Modern Israel is premised on the idea of the ingathering of the exiles, with Jewish immigration given a lofty name in Hebrew: aliyah. When the immigrant is actually an Israeli citizen returning, and when that citizen is married to a French national who knows no Hebrew, the process of homecoming is more complex. And when the young Israeli in question is the daughter of a giant of an Israeli writer and journalist who himself left the country out of a sense of despair not long before his death, the process is even more fraught.
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In P.S. Jerusalem, Danae Elon, daughter of Amos Elon (author of nine books, among them, Israelis: Founders and Sons), has created an intimate and unsettling documentary premiering at the upcoming Haifa International Film Festival. As with many films which attempt a nuanced view of a sweeping topic, P.S. Jerusalem leaves the certainty-seeking viewer squirming.
With a deliberate aesthetic suggestive of home movies, P.S. Jerusalem takes the audience from Elon’s New York apartment which she shares with her husband, Philippe, and two young sons, to her return to Jerusalem, where a third son is born. (The trailer can be viewed here.)
We know little about Danae’s life in Brooklyn, only that, to her, it doesn’t “feel like home.” We know she had a close relationship with her father, Amos, and that she filmed their free-flowing conversations towards the end of his life without revealing to him her purpose. We know that her husband, Philippe, tells her how much of a personal sacrifice it will be for him to move to a new country, feeling like a stranger. The film doesn’t make entirely clear whether Philippe is, indeed, Jewish. All we know — until an ambiguous scene much later in the film — is that he feels like he has an “Arab face,” and that, because he considers himself to be from North Africa, he anticipates that there will be many others in Israel who share his roots. (A mutual friend later confirmed to me that Philippe is a French Jew of Algerian heritage.)
Whether Philippe is Jewish or not is a mere footnote, of course, to the larger struggles the family faces, but an integral one nonetheless. Immigrating or returning to Israel as a Jewish family means being welcomed into the ethno-religious majority. But for Danae and Philippe, who seem to see themselves as social justice activists, it also means joining demonstrations against Israeli policies encroaching on Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem. It means trying to find words to respond to their son’s probing questions about the settlements. And it means making a conscious choice about how to educate their children: in their case, in the joint Arab-Jewish “Hand in Hand” school that teaches both Hebrew and Arabic alongside both Jewish and Palestinian national narratives. Glimpsing the instruction in this innovative school that sadly made the news last year for being the target of an apparent hate-based arson attack is a satisfying sub-plotline in and of itself.
While Danae’s story is ultimately a highly personal one about one family’s attempt to return to Jerusalem — not just any city, to be sure — there are important questions that reach beyond that family’s experience. What is home? At what personal cost comes physical and cultural uprooting? When it comes to fulfilling personal dreams, what does one spouse owe to the other? How is child-rearing affected when children are able to acculturate faster than their immigrant parents? Is joining a majority population in a country and city where minority rights are highly contested itself a political act? Who, ultimately belongs? And how far can co-existence education go in transcending some of these dilemmas?
There is a certain frisson to the experience of joining the family’s journey via Danae’s camera work, particularly for those viewers who may have attempted or considered aliyah at one point in their lives, or even for those who have spent time living in Israel. But there is also something unnerving in the inconclusiveness with which the film answers these many questions, questions that continue to tear at the seams of Israeli identity.