November 14, 2018

Exploring IDF’s Charedi Troops

According to current statistics, Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews comprise 12 percent of Israel’s 6.5 million Jewish population — or about 780,000 people. Among that number, about 6,000 currently serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and only about 2,000 in combat units. Since the establishment of the Jewish state, Charedim have been allowed by law to forego otherwise mandatory military service so that they can dedicate their lives to studying Torah.

Secular opposition to this policy has increased in recent years, and in September 2017 the Supreme Court of Israel ruled the law unconstitutional.

The controversy surrounding the issue plays out in the Israeli television series “Commandments,” two episodes of which will be screened at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on April 29. In the series, which has had two hit seasons in Israel, Charedi recruits are ridiculed and mistreated by secular soldiers but face far worse from their own ultra-Orthodox communities in the form of banishment or physical attacks.

“Many people are angry at us,” the show’s creator and head writer Yoav Shutan-Goshen told the Journal in a phone interview. He cited the Charedi community’s ire at how the show depicts violence committed by its members against their own. “Violence is part of the reality, and I’d be neglectful if I didn’t tell the whole story,” Shutan-Goshen said. “In the show, we criticize everybody: the Orthodox, the army, the secret service.”

The series concentrates on three young men: innocent, sheltered Ya’akov (Dolev Mesika), charming scam artist Avram (Roy Nik), and Gur Arye (Avi Mazliah), whose behavior becomes increasingly unhinged. The show was shot on a specially built army base a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem, with additional locations in Bnei Brak and the Tel Aviv area.

“People complained about us showing the dirty laundry, but nobody criticized us for not being authentic.” —  Yoav Shutan-Goshen

Shutan-Goshen, a lawyer turned law teacher, fulfilled a long-held dream when he enrolled at Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in 2015. At the time, Israel was in an uproar over the secular middle-class Yesh Atid party’s mandate to end military exemptions for Charedim and government subsidies for Yeshiva scholars. He thought the situation had the elements for a good script, and he interviewed people on both sides of the argument.

Shutan-Goshen collaborated with his wife, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen; writer Raya Shuster; and his screenwriting teacher, Avner Bernheimer, to turn the personal stories from those interviews into “Kipat Barzel,” which in Hebrew has a dual meaning: Iron Yarmulke and Iron Dome — the latter being the name of the Israeli missile defense system. (Because the pun might be lost on non-Israelis, the English title “Commandments” was used.)

Since none of the writing team members is ultra-Orthodox, Shutan-Goshen made sure that advisers from the Charedi community participated in every step of the creative process.

“They were in the writing room, helping us to correct mistakes and explaining things about the world that otherwise we could never understand,” Shutan-Goshen said. “They were on the set, making sure that everything looked authentic. We had to be perfect. People complained about us showing the dirty laundry, but nobody criticized us for not being authentic.”

In addition to the secular/ultra-Orthodox divide at the heart of the show, there is a storyline about sexual abuse, with the perpetrator a rabbi. “It’s based on true stories we heard,” Shutan-Goshen said. “Not everybody was happy, but we thought it was very important to talk about.”

When he was growing up, Shutan-Goshen admitted, his secular Jewish family and community talked about Charedi Jews as “parasites.” The standard perspective, he said, was that: “ ‘These people are not going to the army when everyone else has to. They get salaries from the state just for studying Torah. They don’t contribute to the [economy but they take].’

“But now I have a new perspective,” he said. “I understand them and I hope the audience can understand them too.”

The film festival’s screening of “Commandments” will be the first time that episodes of the series are shown outside Israel, and Shutan-Goshen said he is
eager to see how the Los Angeles audience will react.

“I’m very curious to know what American Jews think about this situation,” he said.

Shutan-Goshen, his wife and their two children are living temporarily in the Bay Area while Gundar-Goshen, author of the best-selling novel “Waking Lions,” is teaching a semester at San Francisco State University.

The couple met in the IDF, when Gundar-Goshen, a journalist, was assigned to write a story about his rescue unit. “I gave her one of my short stories and told her I’d like it to be published in her magazine,” Shutan-Goshen said. “She called the next day to tell me it was a lousy story and she would be happy to meet me to explain how bad it was. We met, and the rest is history.”

They will return home to Tel Aviv in May, and plan to continue working on their next project, a drama series set in the restaurant world. They’re also waiting to hear if “Kipat Barzel” will get a third season.

Shutan-Goshen said he is optimistic the show will someday be seen in its entirety on an American TV channel or streaming service.

“I really hope that the audience will change their attitudes toward these [Charedi] youths and communities and understand more about this complicated situation,” he said. “I can understand both sides — why the military wants to recruit these youths and why the youths refuse to join the army.

“Everybody here is right. Nobody is evil.”

“Commandments” will screen at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on April 29 at the Laemmle Music Hall, followed by a discussion moderated by Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa. Visit lajfilmfest.org for more information.