Tel Aviv — ‘Chasamba! Chasamba! Chasamba!”
This battle cry of the fictional patriotic youth group Chasamba (an acronym for “absolutely secret group”) — familiar to every Israeli child during the first decades of the state — is once again heard across the land. Resurrected from a series of novels to feature in the television show “Chasamba Generation 3,” which premiered this past fall, the program’s heroes arrive at a country radically different from the one in which they previously fought the good fight.
Created by 1948 War of Independence fighter and writer Yigal Mozenson, the children’s literary series first appeared in 1950, gaining immediate and immense success. Over the next four decades — until the author’s death, in 1994 — the franchise produced 44 books and two films.
Yaron Zehavi and his deputy, “Tamar the Pretty,” led the youth of Chasamba, which represented various classes and ethnic backgrounds. They embodied the new nation’s ideals of patriotism, modesty and humility, sacrificing for the common good and searching for social justice. The original stories presented a new nation defining itself, with Zehavi as the ideal Sabra: native born, fearless, superior to his new enemies and also to the Diaspora Jew.
The young fighters joined in the battle against the British occupiers, helping to turf them out, and then fought against new enemies, triumphing over Arab fadayeen and over ruthless leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, escaped Nazi scientists tinkering with doomsday bombs and a staple fare of common criminals.
Sixty years later, the new television series, created by Dror Nobleman with Gal and Ruti Zayid, picks up the story. Zehavi, a retired army officer, is divorced from Tamar, a former judge. Some of the older fighters are geriatric, incontinent and not always playing with a full deck, but their willingness to leap into action is as keen as ever. Aided by their grandchildren, they take on their old nemesis, the arch-criminal Zourkin, who with his offspring now runs a cell phone company, Zorecom.
The choice of the latter was easy. “What is more Israeli than the addiction to everything cellular?” Nobleman asked during our recent conversation at an outdoor Tel Aviv cafe. “The giant company poisons the land, assassinates all who oppose its schemes and creates a chip that, when inserted into its phones, sends messages commanding users what to buy and who to vote for — all perfect for Israel of the new millennium.”
Nobleman, a laid back man in his early 30s who wore a black T-shirt and windbreaker during our meeting, has written for popular drama shows parodying soap operas and soccer. “I have loved the ‘Chasamba’ books since I was a child, and I decided to pay homage to the old heroes and ideals while updating them and adding a contemporary sensibility.”
In this goal, the politically incorrect show succeeds. Many aspects of current Israeli society are presented and lampooned, including corrupt politicians and their businessmen puppeteers, evil corporations, geeky Russian-immigrant youth, criminal bratslav ba’alei teshuvah and pedophilic settlers. Often elements become farcical, as in the portrayal of the educational system, where a school principal who is also the head of a satanic cult reasons that “since to teach here is real hell, I might as well work for Satan.” As many sacred cows as can be brought to the butchering knife are gleefully slain.
This isn’t the first time the characters have been revived. A 1997 TV parody skewered a racist Zehavi refusing to receive a blood transfusion from one of his comrades, Menashe, “the Yemenite.” Writer Shifra Ha’efrati’s novel, published eight years ago, placed the heroes in the present as bitter and failed alcoholics, leading to a lawsuit by Mozenson’s heirs, while popular writer Etgar Keret presented them as rogue and debauched Mossad agents. Nobleman, too, ages his heroes, but does so lovingly, balancing irony with reverence. Part of the books’ original appeal was the way they extolled solidarity, and the TV series maintains this.
2010’s “Chasamba” is a tale of mentoring, showing how the baton is passed from one generation to another, in a less innocent world. It manages to appeal to young viewers by featuring contemporary youth concerns, and to adults through the use of familiar actors, current issues and a convincing portrayal of the erosion of national ideals. Combining all this proved difficult, so two versions were produced, one edited for the children’s channel from its spicier adult version.
In an age in which reality shows and “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” dominate the ratings and the popular imagination, the values of “Chasamba” seem antiquated. Nobleman emphasized that while he wanted the show to be entertaining, it was also essential to present “values extolling independence of thought and action, respecting all, including the different and the need to fight for what one believes” — all values under attack in Israel today.
“In the series there is a lot of love for the state and a desire to step forward and help make things right,” Nobleman said. “We are saying that the situation is dreck, but that still we have to contribute to the general good.”
The popularity of the republished books and the TV series has also been a boon for tours to sites connected with “Chasamba.” Led by Uri Katzir, a former foreign ministry employee who is now a spokesman for the Israeli stock market, fans go on a pilgrimage to such shrines as the group’s lair, the secret Electric Cave, located near the former Muslim cemetery of Tel Aviv (now the Hilton hotel), and to the old police station from which the youth sprang a Haganah leader held by the British.
At a time when Israelis are preoccupied by threats from Iranians, Hezbollah and Hamas, and by their increasingly fragmented and polarized society, the old warriors of Chasamba and their new allies are once again coming to the rescue, offering a tempered measure of idealism and hope.
Alon Raab writes about Israeli culture and society. A lifelong fan of “Chasamba,” he is still searching for the Electric Cave.