It wouldn’t be a bad idea to brush up on Israeli history before watching “Gei Oni,” the new Dan Wolman film based on Shulamit Lapid’s novel of the same name. Set in the late 19th century, the story takes place during the first wave of European immigration to Ottoman-ruled Palestine, when Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe arrived at the Port of Jaffa in search of new lives. While the film’s main characters are fictional, a few historical figures also make appearances. These include the British Zionist, author, Christian mystic and onetime member of Parliament Laurence Oliphant and the poet Naftali Herz Imber, best known for writing the lyrics to “Hatikvah” in 1878. The real-life Oliphant took Herz Imber as his secretary when he traveled to Palestine in 1882 with the aim of assisting Jewish settlement there.
But one need not know the first thing about Laurence Oliphant — or indeed much about 19th-century Palestine — in order to get swept up in a subtle, deftly told love story in which politics play only a minor part. Wolman has billed “Gei Oni” as a historical epic, but his focus is more intimate than that description suggests. The film follows Fanya (Tamar Alkan), a young Russian woman who, after having seen much of her family murdered in a pogrom in Ukraine, arrives in Jaffa with her infant daughter, elderly uncle, and an emotionally handicapped brother. Adrift in a foreign city, Fanya searches for work to support her dependents, but soon finds herself married off to Yechiel (Zion Ashkenazi), a widower with two children. Yechiel takes his new wife to “Gei Oni,” a small settlement near Safed, where he and other Jewish settlers are engaged in the grueling labor of attempting to cultivate barren, rocky land they bought from local Arabs.