Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.
A previous Alt+SHIFT column discussed religious individuals involved in producing movies and television shows and this installment turns our attention to the portrayal of we Orthodox in Israeli TV and movies. Adam Tzachi, head of Communications Studies at Mikhlelet Herzog, wrote an essay in Makor Rishon in December 2022 in which he analyzes this growing phenomenon and my presentation here emerges from his analysis. In the thirty-five years between 1960 and 1995, twenty Israeli movies dealt with religious themes. In the fifteen years between 2000 and 2015, sixty-five movies did so. The list of films include HaHesder, Ushpizin, Fill the Void, and The Woman’s Balcony. A list of prominent TV shows from this period incorporates Srugim, Shtisel, and Shababnikim. Many of these were critically lauded and commercially successful in the United States and worldwide. What caused this burgeoning interest in shows and films about the religious?
Economics and simple numerical growth of the young Jewish State played a role. In the past few decades, Israel dramatically increased the amount of television stations, the quantity of movies produced annually, the money allocated by governmental and other sources towards the production of films, and the number of film schools. More movies and shows mean a greater variety of programming.
Cultural shifts also proved influential. Shelilat ha-gola (negation of the exile) was a dominant cultural force in the State’s early years with the old side-locked shtetl Jew replaced with the young, vibrant, activist Sabra eager to work the fields and serve in the army. The old Jew was seen as a passive figure waiting for God to bring the messiah. Following the near calamitous Yom Kippur War, the 1970s brought a shift towards more criticism of the mainstream groups holding hegemonic power over the State’s institutions and culture. It became legitimate to critique militarism and recognize the worthiness of exilic Jewish communities. Instead of a melting pot for producing Mapianiks, Israeli society found a greater place for various minorities including Sephardim, Haredim, and the National Religious. Not surprisingly, in time these trends impacted on cultural production, including television and movie programming.
A different kind of cultural shift touches more specifically on religious matters. On the one hand, the religious community developed a more positive attitude toward the world of film. Note the founding of the Ma’aleh Film School catering to budding religious actors, screenwriters, and directors. Note how more recent baa’lei teshuva such as Shuli Rand and Rama Burshtein continued to produce movies as observant Jews while returnees of an earlier generation, such as Uri Zohar, left the film industry for good when they turned religious. From the other direction, more secular Jews showed interest in our Jewish tradition as manifested in the world of secular study halls.
Having offered various factors accounting for the shift, Tzachi then contends that Haredim receive a more positive portrayal than the National Religious on the screen. He explains that the latter lose on both ends since criticism of the old includes their religious behavior whereas criticism of the new applies to their nationalism.
A more recent MakorRishon article relates to the portrayal of another group. Nadav Cohen, one of the founders of Yeshiva Mizrachit, takes note of a documentary series on the Kan 11 television station titled Hiloniyut. Cohen views the existence of this series as evidence that the secular majority no longer sees itself as the dominant mainstream but as another minority subgroup worthy of intensive study.
[Watch the documentary series here (may not be available in all locales).]
The series divides history into three neat periods: the impressive world of Greece and Rome, the medieval Dark Ages controlled by the Catholic Church, and the return to reason in the modern Enlightenment. Cohen notes how this convenient package does not apply to Islamic or Jewish societies. The Muslim Middle Ages produced great philosophers (Averroes, Avicenna, Alfarabi), mathematicians, and historians. Even restricting ourselves to the twelfth century, Jewish civilization can point to R. Yehuda Halevi, Ra’avad, Rambam, Rabbenu Tam, R. Zerahya Halevi, and R. Abraham Ibn Ezra. Hardly the Dark Ages! Cohen explains that Israeli secularists see themselves as part of this appealing Western narrative and therefore gloss over that narrative, not cohering with Jewish history.
Finally, Cohen identifies some failure of vision in this series. It still portrays the secularists as the ones who are enlightened and ask questions. In reality, religious people also ask questions and secularism has its own limitations and orthodoxies.
In all cases, we have here two cultural surveys indicating how contemporary Israeli television and film reveal dynamics working in the Jewish State. Who is being featured and how they are being portrayed help tell the tale of Israeli society.
Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION. Read his essay, “Modern Orthodox Arguments Against Television” (TRADITION, Summer 2011).