Debating the Best Israeli Films

With “Footnote” the fourth Israeli film in five years to make it to the shortlist nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film Israel’s recent cinematic prowess is indisputable. Though none of Israel’s total of ten nominations actually won an Oscar there have been many more excellent films to come out of that country and we asked two experts to give us their list of favorites of recent years.

Director of film and literary programs at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, Isaac Zablocki grew up in Israel and served in the IDF as an educational filmmaker. He is one of the pre-eminent presenters of Israeli film in America and a driving force behind the Other Israel Film Festival.

Film historian Nathan Abrams is the Director of Graduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Bangor University, Wales. He recently reviewed a collection of essays about global Jewish cinema for the Forward, and is the author of “The New Jew in Film: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Cinema” (Rutgers University Press), which is published on February 28.

Isaac’s Top 10

This is the first decade where one can really rate the top 10 Israeli films and feel that there is worthy competition. There is no doubt that the last decade has been the finest for Israeli films. What I find the top films have in common is a comfort that Israel is developing with its own culture and telling its own universal stories from within.

  1. “Nina’s Tragedies”
    Beautiful short stories woven together to capture modern Israeli life in a stylistic, bizarre and yet realistic form.

  2. “The Band’s Visit” Little Miss Sunshine meets Cafe Baghdad… a small story filled with humor and love about a forgotten event, and forgotten people. NA: I agree, see my comments on my list!

  3. “The Syrian Bride” A touching and subtle film about overcoming boundaries, whose cinematic expression stands out as fresh and brave. NA: I agree, see below.

  4. “Metallic Blues” A unique perspective on Israeli-German relations in the modern state.

  5. “All I’ve Got” A small forgotten film with a perfect story full of creativity and resolution.

  6. “Aviva My Love” Israel’s most perfect film on the topic of family drama, as a mother wrestles between her passion for art and her love for her family.

  7. “Lebanon” The best of the recent films about Lebanon, with a masterful level of suspense and cinematic language, and even some redemption. NA: I agree, see below, but not “Waltz With Bashir”?

  8. “Victim #17” One of the best documentaries I have ever seen. A truth more amazing than fiction that allows us to look into many levels of Israeli society.

  9. “Ushpizin” A beautiful film celebrating the Orthodox culture in Israel. NA: But it shows the peril of stringency bordering on OCD . At the same time, though, good to see an Israeli film reach beyond national issues which aren’t inherently Jewish to deal with ‘Jewish’ issues.

  10. “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” The ultimate perspective on Israeli life from the outside.

Nathan’s Top Ten

  1. “Kadosh” A penetrating look at the private lives of haredim: realistic or otherwise, it’s challenging and troubling stuff. IZ: As opposed to “Ushpizin” and “Srugim” which give an insiders’ look at religious society, this comes from the provocateur Amos Gitai. All of his films start strongly but ultimately are manipulations that fall flat. Still, provocative stuff, including a lapsed but still Orthodox haredi.

  2. “Waltz with Bashir” May not have worked as a conventional documentary, but a stunning piece of visual artistry exploring a problematic subject. IZ: A fabulous film, but I felt with all the genre breaking, and creative potential, it did not live up to my expectations of what can be done with a film about animation and memory that uses documentary. But a film which showed the world what Israel can do — in cinematic terms.

  3. “Lebanon” A film set almost entirely inside a tank. What more needs to be said? IZ: The fact that this film kept me at the edge of my seat the entire time was amazing. It is also the first Lebanon film in a long time with some redemption!

  4. “Ushpizin” ‘Ha chipsim shel Moshe.’ Shows the perils of etrog-fetishes. IZ: A great sweet film, that as apposed to most films made about the haredi community, speaks in its own language and uses its own culture to express itself, not made from the outside looking in. This is the key to the success of the Israeli film industry.

  5. “The Band’s Visit” A skeletal plot but so well acted and scripted who cares?

  6. “Yossi & Jagger” The bird’s-eyeshot of the soldiers’ packs in the snow is one of the most beautiful cinematic images I’ve ever seen. And which Jewish mother would let her son out in the snow wearing so little? It’s shocking! IZ: I used to love director Eytan Fox but this film is better than “Walk on Water” and “The Bubble” which both had poor endings.

  7. “Beaufort” Does for Lebanon what Apocalypse Now did for Vietnam. Sort of. IZ: I think this film was more suspenseful at moments than “The Hurt Locker,” but then came the moment when a soldier plays a song and the mood becomes very campy — which took me completely out of the film.

  8. “The Lemon Tree” A tale of dispossession. And lemons. IZ: I felt this one was so heavy handed and over the top with clichéd and simplistic metaphors. An Arab woman’s lemon grove being taken by the Israeli minister of defense. Every character in the film speaks in slogans. Way too over the top.

  9. “The Syrian Bride” The tsoris, checkpoints and bureaucracy a Druze bride has to go through to get married. IZ: Somehow Riklis manages to do the opposite of what he did in “The Lemon Tree,” and make a subtle and simple film, filled with beauty and depth.

  10. “Paradise Now” A journey into the suicide bomber’s heart of darkness. IZ: I have a moral issue with making suicide bombers look in any way cool. As a film, it is a bit contrived, and the characters change too quickly with minimal motivation.

Your Stories

  • "I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening; some of us have yellow skin, others grey. When we do not meet for a few days we hardly recognize each other."Primo Levi, "Survival in Auschwitz"

  • "This holiday we take for ourselves,
 no longer silent servers behind the curtain, 
but singers of the seder,
 with voices of gladness,
 creating our own convocation,
 and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."E.M. Broner

  • "The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."Rabbi Leora Kaye

  • "The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."Rabbi Arthur Green

  • "To tune of "Mack the Knife": "Enter Haman ben Hamdasa, /And he’s claimin’, he’s an Agagite. /Better look out, oh Hadassah/For that Haman—he’s an Amalekite./And though Haman, he’s in power now, That old Mordy, will not bow down. /Haman’s ego, it takes a powder now. And just like that—Amalek’s in town!""By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach

  • "Do you know that every shepherd/ has his own tune? / Do you know that every blade/ of grass has its own poem?/ And from the poem/ of the grasses,/ a tune of the shepherd/ is made./ How beautiful and/ pleasant to hear/ this poem!"Reb Nachman of Breslov's Likutei Moharan

  • "Tu B'Shvat is more than a New Year for Trees -- it is a call to action. To observe Tu B'Shvat isn't to read and pray, but to do, to plant, to place one's hands in contact with the Earth....While we may mark Tu B'Shvat as a Jewish Earth Day once a year, we are responsible as Jews to act as environmental stewards every day."David Krantz - Aytzim: Ecological Judaism

  • "Donniel Hartman said the miracle of Hanukkah is not just that the oil lasted 8 days; it’s actually that it lasted more than one. Would we have said, 'Dayenu,' (to mix metaphors,) if it had lasted two days? Would we have had a holiday? Probably, yes. The idea that we as a Jewish community, even in our darkest moments, hold out the hope that a candle is going to keep burning, I find very powerful."Rabbi Rachel Ain

  • "“We would all argue vehemently and work tireless against assimilation. But the Hellenists and we Reform Jews didn’t assimilate. We acculturate, and by doing so, provide a portal for continuity unavailable to those who continue a quasi-ghettoized existence with all the ramifications thereof, good and bad. The irony, rarely mentioned by those who use the Hanukah story to justify Orthodoxy, is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) lasted a century and a half before they disappeared, having taken on Greek names as High Priests and Kings. And Rabbinic Judaism, the first ‘reform’ movement, birthed all of us.”"Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

  • "I find it refreshing to go from carrying the decomposing lulav and etrog in our hands in procession for 7 days (save for Shabbat), to carry absolutely nothing on Shemini Atzeret, to then carry a Torah on Simchat Torah. It’s like Judaism’s way of saying… ‘What you are carrying with you on this journey — Torah, lessons, stories, values, covenant, a connection with a higher power and history — all of the intangibles, you carry them with you on the tangible, tentative, twisting path of life."Rabbi Paul Jacobson

  • "Shemini Atzeret is conceptually an attempt to maintain the holiday relationship with God without any specific rituals. In modern times it has been become eclipsed by the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. This speaks to the difficulty in a pure relationship without concrete modes of expression. It could be a reminder that our close relationships exist even when we don't exchange presents or cards."Rabbi Yosef Blau

  • "Sukkot is the reminder that it doesn't take two days or even two years to go from darkness to light. It might take an entire lifetime to get there and you have to constantly walk with the belief that it's possible."Rabbi Sharon Brous

  • "Yom Kippur: God is our judge. Sukkot: God is our shelter. Yom Kippur: you sit cooped up for endless hours. Sukkot is about space and breath. Yom Kippur, it’s all about, ‘What have I done?’ And Sukkot is, ‘What can I do in the world?’"Rabbi Naomi Levy

  • "The Rabbis in the Talmud spoke of the necessity of both sinai and oker harim, that is both those who collected traditions that were handed down and also those who literally “overturned mountains.” Essentially, the one group would not survive without the other. It is in the radical interpretations of the given traditions, and in the broad and fluent knowledge of the traditions that one is able to create radical new interpretations."Dr. Aryeh Cohen

  • ""I have never felt that repentence, prayer, and tzedakah would change my fate. Rather, I feel that through honest reflection, refinement, and a sense of responsibility, I do have incredible power to affect the decree for others.""Cantor Ellen Dreskin

  • "Teshuvah does invite us to begin again, but not from the beginning. Part of what it means to be human is to learn how to begin again and again – from right where we are, right in the messy middle of things. The Torah, according to an ancient midrash, reminds us of this truth by opening the story of creation itself with the letter Bet…Even when we have rolled the parchment scroll as far back as it will go, the letter Bet meets us there -- insisting that this story cannot be told from the very beginning. No story can. Beginnings elude us."Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

  • "This year our theme at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills is “If not Now, When?” and we asked congregants to tweet their responses to #innwtebh or to fill out cards filling in the blanks :“If not now, when will I….” We will prepare these ‘intentions for the year” in a similar way, as a power point presentation scrolling quietly on the screen facing the congregation as individuals come forward silently in front of the open ark before neilah."Rabbi Laura Geller

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