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July 10, 2003 2:00 AM
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The Slightly Less Than Holy Land

The Slightly Less Than Holy Land

by Brandon Judell










Tchelet Semel and Oren Rehany in a scene from Eitan Gorlin's "The Holy Land." Credit: Lior Danzig, © CAVU Pictures, 2003

Growing up as a bar-mitzvahed Jew, I was raised to think of Israel as the promised land. The land of milk and honey. Each Passover, my family would toast each other with a "Next year in Jerusalem." To me, every Israeli was a hero. Israel was Eden before Eve bit into the apple.

Over the years, that imagined reality has been slowly shoved aside by a more genuine, less idealistic, one. To be honest, this hasn't been a happy transition. I've fought this losing battle all the way. But what can I say? Who am I to argue with both Israeli and Arab filmmakers when they seem to be depicting the same view of matters? They live there. I get my gefilte fish from a D'Agostino's.

This year alone at the 14th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival, there were at least six films that had to make any Israeli nationalist living on Central Park West think twice about his or her purist stances.

Hany Abu-Assad's powerful documentary "Ford Transit," for instance, revealed the horrors of the Israeli roadblocks, and the diversity of the Arabs confronting them daily. Some interviewed jeered the suicide bombers. Several cheered them on.

David Benchetrit's "Kaddim Wind: Moroccan Chronicle" meanwhile passionately chronicled sixty years of the Israeli government's racist policies toward the Mizrahim, Jews from Arab or Muslim countries. Did you know Israel had its own Black Panthers?

Now comes "The Holy Land." Oy vey!

Eitan Gorlin's narrative film is already splitting moviegoers. It's been rejected by the Jerusalem Film Festival and one American Jewish woman after a screening cursed out the writer/director, calling him a plague worse than Arafat for the Jews. On the other hand, the picture has won several awards including the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film at Slamdance. Additionally, Gorlin's Orthodox Jewish parents are still talking to him, their darling boy who was once on the fast track to becoming a rabbi. (He's now, until his next picture starts production, teaching Hebrew on the West Coast.)

"The Holy Land," which has autobiographical moments in it, is sort of like "Portnoy's Complaint" meets B-movie film noir.

It opens with virgin Mendy (Oren Rehany) jerking off to a girlie magazine in the bathroom while his religious parents are outside thinking the best of their offspring -- and he is a good lad because he's seen wiping the tub after he climax.

Next, Mendy does something even worse. At school, within his scriptural texts, he has hidden a copy of Hesse's "Siddhartha" which he's reading on the sly. Gentile spirituality is a major no-no for an upcoming rabbi.

But his teacher, a wise man, instructs Mendy upon discovering the young man's sin, that the "Talmud...tells us that if a man can't concentrate on Torah and holiness, he should go to a town where no one can recognize him and visit a harlot...to get it out of the system...If the prostitute isn't Jewish, so much the better."

(This isn't so far-fetched. Danny DeVito once told me he learned how to last longer in bed from reading the Kabbalah.)

So who is Mendy to turn down such sage advice. Immediately, he winds up in a Tel Aviv strip joint, nervously approaches an equally young Russian Catholic prostitute named Sasha (Tchelet Semel), and gets a hand-job that lasts about thirty seconds. Bravo! Now the lad can get back to his studies.

Well, not exactly. You see Mendy's in love.

So in love, he soon follows Sasha to Jerusalem where he winds up getting a job as a bartender, having his peyos snipped against his will, befriending both Israeli nationalists and Arab collaborators, and finally losing his virginity.

But please note this is not "American Pie Goes Kosher." Gorlin has more on his agenda than orgasms among the devoutly circumcised. He's asking what is it to be a Jew today? Can one find God in everyday secular life? And he's also asking what is it to be an Israeli?

Just as France, Germany and Great Britain have had to redefine themselves because of their ever expanding immigrant populations, so does Israel. Here, according to Gorlin, a true Israeli can be Russian and Gentile, or Arab, or American and a drug user, or just plain Jewish and questioning.

And please note, nothing depicted in this feature is just black or white. The lead Arab here is a nice guy who would sell out his own mother for the right price. The Israeli soldiers are seen making Arab men hop on one foot and do push-ups at roadblocks. Prostitution is rampant, but one hooker can play the piano. And among the horrors and craziness, Gorlin still shows there is beauty in the old Jewish rituals, in the country itself, and among its residents.

He, however, has no answers on how to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East. So who does?

In the end, "The Holy Land," even with its fine performances by the two leads, is more satisfying for its content than its total execution. But how many films nowadays stay with you days after, making you think about higher matters? "The Matrix" doesn't count.

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