Jews have long been great storytellers. The tradition began in the BC era with Moses’ publication of his five-book anthology “The Bible,” a record bestseller. We’ve been on a roll ever since. Acclaimed Jewish novelists of more recent times included Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Franz Kafka, Herman Wouk, and Joseph Heller.
Jewish storytellers have also fared well in Hollywood, producing such greats as Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, and Cecil DeMille, who turned Moses’ epic into a movie. Jews especially love stories with angst, the perennial favorite being the one about how we escaped enslavement under Egypt’s Pharaoh. Families gather every year to read that one Rocky Horror style, replete with unleavened bread and other reminders of that troubled era.
So, it’s no surprise that Israel would excel at cutting-edge television. The country is too small to support big budget programming, and with most of the country fluent in English, Israelis can easily watch Game of Thrones. Israeli television must get by with original plots, great acting, and themes the population can relate to like military camaraderie and ineptitude, government corruption, visiting Colombia, and, of course, lots of angst.
Israel has five performing arts schools and more than a half dozen film schools, including the Sam Spiegel school, which Variety ranks as among the best in the world. Israel has spawned several famous Hollywood actors, including Theodore Bikel, Gal Gadot, and rising star Alona Tal, who began their careers in the tiny country. Another notable is Ayelet Zurer, who isn’t yet widely known in the U.S., but I regard as having unparalleled talent, intensity, depth, and warmth. I’m still beaming from Zurer’s graciousness to pose for a picture with me this week following a discussion she gave with her castmates from the hit series Shtisel.
I discovered Israeli TV watching “Fauda”, a gripping show about a top-secret unit of the Israeli Defense Forces in pursuit of Palestinian assailants and militants. The unit’s characters are not how I imagined elite IDF soldiers. They are impulsive, flout orders, and kill and torture without compunction or reserve, all in the name of protecting Israel. They also are loving spouses, fathers, and devoted to family and friends. The duality of these characters is what makes the show so compelling.
Fauda attempts to show the conflict from both sides and offers a perspective on why Palestinians so detest Israel’s military. Showing up at a wedding reception and killing the groom can breed a lot of hatred, but so can having one’s girlfriend murdered in a terrorist attack. Like almost everything to do with Israel, the show sparks intense debate and criticism, but even some Palestinians admit Fauda is binge worthy drama. The show is watched in 90 countries, but the international boycott Israel movement has demanded that Neflix drop the series.
Netflix’s algorithms led me to “When Heroes Fly”, a thriller about four Israeli soldiers who had falling out because of a battle incident but reunite a decade later to rescue a friend in Colombia whom they thought was dead. I was hooked on this show upon watching the dramatic opening battlefield sequence. It’s a buddy film with lots of personal dynamics and tension. I was especially intrigued by the plotline tying corrupt Israeli Embassy officials to a South American drug lord. It underscores a wary view of the Israeli government, which is understandable when you have a prime minister facing corruption charges.
The Israeli series “Hostages” is where I discovered Ayelet Zurer, who plays the lead character in season one. The show’s plot defies believability, but it’s so deftly written and acted it seems credible. Zurer convincingly plays an accomplished surgeon whose family is held hostage and will be killed by rogue agents unless she botches a routine operation on Israel’s prime minister. I haven’t been so mesmerized by an actress since watching Kelly Macdonald in Boardwalk Empire. “Hostages” plotline involves Israeli government corruption and collusion with corporate interests.
My fascination with Zurer prompted me to watch “Shtisel”, a show about an ultra-religious family living in Jerusalem. The premise didn’t interest me, and as I learned this week, the cast was skeptical of the plot until reading the script by Ori Elon. Michael Aloni, who plays a successful and cocky finance executive in “When Heroes Fly,” is sensational as Akiva Shtisel, the caring but conflicted son of a dominating father. I can’t do justice trying to capture this show, but here’s a clip of Zurer narrating some scenes.
Zurer has appeared in U.S. movies, including Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Vantage Point, Angels and Demons, and Man of Steel. Zurer also is an animal rights activist. It was because of her love of animals she agreed to appear in the low budget Holocaust movie called Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog in which she gives a very moving performance as a mother of two children in Nazi Germany.
Israeli television is touching people from all walks of life. Doval’e Glickman, the lead actor in Shtisel, recounted how he was in a Paris café and a waitress came up to him and asked if he was an Israeli actor. He said yes, and the waitress said three women would like to meet him. Though in real life he looks nothing like his character, the women said they recognized his eyes. They were Muslims from Lebanon who said that Orthodox Jewish life portrayed in Shtisel was very similar to what they experience.
Perhaps the key to fostering world peace is giving everyone a free Netflix account.
“When Heroes Fly”
“Hostages” (Israeli production)
Anything with Ayelet Zurer