I recently completed watching Hatufim (“Prisoners of War”), an Israeli mini-series which has found nearly universal acclaim, and was the basis of the Showtime series Homeland.
Hatufim is the story of three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon, severely tortured, and held for 17 years. Two of the men return to Israel after many years of political pressure and delicate negotiations. The third, believed to be dead, resurfaces as a convert to Islam and a member of the very group which initiated the kidnapping.
Israel has its own interests in these men. A psychiatrist is assigned to Nimrod and Uri, ostensibly to help them assimilate into modern Israeli life. But Haim, the psychiatrist, is also part of Israeli intelligence and his task, together with his partner, Iris, is to find out if the men had in any way been “turned” by their captors.
With real nuance, Gideon Raff, writer and director of this series, masterfully depicts the difficult reintegration of captured soldiers Nimrod and Uri, into a semblance of normal life. The memories of torture, loneliness, and terror have eviscerated the lives of the returned captives and Raff brilliantly focuses on these men and their loved ones, giving each of the characters time and space to tell their own stories against the backdrop of tragedy and loss.
Raff juggles multiple narratives remarkably. No character is short-changed; even minor figures are given ample time to develop into distinct personalities. The rhythm of Israeli life — the schools, nightlife, street traffic, and the general bustle of Tel Aviv — are vivid parts of Raff’s landscape, coupled with the depictions of a Lebanese city and its environs. Raff’s most powerful images belong to the jail cells where the Israeli prisoners are held, and the torture scenes, though difficult to watch, are not gratuitous. The daily prayers of the Muslim adherents punctuated by the muezzins’ call to worship all add rich layers of life to an altogether remarkable series.
With one interesting exception.
Israeli life is depicted with all its richness, the Hebrew spoken is articulate and often poetic, but there is absolutely nothing in the entire series (with the exception of a short bar mitzva scene) which delineates or even touches upon anything Jewish. There is no rabbi, synagogue, or even mention of a Jewish holiday or observance. There is no search for spiritual guidance. The men and women who inhabit the series are totally secular. With the exception of mezuzot on the doors of the homes, there is no symbol of Jewish life anywhere.
This is not meant as a criticism as much as it is an observation. It is not so much that Jewish life is not present in the series as much as that Jewish life-values — such as the significance of each human being, including the lives of the enemy, compassion, moral responsibility for each action taken, integrity and truth — are all part of the warp and the woof of the Jewish characters in Hatufim. It is as though Judaism exists within the tapestry of daily life, and that Jewish values are so inherent in the fabric of daily existence, that Jewishness does not have to call attention to itself as a separate entity.
But there might also be something else here as well. Perhaps the official rabbinate within Israel has so alienated itself from normal, daily life that for many secular Israelis, rabbinic Judaism and its leaders simply do not play a role, or, if it does, the role it plays is more troublesome than helpful, more irritating than compassionate, more detached than inclusive. Certainly there are Modern Orthodox rabbis and adherents — as well as leaders of the Masorti and Reform movements — who have carved a small place for themselves within Israeli religious life. But as whole, the official rabbinic presence, controlled by a fervently Orthodox, or haredi, rabbinate, is aloof and oppressive, far too political and often corrupt.
Little wonder that a remarkable series such as Hatufim will find no place in its episodes for a genuine Jewish presence. And artists, especially great ones such as Gideon Raff, reflect within their work what is often felt, but not totally understood, by the society they depict. For secular Jews, succor and comfort, spirituality and meaning, are not found in the official world of the Israeli rabbinate. Thus, this series may be a wake-up call for a more diverse religious presence which will be able to respond to the needs of all Israeli Jews, and a religion less bound to the politics of a nation, less rigid in its interpretation of Jewish law and more caring and flexible towards the needs of its people.