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The Jewish Influence
by Becky Tan

The hub of Filmfest activity this year was centered around the Pony Bar and Abaton Cinema, as well as the temporarily built Studio Hamburg Lounge near Grindelhof. This street was a bustling scene of Jewish life before World War II. Slowly, the area is reclaiming its history with the reopening of the Jewish school and the establishment of the Jewish Café Leonar. Perhaps this history influenced me, unconsciously, to watch several films about Jewish life.

Room and a Half tells the story of Josef Brodsky, a Russian Jew born in 1940. The film ignores his years in a Russian work camp, his flight to the U.S., and his Nobel Prize for literature in 1987. Instead it portrays Brodsky as a small boy and teenager returning to his family’s apartment in Leningrad where he is the center of doting parents who, without much money, manage to give him all he needs to become a famous poet. This was a feature film based on facts. Russian director Andrei Khrzhanovsky added imaginative, artistic cartoon scenes and it was never boring, in contrast to Fragments, a documentary on the same topic. Here Israeli director Yonatan Haimovich returns to his former home and interviews elderly people whom he still remembers. They seem sunk deeply within their own problems; no one seems particularly enthusiastic about reminiscing or even very curious about Haimovich.

I only realized that The Wolberg Family was Jewish when Simon, family father and mayor of the town, placed stones on the graves of his deceased relatives. Perhaps Wolberg is a recognizably Jewish name in a French film. Otherwise, the family members could have been anyone in a soap opera with the black-sheep brother and philandering wife. They say, “We have the right to know all about each other,” but who is interested.

One of my favourite films also was not, a first glance, Jewish: Nora’s Will from Mexico. Nora’s stubbornly non-religious, ex-husband is in charge of her funeral and he insults the deeply Catholic and Jewish friends, relatives, and rabbis who attempt to bury Nora according to their respective customs – or, actually, not to bury her as neither religion really wants her in its holy ground. The whole film was very tongue-in-cheek and my favourite sentence in the film, as well as in the entire festival, was, “All religions are the same, either for the sake of manipulation or money.” (See more on page …. Birgit, this would be in Marinell’s article about metaphors and Cliches Aside Death is Evolving)

Quite by chance I saw one of the nine short films called Nightmares. A young man stands in an abandoned Olympic stadium in Warsaw and gives an 11-minute speech about Jews in Poland. Meanwhile young people spell out the word “Jews” in the grass. His point is that “Yes, Jews are the chosen people, chosen to be Europeans.” In Amreeka it’s the Jewish school principal who can help young Moslem Fadi leave a U.S. jail. (See page …. Birgit, this would be in Mary’s article about the Art of Life in Film.)

Haim Tabakman, director of Eyes Wide Open, and psychologist Ilan Gans analysed homosexuality in Israel’s orthodox Jewish communities during a panel discussion at the Leonar Café. Tabakmann said that his German photographer Axel Schneppat was not shy about barging into such a community, for which they suffered stones thrown at their cars. (This sounds like Sacha Baron Coen being outrageous in that same community for his film Brüno.) Tabakmann said that Israel, e.g., Tel Aviv, is quite open to homosexuals. It’s only the orthodox Jewish community that says homosexuality does not exist; it’s absolutely not there. God didn’t make you like this. Sin as such is necessary for one to feel guilt, do penance and then overcome it. However, if it doesn’t exist, it cannot even be a sin.

Tabakman said he tried to portray the need for a struggle – in this case an inward struggle – in order to feel alive. If you eliminate all wrong feelings, then you eliminate life. If you feel a temptation then you feel alive again. Stress brings out your true nature. In the film one of the men involved in the homosexual relationship is a butcher whose job is to make meat kosher, i.e., pure and holy, and this he does violently with a large knife. He said, “I always wanted to make a science fiction film and maybe this is it, and anyway BrokebackMountain isn’t really about cowboys.”

This discussion was the first cooperation between the Café Leonar’s Jewish Literary Salon and Filmfest Hamburg. Afterwards the entire audience (of which, strangely, the majority were women although the topic was male homosexuality) trooped down to Abaton Cinema which filled up quickly – this time to include many young men. Albert Wiederspiel, himself, took the opportunity to introduce the film, which he mistakenly-on-purpose, called Eyes Wide Shut – a reference to the 1999 film by Stanley Kubrick.

Eyes Wide Open
Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem today follow the beliefs and traditions established by their ancestors thousands of years ago. In his debut-movie, director Haim Tabakman bravely questions whether those beliefs might be softened; if indeed all of them are still relevant and shows what may happen if they are challenged.

Aaron (Zohar Strauss) has just taken over his father’s butcher’s shop in an ultra-orthodox part of the city. He has a dutiful wife and four young children. He is also a respected member of his synagogue and the time spent there is an important part of his life. A good-looking young student stops by the shop for change for the telephone. When he learns that the student is homeless and almost friendless in the city, Aaron lets him sleep in the room above the shop and help him in his work.

Unfortunately for Aaron, his initial kindness towards the young man depends into a sexual attraction. The attraction seems to be mutual and the student Ezri (Ran Danker) tests Aaron by suggesting that they close the shop and go swimming in an open-air spring on the stony outskirts of the city. The two soon begin an affair and Aaron is wrecked with guilt, torn between his passion for Ezri and his knowledge that he is breaking his lifelong religious beliefs.

Aaron’s wife shows hospitality to Ezra, who shares family meals at their modest home, but she senses a change in her husband’s attitude towards her. His friends in the synagogue become suspicious and his rabbi makes enquiries about Ezri and warns Aaron that the boy is “bad news” and he must go. Despite being deeply religious and in full knowledge of the “sin” he is committing, Aaron cannot control his passion for the younger man, who in turn, needs the love which Aaron gives him. The affair can only end in tragedy and it does; violence overrules compassion. (JM)

Café Leonar
The Jewish Café Leonar opened in January 2008 just three minutes from Abaton Cinema. Open all day and into the night, it serves breakfast, coffee/cake and light lunch and supper. Typical Jewish delicacies are blinis, latkes, borstch and koscher sausages. Within the café is a branch of the Sandleben book store which sells books in the afternoons. Café Leonar is invitingly old-fashioned with dark tables and chairs and a calm atmosphere. Nobody cares if you sit longer to read your book or newspaper while sipping coffee or wine.

Grindelhof 59
Tel 41353011
Mon-Thu 8 – 24:00
Fri 8:00 – 1:00
Sat 9:00 – 1:00
Sun 9:00 – 23:00