Festival films focus on how Israeli food, sports create cross-cultural bonds

April 23, 2015

As the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival rolls out next week, it will include shorts, documentaries and a popular television series filmed in Israel, a nation whose cinematic fare continues to make a splash at festivals and in theaters worldwide.

Gideon Raff’s controversial hit TV series “Prisoners of War,” for example, spotlights former POWs struggling to reintegrate into Israeli society after being released by their Arab captors; the short film “Aya,” which was nominated for a 2015 Academy Award, revolves around a young woman who forges an unexpectedly intense bond with a stranger; and another short, “Death and the Maiden,” is a German-Israeli production about painter Charlotte Salomon, who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz along with her unborn child, in 1943.

On the lighter side, two American documentaries will explore how sports and food, respectively, can promote Jewish-Arab relations in Israel: Paul Hirschberger’s “Touchdown Israel,” for one, chronicles how American football has unexpectedly put down roots in Israel and tackles not only the history of the game, but also burgeoning friendships among diverse teammates.

“I missed American sports,” Steve Leibowitz, who made aliyah after the Six-Day War, said of why he founded a touch football league in Israel in 1988. Eventually, his group hooked up with a small tackle football league that played without helmets; in 2007, members of both groups bonded to form the current Israel Football League, which began with just four teams but today has grown to some 11 teams, including up to 500 players.  The organization was renamed the Kraft Family Israeli Football League for Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who donated funds to build a modest stadium in Jerusalem, an act that “combined my love for the game and for the country,” Kraft, who grew up in an observant Jewish home, says in the film.

The stadium is perhaps the only place in Israel where “you’ll see West Bank settlers hugging Palestinians after a game,” Hirschberger said in an interview.

League members, who are Jewish, Muslim and Christian, many of them with no previous experience in the game, persevere despite less-than-optimum conditions: They must purchase their own equipment, which can cost more than $800; they play mostly on poorly lit, pitted soccer fields that are up to 40 percent smaller than traditional stadiums, which is why teams consist of eight players rather than the usual 11; and because there are no locker rooms, players often change into their uniforms on the sidelines of a field: “This is football in Israel,” one man says as his teammate removes his tzitzit before donning his jersey.

Other players daven — in full gear — before the start of a game; some wear kippot under their helmets or blow a shofar on the field.

The controversial Judean Rebels, comprising mostly right-wing Orthodox West Bank settlers, is rumored to be “the dirtiest team in the league. … If they get the chance, they will hurt you,” a member of a rival team says.

“The spiritual dimension of football is making a fire and offering it up to God on the field,” enthuses one Rebel team member.

While playing together on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Sabres, meanwhile, a conservative American-Israeli, an Arab Muslim and a Thai-Filipino immigrant have become good friends, illustrating how “the sport brings together unlikely groups of people who typically don’t get along,” Hirschberger said.

The 61-year-old filmmaker said he was inspired to make the documentary after reading a 2010 New York Times story about the emergence of football in Israel:  “What really caught my attention was that Muslims and Jews and Christians were playing this iconic American sport in an unlikely place in the world,” he said.  “And the players were getting along.  It was the idea of organized sports being a way for people to deal with issues of race, religion, friction and conflict.”

In one telling scene, the three Sabres teammates talk about their differences as well as the sport that unites them: The American Israeli listens to his Muslim buddy describe how he will never sing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” before a game:  “It doesn’t represent me,” he explains.

“When one of your closest friends … believes different things, it definitely changes the way you perceive reality,” the Israeli responds.  “Who would ever think that I would ever have a friend named Saud Kassas,” he added of his Arab teammate. “Not me, not growing up, no way.”

The ability of food to cross cultural boundaries is the subject of another documentary, the 40-minute “Life & Hummus,” by 24-year-old USC graduate Alex Matros. In the film, Matros describes growing up with a father who was active in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee but today prefers Israeli culture to politics. “When I think about Israel, it’s not about all the [conflict] and religion, it’s about food,” he says.  “And the favorite food in the nation is hummus.

“Actually, the initial focus of my film was more on food in general, and how it can present a microcosm of bigger issues,” Matros said in an interview. “But then I found that hummus specifically is very competitive in Israel: When you go to a Jewish place, they call it their own; yet when you go to an Arab shop, it is the complete opposite.  So, ‘Who makes the best hummus?’ became the first question to open up a conversation, and once we got past the food issue, it was an easy bridge to bring up more significant questions.”

As Matros embarked upon his culinary quest to visit some 50 hummus restaurants in Israel and the West Bank three years ago, he found that customers often put politics aside to shmooze over platters of the Middle Eastern staple. 

Hummus, we learn, is made from just four ingredients: ground chickpeas, tahini, lemon and garlic. While Israeli hummus is mostly served cold, the Arabic version is usually presented as a hot dish. Some restaurants slather the dip with eggs or vegetables, Israeli salad or ground turkey or lamb; along with close-ups of this mouth-watering fare, the film also introduces viewers to a cast of charismatic restaurateurs.

The proprietor of one cafe declares that he is “like the ‘Soup Nazi’ from ‘Seinfeld’ ”; if you don’t like his food, you should “get out.” The Tunisian Israeli co-owner of the famed Hummus Ashkara in Tel Aviv reports that actor Sacha Baron Cohen and his family once dined at her restaurant — until paparazzi chased them away. And a Muslim in the Israeli-Arab town of Abu Gosh demonstrates how to slather a pita with his hummus even as he is fasting for Ramadan.

In his quest for tasty hummus, Matros even sneaks cameras beyond Israeli checkpoints in order to visit Arab cities.

In Nazareth, one chef demonstrates how he prepares hummus the traditional way: grinding the chickpeas by hand with a pestle.

While in Ramallah, Matros is invited to visit a Palestinian refugee camp: “I never felt like I was in danger there,” he said.  “But when we got back to Jerusalem, we found out that the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] had shot and killed an Arab man at the exact same checkpoint we had been through eight hours before.

“While it’s kind of funny to say that one food has become a common denominator between people, in my experience it actually has,” Matros added. “When you have a common bond with someone as simple as sharing a food you both enjoy, it’s really the first step toward connecting in a more significant way.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival screens April 30 to May 7. For more information, visit this story at lajfilmfest.org.

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