Farewell to an Israeli Intellectual of Cinema and Leader of Secular-humanist Judaism

Prof. Yaakov Malkin was one of the founders of the Department of Cinema and Television at TAU, and I was among the students in its first class

Prof. Yaakov Malkin in his home in Jerusalem, 2012.
Emil Salman

My teacher and friend Prof. Yaakov Malkin, one of my favorite people and an intellectual in the full sense of the word, died on Sunday at the age of 92. This is another loss in the aging of all of us, and even if it is inevitable, it is painful and leaves a sense of life in a desert that is gradually expanding all around.

Aside from his admirable activity, Yaakov, whose fluttering forelock was a trademark even during his final years, was a very charming man. When he was extremely generous in complimenting me on my critical reviews, that compliment was particularly important to me.

Along with Prof. Moshe Lazar, Yaakov was one of the founders of the Department of Cinema and Television at Tel Aviv University, which was launched in 1972, and I was among the students in its first class. It was quite a difficult year in terms of the academic level, but Yaakov’s lessons, which dealt with the aesthetic of cinema, were a torch for me that illuminated the surroundings.

He had the modesty to recognize the fact that some of the students in the first class, who only had been waiting for the opening of a cinema department in Israel, were more familiar with the details of cinema history than he was. He didn’t hesitant to turn to one of his students if he didn’t know who had directed a specific film and when it was released.

Yaakov was one of my two favorite teachers throughout my time in the department. The other teacher, who also became my friend, was David Perlov, who joined the department during its second year, after the Yom Kippur War. There was a significant connection between Yaakov and Perlov: The former was the one who read the narration that accompanied Perlov’s formative documentary “In Jerusalem,” which was released in 1963.

Yaakov Malkin was born in Warsaw in 1926 and arrived in Israel at the age of seven. His father was Dov Ber Malkin, one of the leading theater and literary critics in the country. Prior to and during the 1948 War of Independence, Yaakov broadcast on the underground radio station “Telem Shamir Boaz,” which became the Voice of Israel station with the founding of the state. He was also active in the immigrant internment camps in Cyprus and later, when he studied in the Sorbonne, he served as an assistant to Israel’s cultural attache at the embassy in Paris.

The details of his widespread activity are too numerous to be mentioned in full, that’s what the internet is for. In the years 1958 to 1971 he founded and directed the Beit Rothschild and Beit Hagefen cultural centers in Haifa, which gave rise to the Haifa Cinematheque and later served as the basis for the launching of the Cinematheque in Jerusalem, the city where Malkin lived for most of his life. In 2004 he won the Life Achievement Award at the opening ceremony of the Jerusalem International Film Festival, and I really hope that the directors of the present festival, which will open on Thursday, will mention his death and salute him as he deserves.

The cooperation between Yaakov and me began with the founding of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, in 1973. Malkin chose me to be his partner in the writing of the information sheets about the films screened at the cinematheque, and the division of labor between us was that Yaakov wrote about the more “respectable” films and I wrote about the more “popular” ones. Later on several of us in the first class of the cinema department, including Eitan Green, Irma Klein, Danny Wert, Gidi Orsher and others, to begin a cinema magazine called Closeup, which was to be influenced by the French film magazine Cahiers de Cinema. We asked Yaakov to join the editorial board, he agreed willingly and his authoritative status contributed a great deal to the initiative.

There were only a few issues of the magazine, but I’m proud of it – and from my conversations with Yaakov I know he shared my pride. In 1975 I was also a partner to writing some of the entries in the “Lexicon of the Arts” (in Hebrew) which he edited together with his wife, artist Felice Pazner Malkin. So I can say that Yaakov was a significant part of the landscape of my life, which has now become empty.

Even before he became a teacher in the cinema department, in 1966, Yaakov published one of the earliest cinema books in Israel. The book compared the work of Charlie Chaplin with that of Bertolt Brecht, and was subtitled: “Enjoyment as a Criterion for Appreciating Art.”

Beginning in the 1990s Malkin focused mainly on secular-humanist Jewish culture, a preoccupation that accompanied his work as a teacher of film. Over the years he published a large number of books in Hebrew and English on the subject, was the editor of the periodical Yahadut Hofshit (Free Judaism), which was published until 2004, and served as the academic director of the Institute for Secular-Humanistic Judaism, with centers in Jerusalem and Detroit. It’s impossible not to appreciate the importance of such activity in the benighted reality of contemporary Israel.

Every time my wife and I visited Yaakov and his wife in their lovely home in Jerusalem’s German Colony – and unfortunately too many years have passed since our last visit – I was filled with amazement and admiration when I observed the indefatigable energy that drove Yaakov, as though age could not stop him. I will continue to love him, but his story is now over. I will miss even the thought that Yaakov Malkin exists in my world.

Yaakov and his wife Felice have a son and a daughter: Irad Malkin, winner of the Israel Prize in History (specializing in Greek history) and Rabbi Sivan Mass, dean of Tmura, an institution that trains secular rabbis and secular leadership for the International Institute for Secular-Humanistic Judaism.