2021 Annual Assessment

Israeli arts exhibited something of a renewed interest in Jewish history and tradition this year. Two of the more notable works are When God was Young by the Israeli author of popular fiction Yochi Brandes and the film Legend of Destruction by Gidi Dar.

Yochi Brandes re-imagines biblical and Jewish historical scenes and situations to make them more relevant and attractive to an Israeli secular audience. While this often results in passionate storytelling, her interpretive slant is generally nationalist so as to bring the biblical or historical stories in accord with the dominant values of contemporary Israeli culture. Her latest book is not a novel, but rather a series of essays or meditations on the interaction of God and certain biblical figures. The basic argument, which repeats itself in almost every essay, is that God changes and evolves through his interaction with the biblical figures. This idea, which need not be construed as necessarily heretical, fits the biblical stories to the underlying values of Israeli secular nationalist culture. This culture, of course, revolted against the passivity and dependence on God that characterized the traditional Judaism of the Galut. By having the biblical characters influence God as well as being influence by Him, she restores a sense of agency and activism to the biblical figures, in line with modern Israeli culture.

Gidi Dar’s new film has evoked a lot of interest internationally because of its innovative formal technique. It consists of 1500 still drawings of considerable artistry and beauty shown together with dialogue and a sound track. However, in Israel, its content also attracted considerable attention. It tells the story of the destruction of the Temple based upon the Jewish sources in the Talmud Bavli, Gittin 55b-59b and in the Eicha Rabbah midrash as well as the writings of Josephus Flavius. The very title, Legend of Destruction, discloses its intention. It is an Aggadah, not in the sense of a fairy tale but in the sense of a moral tale, as found in the Talmud. At the center of the story is the bloody strife among the polarized Jewish factions that ultimately weakened the Jewish resistance to the Romans and led to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The film premiered two days before Tisha B’Av to packed audiences, largely of religious people. As many of the reviews showed, the nationalist message was not lost on the audience. They understood the film as addressing the anxiety underlying Israeli political culture – that the struggle between the polarized factions (left and right, religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Jews and Arabs) will undercut the viability of the state.

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