eyal is a tough Mossad agent that has been assigned to go undercover as a tour guide, and to accompany Axel, a young German man who happens to be the grandson of a Nazi war criminal. Eyal waits for Axel at the airport, and their first interaction goes like this:
Eyal: Welcome to Israel. There was just a terrorist attack here.
Axel: Right here?
Eyal: In Rishon LeTzion, it’s a nearby city. But don’t worry, usually they just blow up once a day. Usually, but maybe for you they’ll do another attack.
Axel is silent. He gives Eyal an embarrassed look.
Eyal: I’m joking.
I really love this scene. In my mind, it demonstrates beautifully the relationship between the filmed cinematic text and the audience watching it. An Israeli audience listens to the dialogue and laughs, a foreign audience hears the audience and is perturbed. The Israelis, products of the culture that spawned the film, understand its subtext, while the foreigners experience only the text itself.
This is of course true of any film and the way in which it is received by the domestic audience and the foreign audience, but what is interesting in Walk on Water and makes it such a big success among foreign audiences, is that the film from the outset directs itself to foreign eyes and offers them a character with whom to identify.
Throughout most of its history, Israeli cinema was focused on itself and on the “homecoming,” with which it sought to discourse. During the last several years, a new trend developed, of which Walk on Water is one of the most typical representatives – cinema that seeks to view the essence of being Israeli not necessarily from our native viewpoint, but rather from the perspective of the foreigners who come to us from outside.
And so it is that the German (and Christian and gay) Axel is the one who teaches Eyal, the handsome but emotionally handicapped sabra, to walk on water, or rather shows him the lost path to the sweet fruit of the sabra cactus, the one that was forgotten under the camouflage of sharp thorns.
German Axel is not alone. Alongside him is Noodle, the cute Chinese child from the film named for him (Noodle, directed by Eilat Menhami, 2006), that brings relief to the weary soul of Miri, an IDF widow who lost two husbands to Israeli wars. Miri, like Eyal the Mossad agent, surrendered under the weight of Israeli life, afflicted with grief and sorrow.
Indeed the foreigner and the other, the same little Chinese boy that does not understand our painful subtext, is the one who manages to understand her soul and to return to her a zest for life and hope for the future.
On a much lighter note, we can add to the group of “foreigners among us,” films, The Band’s Visit, in which members of the Egyptian band shed light on the sleepy lives of the residents of the fictional development town Beit HaTikvah. And there are also more critical films – Eyal Halfon’s What A Wonderful Place, and Ra’anan Alexandrovich’s James’ Journey to Jerusalem and Eran Riklis’s The Human Resources Manager. In short, a foreign perspective has refreshed the view of our homeland several times in the crop of Israeli films in recent years.
I intended to tell one thing, and then I digressed to farther off subjects of a different sort. What I wanted to say was that on that same afternoon with Tikkun Olam, last Thursday, I was given the privilege to observe the reality of our lives from outside, through the embarrassed and curious perspective of twenty-something people who aren’t from here and aren’t committed to staying here even one dangerous minute.
An hour after we parted ways, a siren already went off in the Tel Aviv area. I don’t know how they felt at that moment and I’m sure it was very unpleasant.
They don’t have the armor of dark humor that many of us sabras have, and I also suspect that the Jewish-Israeli term “Iron Dome” (the short-range missile defense system) sounds to them rather strange and not so comforting.
In any event, I have a strong feeling that next Thursday they will still be here, ready to repair the world in this stormy corner of the Middle East. Good for them that they possess the bravery to continue volunteering, to continue to learn about us under fire. To be a mirror for us.