Goodbye to All That

Born into a strict ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, David Volach was always drawn to secular culture, finally joining it to study cinema in Tel Aviv. Now his film about a Haredi family has won the top prize in New York's Tribeca festival.

Alon Hadar
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Alon Hadar

One evening two decades ago, David Volach was walking in the center of Jerusalem. Through the high glass windows of the Kings Hotel he noticed two elderly men sitting in the lobby. Volach, who was then studying at the Ponevezh Yeshiva, straightened his black suit and entered. "Your appearance piqued my curiosity," he said, explaining why a religiously observant Jew was spending time with two heretics.

"Are you even allowed to come in here?" one of the two, whose face was deeply wrinkled, asked, and invited him to sit down. He then introduced himself. "I am David Avidan. I am the best poet in the country." A lengthy conversation ensued, at the end of which Avidan invited Volach to visit him at his home in Tel Aviv.

"I thought he was totally sick," Volach recalls. "He talked as though he were a messiah. But he expressed himself clearly. We exchanged phone numbers and he begged me to study with him. In the conversation we talked about [Prof. Yeshayahu] Leibowitz, whom I had met as a boy in Jerusalem. He told me that he did not hold him in high regard either, and suddenly we became friends and everything fit."

Despite the powerful experience, it would take Volach a few more years to cross the lines. Outwardly he continued to conduct the life of a yeshiva student from a respected family of Lithuanian Jews - he had 20 brothers and sisters - living in Jerusalem's Mekor Baruch neighborhood. Inwardly, he burned with curiosity about the secular world of the spirit.

Twenty years after that meeting, now aged 37 and deeply ensconced on the secular side, Volach suggests a reciprocal visit. This time he invites secular people to visit the home of a religiously observant Jew. The intimate meeting takes place in his debut film, "My Father My Lord," - "Hufshat Kayitz" (Summer Vacation) in Hebrew - which tells the story of relationships in the family of a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi, played by Assi Dayan. The film won the 2007 Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, but it is different from other successful Israeli films, and not only because all the characters in it are Haredim. Volach, whose entire cinema experience consisted of one year of film studies at the Open University, makes abundant use of long shots and creates an atmosphere of gloom, marked by long silences. His film evokes the cinema of Krzysztof Kieslwoski and Ingmar Bergman.

Volach's ability to create a work that is set in an ultra-Orthodox society yet speaks in a foreign cinematic language stems from a complex biography. It is reflected in the transition from one world to another, the uncompromising autodidactic learning he forced himself to undergo and his manner of speech, which still partakes of the Haredi melodiousness and is almost impossible to follow.

In the interview, which took place at his home in Tel Aviv's trendy Florentin neighborhood - an old building that recalls the closed homes of the old Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem - Volach jumped from one subject to another, the past melted into the present and tangled philosophical and theological ideas were interwoven with stories from the street. Somehow, though, all these fragments in the end fused into one cohesive whole.

Why I was attracted to secularism from childhood

"At the age of three you start to learn aleph-bais. You are taken with a tallis [prayer shawl] covering your eyes, so you will not see forbidden sights. Not even modest women. To glory in holiness. For years I have the memory of the taxi from the house to the kindergarten, even though my eyes were covered. In retrospect I said: On that day I lost my faith. I always had a tendency to see life beyond the way it is defined. A friend of mine met me in Geula [an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood] and saw me without the Haredi apparel. He said, 'David, I'm going nuts. One day when we were 12 you were with us and we saw an advertisement of an ass on the bus. You explained to us that some asses are like pears and some are like apples.'

"As a boy I would go to talk to Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He behaved like a good granddad. I asked him how he lived his religion - on the one hand, Orthodox faithfulness, and on the other hostility to the tradition. His answers did not satisfy me, and with good reason: he hated psychoanalysis, but the only thing that could have helped him was serious therapy. In my view he was the copywriter of the philosophers. He could sell you cheese without ever having tasted it.

"After Ponevezh I went to the yeshiva of Rabbi Zilberman, where Uri Zohar [a comic and filmmaker who became religious] studied, in the Old City of Jerusalem. Zilberman did not want to send his children to institutions, so he opened a chaider [in modern Hebrew, heder, a religious elementary school] in which he taught. Then they grew up and so the yeshiva was built. They were not involved in Haredi politics, but were religious freaks. They wore tefillin [phylacteries] all the time. From my point of view, this was religious progress. Religion invites you to totality, and for me to study in his yeshiva was an invitation to totality in conformist conditions.

"I had to find my own thing. I went to consult with Rabbi Schach [who was head of Ponevezh Yeshiva and leader of Lithuanian - non-Hasidic Haredi - Jewry]. I wanted his approval. He was an authority. To talk with Rabbi Schach is grandeur, a personal leap upward. I had also bothered him earlier with questions. But I did not hold him in regard; in my view he was not developed in the religious sphere. He engaged in Talmudic pilpul [hairsplitting] and was not one who thought and reflected.

"Under Zilberman I achieved insane heights of worshiping God. I would shower at 4 A.M. with freezing cold water in the winter in order to eradicate desire. To devote myself. I also entered a boiling mikveh [ritual bath]. I imagined that it was Hell. Religious challenges in order to identify the larger-than-life.

"I left after half a year. The totality gives you involvement, and involvement gives you knowledge. The two of them give you independence and freedom."

Why I recoiled from Haredi education

"What does it mean to be elitist? It means there are not many cultural authorities above you. The education at home was very elitist. My father, Yitzhak, was a talmid hakham [Torah scholar]. The status was made clear to me. Something triumphant. If you are imbued with the power of an elitist self-image, it will stay in you and will be expressed even if you move to a different side, society or culture. The way Robin Hood came from a rich family.

"There is no politically correct in Haredi society. Everything is on the table. Like social classes in 18th- century England. It is accepted and legitimate to tell a girl, 'I cannot take you, because you are from a poor home.' You see it as an overt obligation to uphold your status. You are afraid of losing something of life. The commitment to a fantasy of supremacy frightens me. It shows me the success of the racist Haredi education: to persuade you not to be other. That is so Jewish, so Haredi.

"When I wanted to explain the film's main character to Assi Dayan, I told him, 'Think of your family and do a conversion. Understand the elitism, the status. There is Moshe Dayan and his son is named Assi Dayan.' I did not want the righteousness of the character to steal the show. Righteousness comes from elitism."

Why I smoked on Shabbat

"Usually people say that those who lost their faith either have a conscience or are afraid. Not me. The first time I smoked on Shabbat I did it with love. I said a blessing: 'Blessed art thou, Lord, who sanctified us with thy commandments and commanded us to smoke on Shabbat.'

"After I returned from Rabbi Zilberman's yeshiva, I started to develop a strong contempt for the Haredi way, contempt for the structure - your father figure is undermined. And then you slowly allow yourself to turn it into actions. You hook up with people who resemble you in conversations, in the life of idleness, in solidarity with the departure from the commitment. To walk on the street without a hat and a suit is a revolution. Off the wall.

"I had a black leather kippa. I lived in Jerusalem in a rented apartment. One day a close friend said to me, 'You are neither here nor there, and you are 25. Maybe you should get married?' I set a deadline of four months: either I would move to Tel Aviv, take off the kippa completely and study film, or I would get married in a Haredi environment and maintain dress codes.

"During those four months I constantly persuaded myself and mustered mental strength. On Friday evening I would take the car, park a long way off, have the Shabbat meal at my parents' place and then drive back to the apartment. But on one Shabbat, Leah, my mother, caught me smoking. I said, 'Ho, I so much want for you not to see this.' She said, 'That is the problem? To see?' For me it was the way to live, for them the way to grief. It broke them. A cigarette on Shabbat means you are in a bad way, that you are told that your son is sick with an advanced state of cancer and there is nothing to be done. The taboo is so strong that if you violate it you can do anything. The cigarette was the slope. As the disaster unfolded I understood that it was worthy.

"In the family's eyes, leaving religion is betrayal, failure. That drove me crazy. It's no fun to make your parents feel distress. For them everything was a disaster. There was no prolonged process that had to be understood, only disaster after disaster. Betrayal of the essence, the community. There is tension between the Haredi and secular societies, and suddenly you switch sides. To be Haredi is not an independent experience; it is to stand up against the secular society.

"Automatically my parents stopped talking to me. And that went on for many years. I felt I had paid a very high price, that I had no choice but to be perfect. A child loves his parents. I have 20 brothers and sisters, and my mother is reserved, sweet. You won't believe it, but she never shouted at us. 'That's not done,' she says, and that's all. A very special mother. I went through a very hard time. I felt like damaged goods, and my conscience said, 'What are you doing to your parents?'

"I was completely alone in terms of family, but I had friends, a girl who went on this journey with me. We had love, dependency, ties. But it's always alone. Things like this you do alone. It is a fundamental change. I did not go to organizations like HILLEL ("The Right to Choose") and I did not connect with the idea of a foster family. But there is no quid pro quo for freedom. It's an ongoing climax. It's absolutely intoxicating.

"Haredim ask me, 'Why be secular? If you want sex, go to prostitutes. If you want publicity, go to the Haredi media.' I replied, 'It has to do with the culture I want to live.'"

Why I imagined a blue movie

"The Edison movie theater [in Jerusalem] was located between the Haredi and secular neighborhoods. It was the height of abomination. From the movie posters I was sure that everyone was sitting in the hall naked. That stimulated me to go in, but also frightened me. Years later I grasped that that abominable place, the source of the secular evil and brazenness, was for me a holy place.

"The first movie I saw was 'Modern Times.' I took the hat and the suit in a bag and went to the Israel Museum. I thought 'modern times' meant there would be free sex and everything. So I am there and I am appalled - black-and-white. During the film I succeeded in going through a transformation from disappointment to great interest. It was a very great experience. I saw the cinema as a means of expression.

"After I left my parents' home I went through a big period of searching. I thought I would become a writer. That was my true dream. I also wrote poems. And then one day, while zapping the TV, I chanced on Bergman's 'From the Life of the Marionettes.' I saw a white screen, a close figure speaking in a police interrogation. The tears just came to my eyes. Wow. Cinema. But what to do next? I started to find out who this Bergman was.

"When I moved to Tel Aviv I enrolled in the television and film school of the Open University. I studied in that framework for a year and enjoyed it very much. It was the first time I had been in a secular framework. I sat with people who for me had always been the other, and suddenly we were together. It was the first time I was in solidarity with secular people, took part in something shared with them. Apart from writing the screenplay for 'My Father My Lord' and another biographical screenplay, I did not work in the sphere."

Why I chose to idle on the sofa

"After the first year of studies the creative life began: idleness, occasional attempts at earning a living, and thoughts. Fortunately, I met a guy named Sammy Knafo, who threw parties on roofs in Florentin. He had once studied at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva [in Jerusalem] and worked as a real estate agent, and he recognized me.

"I worked as a renovator and in telemarketing. I came to terms with my lack of economic freedom. I would ask Sammy for loans and he would tell me that I have the mentality of a yeshiva student. These days, if I have NIS 300 in my pocket I feel ahead of the game. I have a big enterprise, so why should I deal with money - like the CEO of Cellcom doesn't have time to open a falafel stand.

"I did the whole process of the movie on the sofa. I would sit on the sofa and think. I did self-therapy. I was never in psychoanalytic or psychological therapy, and I am a big believer in psychoanalysis - everything starts from there. I understood that idleness is like any business. I saw idleness as a type of profession. To investigate myself, to understand social systems.

"One night, from the balcony, I heard a pair of people talking about how to steal my bicycle, which was tied to something in the street. I wanted to throw a bottle of beer at them from the balcony, but I took fright at myself. I did not get up to chase away the thief. I did not want to offend him. He did not need the bike - he needed money for drugs. I got up in the morning with a smile. The bike was gone."

Why the cat broke my heart

"Mushi and Namerish, my cats, touch me in the most extraordinary way. They are my teachers. From them I learn everything. I learn from them the meaning of independence, sensitivity, communication, love. They know a lot more about us than we do about them. They are my most intelligent social circle.

"I was in mourning for Mushi. You can't go and declare: 'People, a girlfriend has died, come to the shiva' [seven-day mourning period in Judaism]. But my heart was broken. There was a tall truck next to the balcony. I saw that she wanted to jump on its roof. I must have been stoned, because I left the house assuming that she would get onto the roof and come back. When I got home she was gone.

"It was worse than sadness. I realized that now I would have to live with a broken heart. I went down to the factory below, got the number of the truck and its route. It turned out that the truck went to Bat Yam and spent the night in a parking lot. For six weeks, night after night, I drove my bike to Bat Yam and called her name. Friends thought I was crazy. Someone in mourning, what can you say to him. I went to the final shots of the film feeling like half a man. I was indifferent in the editing room. I didn't know which I preferred: for the movie to come out or for her to come back. To this day I don't know.

"In the meantime, Namerish started to change. He used to be a distant cat, but suddenly he started to come close, to talk to me. I understood that I had deprived him all along. "One day I came home and heard her next to the building. She screamed at me. She was dirty and had cuts. It was clear to me that this had been the cat's death wish. That is really scary. Out of great love you want to see the end."

Why I drive a car every Yom Kippur

"I make a point of driving in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. It's very hard for me. I come back with tears and an aching heart. A thorn in the ass. It is an extremely difficult experience. I do not want to rebel against anyone. I am literally sick for a day after that. I feel like a criminal.

"It is not a right, it is an obligation. A civic obligation. I can respect Yom Kippur more than anyone else. But in Israel it is very grave that on Yom Kippur everyone becomes Haredi. That all-of-us scares me very much. It exists on a religious foundation. To preserve all the ugly things in the religion: we are the Chosen People. That is an opening to suppression. Someone who drives on Yom Kippur should be exempt from all the civic obligations. He is like someone who has saved his country from an atomic bomb. With that act I suddenly feel that I am a citizen."

Why I am still a bit Haredi

"Sometimes I have a great hankering to eat kishke, gefilte fish, cholent. The heart hungers for it, not only the gut. It's a custom, with childhood memories, granddad, grandma, Shabbat, moments. Flavor and food, the mouth never moves away from suckling on the tit. It's not a longing for something that is not there; it's something that remains there.

"My friends say, 'You removed the kippa but you stayed Haredi. Look at how you talk, look at your hand motions.' From their point of view, that is a type of failure. He chose not to be religious, but nothing helped: he remained religious. When I am stoned I speak the way I would sound today if I had stayed Haredi.

"Do you know what a mental effort is needed to repress it, so people won't see it in you, so no sign will be left that will give you away, so people will not discern your hunger to integrate? A person doesn't want to be hungrier than the others at a meal."

How I persuaded Assi Dayan to do the film David Volach describes how he made the film and explains why he is not surprised at its success

"I wrote the script for 'My Father My Lord' in two weeks on paper," David Volach says. "I had an attack. I picked up a Turkish station that played music in an insane cycle. That was the basis. Every time there was a prospect of production, I developed and improved it. The film's producer, Eyal Shiray, decided to shoot the movie with a budget of $100,000 from the New Israel Foundation and $50,000 of his own money. The budget was enough for 10 days of shooting. Assi Dayan did the film on a semi- voluntary basis.

Usually he asks for extra for wearing a beard during the shooting. I told him, 'I want a present from you - the beard.' In a moment of voluntarism and sympathy, he agreed.

"It was clear to me and to Eyal that Assi was the one and only protagonist. He read the script, we held a meeting, and I told him, 'Read it again, give more credit and then we will talk.' A few days later he called and said, 'I am the character!'

"People told me that my voice reminds them of his voice. We checked - maybe my mother and his father. Maybe the other way around. But we came to the conclusion that there is no way that we are brothers. In the first meeting I asked him to sign a statement testifying that I was not imitating him.

"We shot the film in 2006. We decided to send it to the Haifa Film Festival even though it was not finished. We won the prizes for best director and best cinematography, we got money and we worked on the extra sequences. I was really afraid that people in Israel would say 'a dos movie, a dos movie' [a derogatory term for religious people]. There are some who say the film is pro-Haredi. For them, criticism is perceived as personal contempt for the Haredi way of life. From the outset I made a film in which the true secrets will not be revealed until the second or third viewing. People didn't understand when Michael Haneke made 'Hidden,' either. There is a price for this kind of cinema.

"A Haredi guy from Bnei Brak, married with two children, was here in the house, He saw the film and fell apart from crying. A purifying crying, coming from a spiritual reckoning of the way he lives and educates his children. To understand the sadness that exists in a home with a worshiper of God. He sends me poems and [biblical] verses in reaction to the film by mobile phone. A few members of my family also saw the film and were very moved.

"We went to New York, to the Tribeca Festival. I expected to win. A person knows that he has done something that is special enough to stand out. I knew I was telling the truth in the film. I underwent a good process in relation to my past. You leave the world with hostility and suddenly love yourself like a child.

"People say, 'Look, it's a first film - what an achievement.' I cannot pretend to be surprised. It did not come out by chance. It rests on precise and cruel formulations about myself. It is no fluke. It is the realization of cinematic language. As with love. You know her, you love her. Cultivated love. Not first love. It is not an autobiographical film, but a conceptual one: the curiosity about life, the interpretation of how to live



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