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Projecting

Reviewed by Yuval Rivlin

A Different Chorus
by Nurit Gertz
Am Oved and The Open University of Israel, 2004, 213 pages, Hebrew.


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I
n his book Essays in the First Person, published at the end of the 1970s, the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld, reflecting on his experiences as a young refugee in Palestine after World War II, describes “a single protracted, guiding feeling”:
Everything that had happened to us during those long years of war was latent within us, mute and blind. An oppressive, mysterious mass, disconnected from consciousness.... Years later the land appeared to us as a broad, tranquil expanse drawing one down into a deep sleep. And this was definitely the desire: To sleep, to sleep for years, to forget oneself and be reborn.... It was a glorious forgetfulness.... Liberation, lightness, a sense of floating on air. Perhaps this is how birds feel as they hover between heaven and earth. At that point we didn’t yet know that within this marvelous self-forgetfulness there nested a cussed bitterness.
This “glorious forgetfulness,” the desire to “be reborn,” and the latent “cussed bitterness” are all at the heart of A Different Chorus, a new book by Nurit Gertz, professor of literature and film at Tel Aviv University. Yet unlike Appelfeld’s essays, which focus on the emotional maelstrom of Holocaust survivors and their efforts to repress traumatic memories, Gertz devotes most of her book to the image of these survivors in the eyes of the society that received them. She examines the attempts to recast survivors in the mold of the Israeli sabra, and the representation of this forced metamorphosis in Israeli film.
Gertz has been researching this metamorphosis for some time. The scholarship she has produced over the last twenty-five years has returned again and again to the various ways in which popular Israeli art represents the attitudes of veteran Israelis to the “brands snatched from the burning.” In her 1983 book The Destruction of Hiz’at and the Morning After, for example, Gertz analyzed the tension at the heart of the encounter between native Israelis and new immigrants as described, among other places, in Moshe Shamir’s classic novel He Walked the Fields (1947). But Gertz has never been content merely to point out the Zionist themes in the literature of the War of Independence and examine their contribution to the creation of a national ethos—and, in turn, to the suppression of a pre-Zionist Jewish identity. Rather, she has tried to understand how film and literature in the 1940s and 1950s reflected the growing divide between Zionist ideology and its fulfillment in practice. She went on to critique the values spawned by this ideology in the literature of the 1970s through the end of the 1990s. The Holocaust and its survivors also play a significant role in her popular work Trapped in Its Own Dream: The Place of Myth in Israeli Culture (1995), which examined both the efforts of Israeli culture to shape a sabra identity wholly distanced from its Diaspora past, and the manipulation of the memory of the Holocaust in the election campaigns of the early 1980s.
In A Different Chorus, Gertz returns to the theme of the recast image of the immigrant Holocaust survivor in film—from the 1934 movie Work to Eli Cohen’s 1995 film The Jujube Tree Is Taken. Gertz argues that the portrayal of Holocaust survivors played an important role in the formation of the emerging Israeli culture, casting the survivor in the role of the “other,” whose very presence jeopardizes the alternative identity the collective seeks to embrace. Her main objective here, she says, is to examine
the voice of the assimilated identity that made itself heard even in a time when people didn’t want to hear it.... This voice spoke of other, distant regions and of other memories which were necessarily threatening to Israeli identity, as it had contracted itself to the present dimensions of this land, using other types of past, space, and identity as instruments for its establishment.
Gertz distinguishes between the film portrayal of the immigrant in the early 1940s and its subsequent makeover in Israeli movies produced after the Yom Kippur War, a distinction that reflects the ideological, political, and social developments that occurred in Israel during that period. She makes clear that the focus on the image of the survivor is designed not merely to reveal the attitude of Israeli society towards its new immigrants, but also, and more broadly, as a means of investigating that society’s evolving self-image.
Gertz’s project is in some ways reminiscent of the work of Ella Shohat, whose pioneering and controversial studies of Israeli film also attempted to map the representation of Zionist identity in the early years of statehood. Shohat, too, indicted the “oppressive” approach of Israeli culture towards immigrants from Eastern countries. But Gertz differs from Shohat both in her decision to compare cinematic and literary creations and in her use of post-modern exegetical tools. Her research in Israeli film archives and skillful hermeneutics reveal Israeli cinema to be an inexhaustible lode of treasures, uncharted territory that invites psychoanalytic interpretation. In the end, this proves to be the source of her book’s power—and its weakness.

Yuval Rivlin, film critic for the weekly newspaper Makor Rishon, teaches film and history at the Ya’akov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies.





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