Last Friday night, as we all sat around the Shabbat dinner table, we began discussing Israeli movies. This is because we recently switched from cable (HOT) to satellite (YES) TV, and the latter has a channel devoted only to what Israelis call "bourekasim". A bourekas is a savory pastry made of flaky phyllo dough with lots of soft cheese inside.
Most of these movies are eminently forgettable. The entire production is amateurish. Working on infinitesimal budgets, they were shot entirely "on location"--the streets and even the apartments of ordinary Israelis. Very few, if any, of these places still exist. Quite a few were already gone by the time I made aliyah in the late '70s.
The stories weren't much, either. But they appealed to simple people. Since the actors also lived among us, we knew them almost as if they were family (and the same couple of dozen were in most of the films). Some of the movies were classics: Sallah Shabbati, Policeman Azulai, Charlie-and-a-Half. The best scripts were written by the Ashkenazi satirist Ephraim Kishon, but very often told stories of the Mizrachim, who were, at the time, a very large but largely ignored "underclass". One or two, such as Daughters, Daughters, were shown internationally at "art house cinemas", usually with some form of explanation. In Daughters, Daughters, it was necessary to explain why having a son was so important to the father.
The Baby, who is 25, recalled a scene in Charlie-and-a-Half where a Mizrachi family is visiting a relative in hospital. To the annoyance of the Ashkenazi staff (in the Sixties, virtually all professionals and academics were Ashkenazim), the whole family camp out around the bed, eating pots of Mizrachi foods, and then all together make the Grace After Meals out loud. Baby said "No one does that any more".
She's right. Hospitals have become "civilized" places--although trying to get visitors to leave when visiting hours are over is still a trial for the staff, since Israelis all think that rules are meant for the other fellow. Many of the second and third generation of Mizrachim are noticeably less religious than their parents (in this, they are very similar to the Ashkenazim; as indeed was the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side).
That made me think of a scene in Policeman Azulai. Played by Shaike Ophir--himself a 10th generation Jerusalemite whose real name was Goldberg--Azulai was a sort of Israeli Clouseau. The name Azulai is Moroccan, and in the Sixties, to be a Mizrachi policeman was a considerable achievement. He bumbles around, rather pompous, more often than not screwing up, but you know his heart is always in the right place. One night, doing his rounds, after being demoted for general incompetence,
to walking a beat, he looks longingly at a black and white TV in a shop window, knowing that he can never afford such a luxury on a policeman's pay. A prostitute accosts him, offers him a freebie, but he declines with great courtesy: "I can't, I'm sorry, I'm a Cohen (member of the priestly caste)". She understands immediately and bids him goodnight. It was amusing because of the reason he declined--not because he was a straight cop, but because he was religious. There are plenty of religious cops today, but somehow one doesn't think they'd refuse for that reason.
Another scene was "the telephone call". Israel is second only to Hong Kong in cell-phone saturation these days. It seems impossible that barely 30 years ago it could take ten years to get a land line. (Israel's telephone system infrastructure was laid exactly before optic fiber replaced copper wire, so the number of available lines was strictly limited) It was common, when placing an ad for an apartment to let to note whether there was a telephone line in the apartment or not--it made the apartment much more valuable. But the line would be on your landlord's name, so you would have to tell friends who wanted to look you up in the phone book that name, not your own. Policeman Azulai is getting a ride back to the station in a police van which has a "motorola", as the mobile phones in cars were called, back then (of course, this was several decades before the invention of the cell phone). Rather shyly, because of the novelty of it all, he asks the driver if he can call his wife to tell her he will be home for dinner. When the driver says yes, Azulai dials not his home, but the neighborhood corner grocery store. The grocery store owner sends his young son to run across the street and shout the message up to a woman hanging laundry off her porch. The woman goes through her apartment, shouts across a courtyard, to Mrs. Azulai, that her husband won't be late getting home. That was the way it was.
My children, aged in their twenties, cannot even imagine an Israel like this, and I for one think it is sad they cannot. Change in Israel comes so very fast it makes one's head spin. Until the mid-80s the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots was much smaller; no matter whether one had money or not, what you could buy with it was very limited. There was, for example, two kinds of coffee: "nes" which was an instant beverage made by Elite which vaguely resembled real instant coffee (the name came from the word "Nescafe", but also means "miracle" in Hebrew), and "botz" (mud) which is Turkish coffee put into boiling water and stirred. At certain, very posh, cafes one could get a real espresso. Now we have a full variety of lattes and cappucinos (but Starbuck's fancy-shmancy, and expensive, coffees did not succeed in Israel) A single black and white TV cost the earth? Now we have 5 color TVs, two DVRs, (and three VCRs we no longer use). Who would foresee the VCR, the microwave oven, the PC -- not even in the US were such appliances available in the 70s and 80s because they hadn't been invented yet. But there is a limited amount of television addiction possible when you've only got one channel, and that one shuts down at 11 p.m.
In my opinion, the three really giant changes in the country came with victory in the Six Days' War, the advent of cable TV, and the hyperinflation of the 80s. Of course the economic purchasing power of Israelis in general has greatly increased--even with massive taxation, Israelis have embraced the "private" (personally owned automobile) with a vengeance. When I made aliyah it was sufficiently enough of a luxury that no one passed a "trempiada" without picking up hitchhikers (now, no one in his right mind stops) and if someone did give you a "tremp" you invariably offered something toward the price of the gas. The hyperinflation created, as I wrote above, huge disparities in the Israeli population, however, and made conspicuous consumption a way of saying "I've got it made, mate", where previously it really hadn't mattered all that much; that the country simply survived was much more important than one's personal possessions. The Six Days' War relieved that anxiety to a large degree, and provided a very large pool of very cheap Palestinian labor. The influence of this labor force has been in several big areas. One, of course, is the accomplishment of huge amounts of building. Another has been the very corrupting idea that the "proper" path for Jews to take is into the white collar world--where once the Mizrachim largely filled the skilled trades and the blue collar jobs and Ashkenazim gave at least lip service to the philosophy of "avoda Ivrit" (Jewish labor) it is now so much easier and cheaper to get an Arab to do it. The Arabs, in turn, have become used to being almost completely dependent on the Jews for their income--so much so that their outcry on the security fence is directly related to their possible unemployment in the country they want to destroy, which is a completely absurd situation. And cable TV brought the wide horizons of affluence, mainly American, to Israel. I can remember when "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and the "Bill Cosby Show" were the main "examples" of American life on Israeli TV. The former two programs were so obviously the lifestyle of a favored few, and bore so little resemblance to anything in Israel, it was almost like watching science fiction. But once we got cable, we got lots of sitcoms which purported to be the lifestyle of the "average guy"--which still had Israelis' tongues hanging out. And let's not get into what Israeli teenagers thought/think of MTV. When I came to Israel, there wasn't really a "youth culture" because the youth grew up very fast (until almost 1980 high school wasn't free and by 18 a teenager was in the army) and in any case, because the country was young everyone perceived themselves as young. MTV showed that a certain kind of behavoir previously thought here to be "degenerate" was really "magneev" (cool).
It's particularly a shame because such a huge amount has been created in the past 60 years. My kids ought to be proud of it, but instead, except when they see, in a film, what it was really like, they just take today's Israel for granted.
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