Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Joseph Cedar on his movie "Campfire," and Comb Overed Settlers

I had a great opportunity to catch a screening of the Israeli film מדורת השבט/Campfire (literally: Tribal Bonfire), a 2004 movie directed by the esteemed Joseph Cedar. The movie won several Israeli awards when it came out, and Cedar has since gained international notice and applause for his Oscar nominated Beaufort in 2007.

Since Cedar himself was showing it followed by a conversation moderated by my former professor, Uri Cohen, I figured I should probably go. Well let's be honest, I helped publicize the event (sponsored by Columbia's Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies -- IIJS) and was even invited to dinner with Uri and Mr. Cedar the previous evening (unfortunately not until 3 hours before the reserved time and long after I was already booked for the eve) so I planned on going a long time ago. Both the film and discussion were excellent and I was not disappointed.

As per Wikipedia's summary, CAMPFIRE is "the story of a young widow, mother of two beautiful teenage daughters, who wants to join the founding group of a new religious settlement in the West Bank, but first must convince the acceptance committee that she is worthy. Things get complicated when the younger daughter is accused of seducing some boys from her youth movement." The setting is 1981 Jerusalem, in the immediate years following the Labor party's fall from 30 years of dominance in successive Israeli governments and when the country saw for the first time a corresponding rise of settlement growth with the Likud in charge. Most people today say that settlement building back then was looked at much differently, naively really, in the post-'67 generation. And no, I am not talking about the religious who justified their ideological yearnings by pulling the security card (i.e. Israel needs to settle these areas for they are strategic assets) in order to align themselves with the secular Rightist camp, I'm talking about the majority of the rest of the country who naively went along with the plan. Cedar himself spoke about how his family was 'on that bus in 1981,' how they went with a group of prospective families to scout out an area in the West Bank to see if it was suitable for a settlement's location, but in the end chose to remain in Jerusalem.

I thought Cedar's keenest comment of the discussion came in the form of a metaphor he made about one of his central characters. Motke (played by the ever-excellent Assi Dayan and shown on the right), the leader of the founders of the would-be settlement, is middle aged, pot bellied, and balding. He also has an obvious comb over. Cedar noted that when Motke stands in his house and looks at a mirror at a very specific angle with very specific lighting, he appears and even truly convinces himself that he has a full head of hair, even though from every other angle and light one can obviously see the balding. Just as Motke can convince himself, so too can today's ideological settlers choose to see themselves as pure, moral, and just -- but only in the very narrowest of viewpoints. Agree or disagree with Cedar's analogy (and concomitant not-so-couched political statement), the metaphor certainly provided the audience with a striking image to ponder.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Translating Bialik, Take 1: "In the City of Slaughter"

"?חציר תלוש העם - ואם-יש לתלוש תקווה"

As is well known, Ch. N. Bialik wrote his famous poem בעיר ההרגה”/"In the City of Slaughter," as a response to the infamous Kishniev Pogrom of 1903. The question in the above title, posed by Bialik in line 173, is for me one of the most important passages of the epic. Klein translates it as “The people is plucked grass; can plucked grass grow again?” but I believe some of the meaning is compromised in order to fit into Klein’s admirable attempt (a successful one overall) to maintain the rhyme and rhythm of the high Hebrew in his Victorian-esque translation. I personally would interpret it as “the nation is [like] plucked grass – and is there any hope for the plucked?” I find the key difference between the two translations is with the word תקווה, hope, left out entirely in the Klein edition. The scathing nature of Bialik’s tone throughout the poem is well documented and is based on his lack of faith in East European Jewry to rise to the challenge of self-defense in an age of heightened political self-awareness.

As Professor Alan Mintz aptly writes in his introduction to the Kishniev 100 collection of essays, “the shame of mass victimization had spurred the emergence of political Zionism and Jewish socialism, both of which emphasized the exigent need for organized self-defense” (p.1). Even though there were examples of Jewish resistance in the Kishniev pogroms - documented by Bialik in his notebooks but problematically ignored in the poem itself, these instances were but individual blades of grass among the torn fields, at the end of the day still plucked and disseminated to die out like the rest of the massacred innocents. On the one hand, if one only reads Klein in English one can legitimately debate whether grass can regrow if replanted -- and surely it can. But Bialik’s worry is not in the short term whether Jews will find a new home and life in a neighboring village or return to life as usual in Kishniev. His question is meta: how long can a people continue like this? For if indeed the nation was spread so thin with stocks so easily uprooted, then was there any long term hope to be found? It is within this context that the line should be read, and unfortunately the reader loses some of it in Klein’s translation.