“The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams,” poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, “like the air over industrial cities. It’s hard to breathe.”
But somehow, when a young American named Joseph Shamash went around the city asking Jerusalemites to speak those prayers and dreams aloud, inviting them to express one wish, the artistic micro-documentary that emerged is more like a breath of fresh air.
When I stumbled across “One Wish Jerusalem,” a few hours after it was released last week, I didn’t know what to expect – and knew only that Shamash was a student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. What I didn’t expect is that I would be moved to laughter and to tears in the course of a video not five minutes long – something many filmmakers fail to do even when I give them two hours of my time.
I suppose that’s because the film, shot by Shamash and his cinematographer friend Jeff Handel in the course of one day, seems to capture so beautifully, succinctly and honestly what it’s like to go out and talk to Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem about what matters most to them. Or, more specifically, what they would do if they had just one wish that would be fulfilled by the end of the day.
Some give up their wish for the “simple” things of human existence: love, children, health, wealth. And some will tell the camera unblinkingly that their greatest desire is for a free Palestine rid of Jews. Or, for the Messiah to come and make all the Arabs go away. And in between, we meet many, many people who just want peace.
Skillfully edited and then mixed with the Jack Johnson song “It’s All Understood,” which comes across like something between a dirge and a prayer – though one can’t tell whether from a mosque, synagogue or church – the final product is ultimately moving, haunting, thought-provoking, worrying and yet somehow, inspiring. It’s as if Shamash was able to distill something essential about the real Jerusalem, though he’s only been here a year and a half.
Shamash, as it turns out, is not just another fresh-from-college seminary student wandering around Jerusalem. At 32, before he came to Israel he’d been working in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles for about ten years, specializing in film editing. He decided to quit his job and come to Israel in search of something deeper.
“One Wish Jerusalem,” which he filmed in East and West Jerusalem when it was both Ash Wednesday and Passover, is inspired by coursework he did as part of Pardes’ Judaism and Conflict Resolution track. Equally interestingly, he made the film as a sort of response to a similar short film called “Wish” made in Tehran by a man named Ali Molavi, and which went online in February. As in Shamash’s film, some interviewees have more mundane wishes, while as one man put it: “I wish my country would move to peace and understanding with all other countries.” Clearly, this is not the “wipe Israel off the map” Iran as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad portrays it.
“My first goal in working on this was to get something out there and to see the reaction and perhaps create a dialogue over it,” Shamash explains. “This video by Ali Molavi is the thing that was most inspiring, and I meant for this to be in conversation with that.”
Iran was of particular interest for Shamash because his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Tehran, are Jews with origins in the city of Esfahan. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas before moving to L.A. at the age of 11, he was sometimes confused as a child by his father’s emotional reactions when he watched the nightly news about what was happening in Iran.
“This project spoke to me because it was a way for me to engage in my Persian heritage, and maybe this can open a conversation,” Shamash says. Now that his video is out, he’s also written a letter to Molavi that he’s translating into Persian. In the letter, he concludes: “Who knows, maybe these films, these conversations and wishes can actually help bridge the gap between Iran and Israel. And just maybe we can all move a little closer to a long-lasting peace.”
This isn’t the first time someone in Israel has tried to connect to Iran through new media. About a year ago, Israeli graphic designer and teacher Ronny Edri posted a picture of himself and his daughter to Facebook with the message: "Iranians we love you. We will never bomb your country." Iranians responded with a similar campaign.
Shamash says he has no political affiliations – he came to Israel to learn and thought he’d soon support some kind of party or position, but hasn’t. “I don’t have an agenda, politically, though of course I want peace and I wish it would happen as soon as possible. If anything, my intention was to highlight the complexities of the situation here in Israel and hopefully show that there are no simple solutions to the conflict.”
Shamash also got help with the video from associate producers Malky Schwartz and Andrew Lustig – another Pardesnik and poet who has made waves with several of his own YouTube videos such as “I Am Jewish.” Multilingual journalist Elhanan Miller volunteered to do the translations from Hebrew and Arabic. Shamash hopes that if they can secure some funding for the project, they’ll do more videos in the month to come, possibly in different cities and with different questions.
But his one big wish? “On the spot, I wouldn’t have been able to think of a good one. In hindsight, it would be that every person in the world lives without fear, to be able to explore the ‘other’ and get out of our comfort zones.” It seems to be coming true.