Discover more from In This Moment: A Rabbi's Notebook
Jewish & Democratic is not an either/or proposition
The musical "Kazablan" got it fifty years ago, and it shares some lessons for today
The recent passing of Topol brought many of us back to his landmark roles, particularly Tevye in the film version of "Fiddler on the Roof." He has been eulogized, deservedly, as Israel's greatest international star, its "most famous export since the Jaffa Orange."
But within Israel, he would have to climb very high to eclipse another actor and singer, who for over fifty years has been Israel's Frank Sinatra, an actor, TV personality and musician with a voice beyond compare, Yehoram Gaon. Gaon is not nearly as famous as Topol outside the country, but at home he is a treasured institution, and one with crossover appeal, generationally and, more important, ethnically.
On a Saturday night in the the summer of 1973, as part of my teen tour, I had a true Israeli experience - a trip to the movies, where we got to see whether Israelis really did roll empty soda bottles down the aisles (they did) and spit out the shells of sunflower seeds, howitzer-like (yes again). The theater was packed, in part because Israelis didn't yet have much to watch on TV, but also because of the featured film. And for this teenager on his first trip to Israel, the movie was life-altering.
"Kazablan," considered Israel's "best and most beloved musical," is part "West Side Story" and part "Fiddler on the Roof," with a touch of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and early '70s blaxploitation flicks - but with a much happier ending than either "Fiddler" or "West Side Story," (and, depending on who you are rooting for, "JC Superstar" as well). Gaon plays a Moroccan-born misfit, a Sephardic street gang member in Jaffa who falls in love with a wealthy fair-skinned Ashkenazi woman. Israel's ethnic divide plays itself out before us, as it does to this day.
The current constitutional crisis has its roots in longstanding grievances felt by North African and Middle Eastern Jews who experienced systemic discrimination dating from the earliest days of the state. These Israelis have long felt that the courts were stacked against them. The judiciary has always had an Ashkenazic bias. That said, it is equally clear that this imbalance can be corrected, with a little tinkering - okay, maybe a lot of tinkering - which would include a constitution, and most especially a bill of rights. The closest Israel came to enacting a constitution has been a series of Basic Laws, in particular one enacted in 1992 enshrining human dignity and liberty as a foundation of the state.
The draconian measures being cynically enacted right now are intended to do far worse than settle old scores. The goal is to intensify ethnic grievance and parlay it into the elimination of the judiciary as the only check on the power of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Some call that a dictatorship. But the plan is not working. The old grievance fault lines are not holding, and the country has united, shockingly but resoundingly, against the coup. Most of those in power realize that now. The question is whether any of them have the courage to jump ship and overturn this overturning.
In "Kazablan," this Ashkenazi - Sephardi battle take center stage alongside generational, religious and economic conflicts. This tension is alleviated by some of the greatest songs ever written for the Israeli stage and screen. Two of the songs form a perfect backdrop to our current quagmire, and they present the best way out.
Click here to see the full film with English subtitles, a real treat if you have a couple of hours to spare.
One of these songs is, "Kulanu Yehudim," ("We Are All Jews,") about 14 minutes in. It celebrates the common destiny that links all Jews together, despite our many differences, and it mocks those overblown superficialities that divide us. Sometimes it seems like Jews argue simply for the sake of arguing.
The second song is "Democratia," ("Democracy"), about 40 minutes in, another rousing showstopper, exposing the imbalances of Israeli politics amidst the cynicism of those who have never gotten their due. Despite the cynicism, you don't walk away wanting to junk the whole system. It's a flawed system, the song is saying, but it's OUR flawed system.
This brilliant musical demonstrated, fifty years ago, that the only road to harmony is one where those two songs, and the principles they enshrine, can coexist in the same libretto.
This week it was revealed that Israel placed fourth on the world happiness scale, its highest placement ever. The survey was taken before this horrid new government took the reins and began trying to ruin the country . No doubt the happiness score would be lower if measured now, but if the country comes through the current crisis with its democracy intact, it will be that much stronger for having fought through all the cynicism that kept Kazablan from receiving the respect he so coveted (his signature song speaks to that - about ten minutes in. "Kol HaKavod" became the best-selling record up until that time in Israel's history).
When I came out of that movie theater in Jerusalem, my connection to Israel was cemented even more firmly than it had been already. Yehoram Gaon played the perfect antihero, one that could cure us of our addiction to the Americanized, sanitized and idealized Ari Ben Canaan of "Exodus." Kazablan gets into trouble, but he dreams of his mother's Sabbath table back in Morocco. He's Sephardi and proud, Jewish and proud, Israeli and proud.
I even went and got myself one of those Kazablan caps and wore it out.
The message here is that Israel, at its best, does not have to compromise between being Jewish and democratic. If "Kulanu Yehudim" and "Democratia" could coexist in one musical fifty years ago, Jewish peoplehood and democracy can meet in the middle now as well. It doesn't have to be a compromise. It's not a zero sum game. If Israel can figure out how to become a more perfect union, then the Jewish people as a whole will become more perfectly united. Israel's other minorities will benefit as well. And all the divides will begin to heal.
The alternative is an abyss too perilous to contemplate, an Israel where, in a circular firing squad death-dance of the macabre, the Supreme Court strikes down a Knesset ruling intended to strike down the Supreme Court, and the military and police are forced to decide which government to follow. Oh yes, and the defense minister has threatened to resign if the new laws go through.
The next few weeks will be fateful ones, in Israel and America too, where democracy will also continue to be tested by the expected indictment(s) of a former president.
So much is at stake right now, and the outcome remains very much in doubt. Tevye and Golda packed and left Anatevka. Tony and Maria met their tragic demise on the streets of New York. But Kazablan did not run or die, and new possibilities took root in the Jaffa sand.
The film could not end more optimistically, despite all the damage done. "Kazanblan's" finale features a bris.
We need to give our current drama a happy ending too.