Ropes of Fate: Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s “Shadow Kill”

Haim Watzman

In the final scene of Adoor Gopalakrishnan‘s film Shadow Kill (Nizhalkuthu), a young man, dressed in black, sets out to perform his first hanging. The young man, Muthu, is the son of the hereditary executioner of the south Indian principality of Travancore. He is a Gandhian nationalist and pacifist who has made speeches in his village against the death penalty. Yet upon his father’s death, during the night before the execution, Muthu accepts the doom of his descent-even though he knows that the boy around whose neck he is about to place the noose is innocent.

Such an end implies that we have just seen (at the Cinema South Film Festival in Sderot, see my post Cinema of the South: Celebrating Sderot and Kerala) a film about how Muthu wrestles with his heritage, resists, and then accepts it. But in fact it is not Muthu but his father, Kaliyappan, who agonizes, from the story’s first scene to its penultimate one, about having killed an innocent man the last time he was called from his village to perform his office. Emulating his hero, Muthu buys a spinning wheel to spin out string, which is taken to the local jail to be made into rope. It’s Kaliyappan who, like the Greek fate-goddess Atropos, cuts the rope-the rope of his last hanging, whose ashes, burnt in ritual and prayer, are a balm that heals the sick and troubled.

In keeping with tradition, on the night prior to the execution, the king’s police officers ply Kaliyappan with liquor and keep him from sleeping (he must not sleep, because his victim is certainly not sleeping this night) by telling him stories. The story that finally helps keep the elderly executioner awake is about a romance between a young teenage girl and an orphan flutist. The girl asks the boy to teach her to play his instrument; when he leaves her to practice, the girl is attacked, raped, and killed by her brother-in-law, who has developed an uncontrollable passion for her. The flute found in her hands implicates the orphan boy; the girl’s family knows who the real murderer is but protects him.

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Cinema of the South: Celebrating Sderot and Kerala

Haim Watzman

Sderot was celebrating yesterday–it’s been celebrating all week, in fact. Who cares about the missiles coming over from Gaza when you can catch a good flick–lots of them? The Cinema South Festival, held in Sderot each year under the sponsorship of the film school at adjacent Sapir College, is one of the most stimulating, and heart-warming cultural events on Israel’s calendar.

The day’s only Red Alert happened just as we emerged from our rental car next to the housing project where my daughter, Mizmor (finishing up her first year in the animation program) lives. We scurried to safety–well, it’s all relative–under one of the building’s outdoor stairwells until, seconds later, we heard a distant boom.

After dropping off some home-cooked food in her apartment, we drove over to the Sderot Cinematecque. The festival was in full swing. “South” here doesn’t mean Alabama and Georgia-it means Israel’s poor, forgotten, and bombarded Negev region. Sapir students were quaffing beers and muching on sandwiches and sticky sweets while a Kerala band played songs that sent my wife Ilana-whose late father grew up in Bombay, after his family moved there from Baghdad-into dreamy nostalgia.

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Tel Aviv Ennui: Yael Hedaya’s “Accidents”

Yael Hedaya’s Accidents is an intriguing, maddening novel of contemporary Tel Aviv-intriguing in its astute portrayal of the relationships between its characters, maddening in the shallowness of its vision. During the weeks I spent reading it, I wanted it to end so that I could move into a different, more profound fictional world-but neither could I put it aside until I’d read everyone of its 547 pages.

(I read the novel in the original Hebrew, but has been published in English in a translation by Jessica Cohen. Hedaya was named a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this book; my book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award.)

The time is the 1990s. Yonatan is the middle-aged bestselling author of two novels, but has been melancholy, lost, and unable to write since he lost his wife in an automobile accident. He lives in an apartment in central Tel Aviv with his pre-adolescent daughter, Dana. He meets Shira, whose recent first novel was also a bestseller, and who lives not far from Yonatan and Dana. Shira has been through a number of relationships, most recently with thoughtful, considerate Eitan, but finds herself falling in love with Yonatan, who, truth be said, is not really such a nice guy. The loss of his wife may have given him a good reason to be cold and aloof, but it turns out he’s always been that way. In the end, however, he melts; Shira moves in. Shira is also caring for her ailing father. In the meantime, Dana faces chick cliques at school, and gets through her early teenage years.

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The Man He Should Be: Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret”

Maimonides wrote that we should avoid extremes and aspire to the middle way. He was referring to virtues and vices, not poetry. But in encountering a poem that does not adopt any of the classical forms, one good way to grasp its structure is sometimes simply to count the lines, figure out which one falls precisely in the middle, and begin working out from there.

One poem that can be puzzled out this way is one of my favorite contemporary pieces of verse, Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret, from his 2002 collection Different Hours (read the poem here ). I used two of its lines as the epigraph to my memoir Company C . The name of my new monthly column in The Jerusalem Report, “Necessary Stories,” comes from those lines, and is the name I originally wanted for my book.

The poem is in free verse, with no rhyme structure or stanzas to clue us in to how the poet built it. But it has an odd number of lines, 37, which means that one line stands in the middle-line 19: “he was a man. Lightning, high winds” The caesura in the middle of the line-the full stop, with four syllables on either side, is further evidence that this middle line is indeed the axis around which the poem is built.

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Black and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”

Haim Watzman

If, like me, you are a Jew who grew up in America in the second half of the twentieth century, your Jewish identity was molded by a set of what seemed like self-evident propositions. First and foremost, Jews are different from other people in that they belong to a community that was both a nation and religion. That means you could be a Jew even if you didn’t buy into the God and mitzvah stuff. Second, only racists and Nazis maintain that Jews are racially (that is, biologically) distinct in any significant way from other people. Indeed, “race” is a bad word used mostly by people who want to deny equal rights to Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Third, Jews straddle the great racial divide in American society. We are white of skin, but black in spirit. Sharing a history of oppression and slavery with the blacks, we have a peculiar ability and duty to emphasize with their plight-empathy that the blacks appreciated at first, but strangely stopped appreciating as the century progressed.

Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006) is a fascinating account of how Jewish identity in the United States was formed in the context of American race relations. In the process, Goldstein shows that our self-evident identities are self-evident only in the framework of the peculiar American experience. That’s one reason why American and Israeli Jews so often miscomprehend each other’s sensibilities.

(Goldstein and his book were awarded a Choice Award in the framework of this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. My book, A Crack in the Earth, received an honorable mention.)

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Is It Easier to Get Published in Hebrew?

Israeli book editors are less likely than their American counterparts to demand major manuscript changes of an author. For better or worse-and it’s both-that has been clear to me for a long time. And it was confirmed by four emerging novelists who spoke Wednesday night at Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom literary café in the framework of Jerusalem’s International Writers Festival.

As both a writer and an editor, I have mixed feelings about this. Like all writers, I get annoyed when an editor tells me that parts of my pieces are unnecessary or uninteresting, and that other things are, in his or her opinion, missing. Like all editors, I almost always see faults in manuscripts that come my way, and believe that if my clients will take my advice, the works will be better. I had very productive and pleasant experiences with the editors of my two books, and I think the manuscripts were improved by their suggestions. But from the stories I hear, my experience is not necessarily typical.

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Arabs at the Counter

Go into a trendy clothing store, sports outlet, or home improvement warehouse emporium in Israel these days and, as often as not, it’ll be an Arab who helps you find just the right jeans, running shorts, or the doohickey you need to fix your leaky faucet. In today’s Ha’aretz, Ruth Sinai documents this social phenomenon and asks whether service jobs like this represent progress for Israel’s Arab citizens, or just another way to get exploited.

I won’t weigh in on the economic benefits or lack thereof, but this trend is certainly a step forward for ethnic integration in Israel. Historically, Israel’s Palestinian citizens have worked in agriculture, construction, and behind the scenes service jobs like washing dishes in restaurants. In such jobs they were largely invisible, and where visible their jobs marked them as unskilled, alien, and quite often physically dirty.

Compare that to the fashionably-dressed, tastefully made-up, and high-spirited young woman who has become my favorite sales clerk at my local Golf clothing store. I’m not exactly a walking display of the latest fashions-I don’t have a native instinct for choosing the threads that look best on me. So I need the advice and encouragement of a patient and sympathetic attendant. The process involves conversation and interaction with a very visible member of my country’s minority.

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Geneva Jive: Menachem Klein’s “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine”

What if you make a peace agreement and nobody comes? That’s the fundamental story behind “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative.” It’s a fascinating look into the conflict and the “peace industry.” Contrary to the intention of its author, political scientist Menachem Klein, it raises more doubts than hopes about the future of the peace process.

(Caveat lector: I translated this book, and two previous books by Klein into English. He’s a neighbor and friend and fellow-member of Kehilat Yedidya.)

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Running from the Siren, Biking the Green Line

The siren last night caught me backing up my hard disk. I’d planned to be at the neighborhood ceremony or upstairs with my family at the beginning of Memorial Day, but I kept procrastinating. When I got upstairs, the television broadcast of the official ceremony was just coming to an end. I had something to eat and watched the segments about fallen soldiers and their families.

“I need to talk to Asor,” Ilana said. So I called him on my cell phone, figuring that he wouldn’t answer. He did. “We needed to hear your voice,” I told him. Ilana tried to take the phone but started crying. Asor was impatient, said he had to go. Should we be thankful that we’re watching the Memorial Day programming rather than being part of it, or brood over the possibility that in some future year we might be on the screen?

When this morning’s siren went off at 11 a.m., I didn’t even hear it. The same unconscious repression mechanism that was at work last night did it again-I was in an elevator in the Malha shopping mall. The door opened and everyone was standing stock-still with their backs to me. For a second I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized that I’d again tried to avoid the moment.

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Make Films, Not War

Three days left to apply .

Reena Lazar of Peace It Together tells me that her organization is accepting applications until May 10 for this summer’s peace camp: A small group of Israeli, Palestinian and Canadian teens will spend three weeks together on an island near Vancouver learning leadership and communication skills and making films together. The follow-up program lasts for the full year afterwards.

I kid you not: You (or your 16-18-year-old kid) have been sitting around thinking about how adults have messed up the world,

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Purely Wrong: Judah Leib Magnes and the Jewish State

According to a legend, the sage Rabbi Shimon bar-Yohai and his son spent twelve years hiding in a cave and delving into the esoteric truths of the Torah. When they emerged, Rabbi Shimon was so immersed in divine truth that he raged when he saw Jews plowing their fields. His anger was so fierce that his mere glance burned up every working man he saw. God ordered him back to the cave.

The publication of the diary of Judah Leib Magnes, the leading Jewish pacifist and peace activist in Palestine in the years leading up to Israel’s War of Independence, offers an opportunity to consider another man whose attempt to adhere to absolute truth and purity led him to misunderstand entirely the world around him.

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