Are You There God? It’s Me, Israel

The year is 1999, and on the Israeli TV miniseries, “Catching the Sky,” Nurit walks into her Tel Aviv kitchen at the crack of dawn to find her husband doing something completely shocking and inexplicable.

“What are you doing?” Nurit asks him.

“Praying Shacharit,” Roni says, referring to the morning prayers.

“So you are becoming religious?” she asks him.

He is, he admits.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Nurit wants to know.

“I was sure you were going to kick me out,” he replies.

Nurit eventually does throw her husband out — after he quits his job and discards some books belonging to their two children, like “The Odyssey” and “The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights,” because of their base, nonreligious values. Fast-forward five years later to 2004: Nurit, Roni and their two now-teenage children have returned to the small screen in Israel for a follow-up year of the miniseries as the couple is still separated, legally and by their divergent religious paths.

“Catching the Sky,” which screens at the 21st Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles, is among a crop of recent Israeli films that deal with religion. Another festival entry, “Wasserman,” depicts a standoff between an anti-religious Holocaust survivor and his religious family and neighbors. Both movies show how religion can come between relationships and tear families apart.

What has happened to the Israeli entertainment industry?

Once, the films and TV shows obsessed about everything political — from army flicks to action films to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then, escapism ruled the screens: Love stories and family dramas took center stage, as if to say the country did not need to confront — or did not want to face — daily terrorism, compulsory military service and land withdrawals. In the last five years, the country has shied away both from politics and its escapist opposite, turning the camera inward on Israelis to explore social issues plaguing this complex society.

If a country can be judged by what it watches on screen, then films like Shuli Rand’s “Ushpizin,” the ultra-Orthodox Sukkot story of faith, and Joseph Cedar’s “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” questioning the national-religious way of life, suggest that Israel is finally ready to deal with the one social problem threatening to tear the society apart: religion.

Is God making a comeback in Israel? Has the Holy One, Blessed Be He, returned to the Promised Land — or at least to the screen? And what does this say about modern Israel?

“Religion on the screen has risen from almost zero percent to 20 percent to 30 percent,” said Udi Lion, the executive producer of “Jerusalem Brew,” a TV show about a traditional Sephardic Jerusalem family whose children follow different religious paths, from ultra-Orthodox to completely secular. Lion is also the founder of the Gesher Multicultural Film Foundation in Israel, whose mission is to encourage Jewish programming, as well as minority representation — sort of an NAACP of Israeli programming.

One factor affecting the rise of religion on screen, Lion said, was the development 14 years ago of Ma’ale, a film school for religious students, of which Lion served as director in the late ’90s. Ma’ale broke the secular media monopoly — the Tel Aviv “branja,” an inner circle of primarily leftist, secular Ashkenazi artists. Both Rand and Cedar, the religious filmmakers, have taught at Ma’ale, and have gotten help from the foundation for their religious-themed films, “Time of Favor” and “Ushpizin,” Lion said. “We’re just now beginning to reap the benefits of Ma’ale,” Lion told The Journal from his Tel Aviv office at Keshet, an Israeli network TV station.

But secular filmmakers are making movies about religion, as well. “Catching the Sky,” the 1999 and 2004 miniseries (it’s the 2004 miniseries that screens at the festival) and “Wasserman” were both written by nonreligious screenwriters. Unlike films such as “Ushpizin” and “Campfire,” which provide entry into a normally private religious world, these new dramas have a distinctly secular Israeli point of view, as if to ask, What exactly is the problem nonreligious people have with religious people?

In “Wasserman,” Josef Carmen plays the eponymous title character, Avraham Wasserman, is a Holocaust survivor who founded a kibbutz that went religious on him, as has his daughter, now estranged. All this religiosity is a personal insult, a spit in the face to everything Wasserman believes — and doesn’t believe — in, because the old man lost his entire religious family in the camps, and has sworn off God ever since. The film opens with the kibbutz committee threatening to evict Wasserman from his failing farm — his raison d’etre — because of bad debts, and the fact that he’s not religious and doesn’t participate in religious life.

Uri, a religious kibbutz member who is in love with Wasserman’s secular daughter Amatzia, is trying to convince the old man to ask the kibbutz finance committee for a loan.

“I won’t ask and they won’t give,” Wasserman says.

Uri answers: “Why not? Just because you believe in different things doesn’t make you enemies.”

“We have so many conflicts between religious and unreligious people right now in Israel,” said “Wasserman” director Idit Shechori, who directed from her own secular perspective.

David Ackerman, the screenwriter, tried out religion for a couple of years, much to the consternation of his father, which gave him the idea for this film. As for Shechori, her grandfather was religious, but her father was anti-religious.

“We both have a religious background,” Shechori said, “but we are not religious.”

Secular filmmakers making movies about religion can talk to the audience on a level that most audience members relate to, said Roni Ninio, the director of “Catching the Sky.” TV audiences are, after all, primarily not religious, so they identify with Nurit’s struggle to deal with this curious phenomenon of someone becoming ultra-Orthodox.

“Secular people did the series with a singular angle to this story,” Ninio said. “If a religious person would have written it, it would have another perspective. Here, the secular people are coming from one world and watching another world.”

In the miniseries, after Roni, the husband who has become ultra-Orthodox, tries to throw out the children’s books, his wife, Nurit, says to him, “You know, you’ve really become primitive.”

Later on, when the couple attempts to reconcile, he tells her that there’s a “third being” in their relationship: God. Nurit tries to do as her husband asks, but she just doesn’t get it: She’s a good mother, a good wife, a good person, so “what is it about me that’s not religious?” she asks.

What, indeed? It’s a question that secular Israelis often have about something they know little about — that something being the religious way of life. In a country that was founded primarily by secular Jews interested in distancing themselves from the customs of their poor European relatives, anti-religiosity or simply apathy has been a perpetual mainstay of Israeli culture.

Many artists have suffered because of this ignorance, Lion said.

“There is a growing awareness in Israel of the lack of cultural depth,” he said. “We lost our cultural roots, and therefore the ability to recognize Jewish culture as a source to draw upon.”

Keshet, the TV station, is starting a workshop for secular filmmakers on adapting biblical texts for television.

In the last few decades, Israel has often seemed like two countries, divided between religious and secular, or left wing and right wing. But despite the cultural chasm, Israelis are beginning to realize they have to live together in one society.

Shechori believes that the Gaza withdrawal proved this.

“People were really afraid of what would happen between the secular and religious,” she said. “Everyone was afraid [of violence] and it didn’t happen.

People were trying to support each other,” she said, noting that the protesters seen on the news were actually a minority, and many were from outside Gaza. “I think it changed the way both sides feel about the other.”

Inevitably, the two sides also mix, and individuals defect or move from one side to the other. There is both the rise of the ba’al teshuvah movement, the returnees to the faith, where people become observant, and the reverse phenomenon, the chozer be’shelah: the religious person who becomes secular, or literally, returns to the question. Given this fluidity, in Israel there are more families that combine religious and secular individuals.

But proximity doesn’t translate to warm and fuzzy — not in reality and certainly not on screen. In both “Wasserman” and “Catching the Sky,” religious conflicts tear relationships apart.

Such is Wasserman’s situation. He’s already thrown one daughter out of his house for marrying a religious kibbutz member, and, unbeknownst to him, is about to lose another for the same reason. Wasserman could forfeit his entire family, his land and his livelihood because of his anti-religiosity.

In “Catching the Sky,” Roni and Nurit cannot bridge their religious differences despite their love, their two children and their shared life.

As to the question of religious vs. secular, neither drama settles for a clear, easy answer. It’s hard to say, even, which characters are more sympathetic — the religious Roni in “Catching the Sky” and Uri, the boyfriend in “Wasserman”; or secular and anxious Nurit and the stubborn Wasserman.

But maybe that’s the point: to show there are no innate wrongdoers among either the religious or secular, only differences. And maybe not such vast differences either, despite the pain of these particular situations.

As Naomi, Wasserman’s religious, estranged daughter tells him: “Your hatred of God — it’s not possible to hate him so strongly and for so long without believing he exists.”

A special program, “Jewish Identity through Israeli Films,” sponsored by the Avi-Chai Foundation and the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, will take place Tuesday, Dec. 6 from noon-8 p.m. The day will feature Israeli films dealing with Jewish and Israeli identity and will include film screenings along with some of the directors, including Idit Shechori and Roni Ninio, and a special panel with journalists and educators at 7 p.m.