Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Movie in the Making

The parking spaces in Wadi Salib, one of Haifa's poorest and most run-down neighbourhoods with a complicated history, were filled to the max today. Normally, the main attractions in this historic neighbourhood are the more recent government buildings and the numerous hummusiyot (hummus joints), each one of which has its own devoted followers.

But for the past few days, Avi Nesher, a well-known Israeli director, has been filming scenes here for his latest movie, גמדים (Dwarfs). According to one of the actresses, the film is about a boy from Haifa who time travels from the Second Lebanon War in 2006 to the 1960s, encountering various characters.
The filming took place at the flea market, which has preserved much of its original character. One of the sets built here is the above movie theatre, complete with a 'Bollywood' poster and actors dressed to look like teens from the 60s.
Locals get a close look at the antique car which is part of the props.

One of the young actors, between shots, looks like he is deep in thought. Behind him, part of the still-functioning Istiqlal Mosque is visible.

Even though Israel has become "Americanized" during the past couple of decades, the society has managed to hold on to a few of its fundamental characteristics. The kibbutz ideals of social equality and fraternity are still visible in many aspects of daily life. For example, Nesher's last two movies, סוף העולם שמאלה (Turn Left at the End of World) and הסודות (The Secrets), were big hits in Israel. It's impossible to even imagine an American director of the same relative stature hanging out and filming a movie literally "among the masses," with no visible security present and no roping off the area. Locals mingled with actors taking a break from shooting, due to the rain. I was free to wander onto the sets and examine props, some of them antique or near-antique items, and expensive film equipment, as closely as I wanted to.

Yet, it seems like many famous Israelis have a love-hate relationship with this quality of approachability/social equality. On the one hand, they love feeling "like a family" and being able to walk on the street undisturbed and live normal lives but are disgruntled because they know that, in America, they would be making oh-so-much more money and be treated with all the perks that come with being a celebrity there.

ADDENDUM: The movie was actually released with the title of "פעם הייתי," (English title: "The Matchmaker") rather than the original "Dwarfs."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

J Street Drama


In a recent post, Noah K. referred to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's "snub" of J Street, reported by Ha'aretz's Natasha Mozgovaya. To express the matter with a little more precision: Oren is refusing to personally attend an upcoming J Street conference, opting to send more junior representatives. In an apparent response, Tsipi Livni, Kadima chairwoman and head of the opposition in the Knesset, sent a note commending the new organization for its conference.

The Driving Change, Securing Peace conference, set for October 25-28, is, I think, J Street's first major public event. General James Jones, the National Security Advisor to the President, will be there as will Martin Indyk and a number of Congressional representatives. But the conference has not yet been able to attract many other senior political figures. It looks very interesting though. J Street has the potential to energize a young, intelligent and engaged base of left-of-center supporters, who will surely make up the next generation of American Jewish leaders. The trick will be to go from being merely a "voice" or a "forum" to making a difference in House and Senate races and in policy decisions by the White House.

Currently, J Street is supporting the reelection of Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee, 9th District), a member of the Progressive Caucus. Rep. Cohen faces a potentially tough, racially-charged contest for reelection in November 2010. Although he easily beat his Democratic opponent in the last election, despite a smear campaign, he will be running against a former Memphis mayor, who has pledged to make the contest for the predominantly African-American district one of "race, representation, and power." Cohen's embrace of J Street, it appears, may have cost him AIPAC's support.

Some readers might remember Cohen from his appearance on the Colbert Show:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Better Know a District - Tennessee's 9th - Steve Cohen
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interfaith Kishkushim?

Event advertisement on campus: "When was the last time you met a swami/chief rabbi/imam/bishop/lama/Sikh?"

This evening, the University of Haifa hosted the fourth meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Ramakrishna, and Sikh representatives came to share their views on issues of religious leadership. Druze and Bahai leaders were also expected. The audience, mostly, but not only, composed of University of Haifa students, was almost as diverse.

Opening remarks were made by Professor Majid al-Haj, Vice-President and Dean of Research at the University of Haifa.

He addressed the audience in Hebrew (simultaneous English translations were provided via headsets). He started out with a citation commonly invoked in these types of gatherings. Here is a partial transcript:
"As a Muslim, I have to mention that in the Quran there is a passage that says, 'We have made you nations and tribes so that you may meet one another.' That's the main concept that exists in Judaism, in Christianity, and in all religions... The function of religion is to improve the society, and to regulate the relationships within the society and between the different groups."
As I've attended a few interfaith gatherings in the past, the concept and the content didn't seem entirely novel to me. One of the Buddhist monks described what often happens at these gatherings in a very humorous way: "You're nice, I'm nice, bye bye!" He did add that this was not his experience in this case, as these religious figures have been traveling together extensively for the past few days and have shared intimate experiences with each other.

One thing that sometimes frustrates me with these kind of meetings is that in order to stay civil and maintain their peaceful and unified stance, they must remain at the level of "interfaith kishkushim." No doubt that the visual message of all these different religious leaders together, highlighted by the various head coverings and robes and different ethnic backgrounds, is powerful. However, it seems obvious to me that there were many subjects that speakers shied away from (or possibly were told to avoid) for the sake of unity. And yet, that is not what will help people clear up misconceptions they may hold or understand the point of view of other religions.

Advertising for this gathering promised people the chance to meet different religious leaders. That means that it is potentially an opportunity for people to get answers about very real questions they may have about other religions. However, those very questions, though they represent dialogue, might also at the same time shut down real dialogue. I think there are two basic conditions which must exist at this type of gathering in order for real dialogue - by which I mean dialogue which transforms the people it engages - to occur. The first is that the leaders must be willing to speak openly and bravely about their faith, and the second is that the audience must not ask questions in order to provoke or to prove their own religion "right," but rather to learn and understand.

In my opinion, there were two highlights at the conference. The first was Imam Dr. Abduljalil Sajid from England, who was brave enough to speak about what he termed, "religiously-motivated violence." He said very clearly that this is an issue in his faith community which will not go away by wishful thinking or by prayer alone, and in fact will grow. He elaborated that imams and sheikhs must stand up and challenge it. Collective actions with others (including people from other faith communities and "people with no faith") is what is needed. He also said, "My appeal to all of you is do not ignore or deny it. Accept it and do something about it. Share the concerns with your community and work against violence."

The second highlight was the "meet and greet" which followed the more official part of the program. Here came the real chance for the audience to approach, question, and learn from the international visitors. Unfortunately, some of the local leaders left a little early.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Michael Oren: an American in DC

So is Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren going to address the J Street convention? It's not clear. Kishkushim had high hopes for American Jewish/Israeli relations upon his appointment. I can't say that I am terribly informed about what this organization represents, amounts to, how it functions. But a quick glance at their website gives the impression that it's an organization that positions itself as an alternative source of power to the demonized Israel Lobby of "K Street." Hence the name. They have a political action committee (PAC) to support their own candidates. It looks like the real thing. The positions? I haven't gone through the policy papers, but I would be interested to know if there is one in there that really pisses Oren off. What these guys seem to be is the mainstream of American Jewry: a lot of the secular, the Reform leadership, some of the intellectuals (see Michael Chabon), the part of the Obama crowd that's tuned into the Middle East. So it's a real limiting case for the Israeli representation in Washington. To what extent are they going to assuage the concerns of an American Jewish public that is largely skeptical if not outright contemptuous of the status quo in the territories? Bibi thinks that the status quo is safe -- and you can hear Oren saying that too in the Ha'aretz piece. However indignant the Israeli leadership is about J Street, they should hold their noses, if they must, and deal. It's the right thing to do.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

International Film Festival in Blue-and-White

One of the draws at Haifa's annual International Film Festival is the park in the Carmel Centre, which fills up with little booths selling lots of funky stuff. Admittedly, some of the products look a little too familiar already: the "I've-just-been-to-India" clothes and accessories, the Henna tattoos, and the cheap jewellery, for example.

But here's what I found interesting at the festival:

Udi (left) and his Israeli-invented Discovery ironing board cover which he so passionately demonstrated to me. Honestly, if I ironed more, I would buy it. I don't even know how to explain what that cover does, but it works. He had me stick my hand under it while running a hot iron over it; he left the iron sitting on it for a good few minutes; and he showed me how nothing falls off from it (like the shirt in the picture, hanging off its collar) and more neat tricks. He promised to email me the link.

Then I ran into "Hebrew Goat" (עז עברית), made in Kibbutz Hazorea. The Kachuta cheese below is said to have won 18 competitions,

while I was told that this cheese is the only "yellow" goat cheese (גבינה צהובה) in existence! I was urged to take a picture of it.

When I saw the product below, I just knew this had to be an Israeli invention. It was designed to replace the traditional "threading" method, which lots of Israeli women use to remove facial hair. It's a spring and works by trapping and pulling out the hairs between it. It was marketed under both the name "Spring" and "epi-face," which is a cute word play since most Israelis pronounce the word "happy" as "epi," which is short for epilate here.

Then, of course, there was "The Druze Woman Who Bakes Pita with Za'atar." But in order to appeal to as many taste buds as possible, she not only offered the traditional Labaneh cheese as a topping, but also hummus and chocolate spread.

I also met Asaf Elazary, a student at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. His T-shirt, "Suck My Shmok" (top right), was just one of the original designs he was selling for 40 NIS a piece.

Lastly, I discovered some very young entrepreneurs selling home-made lemonade and magnets for modest prices of 2-3 NIS.

The film festival will wrap up on 10.10.09.