'A Lesbian Romance Plus Religion Plus Politics' – Israeli Director's Film Reflects a Roller-coaster Life

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Filmmaker Tsivia Barkai Yacov.
Filmmaker Tsivia Barkai Yacov.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

A young woman who puts on tefillin as she prays, a stormy lesbian affair, politics, religion, dreams of a Third Temple, and one poor cow that has to bear the fate of the entire Jewish people. In her film “Red Cow,” Director Tsivia Barkai Yacov put all these things in a blender, but this was no whim. It’s what happened when she tried to cram her own life into an hour-and-a-half movie.

“Red Cow” is the story of Benny (Avigayil Koevary), a teenage girl living with her father (Gal Toren) in a Jewish enclave in Silwan in East Jerusalem. Yehoshua, the father, is a religious man, a gentle and loving father raising his only daughter alone.

But he’s also a right-wing extremist. When he finds out that a red heifer has been born – the ashes of which, according to Jewish tradition, may be used in a purification ceremony – he sees it as a chance to unleash his plan to build the Third Temple.

But his daughter rebels against this dangerous dream and is also unwilling to accept all the religious strictures expected of her. Determined to forge her own path, she’s drawn into an intense romance with a girl doing her national service (Moran Rosenblatt), in total defiance of the community's mores.

Like the film’s protagonist, Barkai Yacov grew up in a settlement in a religious-Zionist family, and was uncomfortable with the strong and ever-present connection between religion and politics. And like the protagonist, she rebelled at a young age, abandoned religious observance, fell in love with women and had a complicated relationship with her father.

Avigayil Koevary in 'Red Cow.'Credit: Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov

“When I wrote the script, there were people who read it and told me, ‘You’ve got a lesbian romance plus religion plus politics – it’s too much.’ But that was my life,” she says.

“Red Cow,” which is now opening around Israel, made its international premiere at the Berlin film festival and its local premiere last summer at the Jerusalem Film Festival, where it won two awards for Israeli feature films: best film and best debut. (It shared both with Yona Rozenkier’s “The Dive.”)

For Barkai Yacov, this was especially gratifying after the emotional roller coaster she had endured. Her year began with finishing the long slog of her first full-length feature. It continued with the surprise of finding herself in love with a man after years of lesbian relationships and a painful breakup. It culminated with her marrying a religious man who restored to her the religion she had fled when she was younger.

To top it all came the birth of her son, who was a month old when he joined his mother (and father) as they received awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival for their debut film.

Other worlds

Barkai Yacov was born in 1979 and grew up in the settlement of Beit El, the second of five children. Her mother was a preschool teacher and her father left his job at Israel Aircraft Industries (now Israel Aerospace Industries) when she was 12 to study Torah at the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva. At a young age, she began to chafe at the demands of religious observance, and friction with her father soon followed.

“He was very pious and very scrupulous about Jewish law, and that was something I really clashed with. I don’t like to be told what to do,” she says. “That world suffocated me, as did Beit El, which is a very closed community. As a girl I really felt imprisoned there. I remember walking over to the fence, seeing Ramallah on the other side and telling myself, ‘There’s another world out there, there’s another world!’”

In a sense, the warm relationship between the girl in the movie and her father is a belated act of conciliation with her father, who died of cancer when she was 19, Barkai Yacov says. She wasn’t quite able to reconcile this way when he was alive.

She says she felt the first big sense of relief, of being freed from the “prison” of her parents’ home and Beit El, when she transferred to the ulpana – religious girls’ high school – in the settlement of Ofra. There she finally felt like she had a little more space, a little more air to breathe. But the tight intertwining of politics and religion that bothered her so much in Beit El followed her.

“I don’t know how it is today, but I was in school there in the time leading up to the Rabin assassination. They would put us on minibuses and take us to demonstrations, and the rabbi of the school once told us, ‘Lie down on the road, they can’t touch you,’” she says.

“I remember myself observing this from the side, feeling uncomfortable being there, because it all felt too violent to me. I didn’t want to think about politics at all, I just wanted to be left alone.”

In one scene in the movie, the father tries to go up on the Temple Mount on Yom Kippur Eve and is chased away by guards. “Dad, you know that if what you want to happen happens, a lot of people will die,” his daughter tells him at home afterward. “We’re not afraid of kiddush Hashem,” religious martyrdom, he replies laconically.

“I can’t separate religion from politics, because religion worked in the service of the settlement project, and that’s the biggest sin in my view,” Barkai Yacov says.

A scenefrom 'Red Cow.'Credit: Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov

“In my experience, Judaism underwent a crude reduction. It was just land and nationality, nationality and land. Yeshayahu Leibowitz once said that turning the prayer shawl into the Israeli flag was sacrilegious. I don’t agree with everything he said, but I do agree with that. Because then you turn faith and Judaism into something very narrow that serves the government and political interests,” she adds.

“But Judaism isn’t just about land that has to be sanctified. Above all, it’s about your relationship with God and your relationship with other people. For me, my feelings and emotions have always been my compass.”

Fell in love with a girl

At the ulpana in Ofra she studied film, moved away from religion and politics, and discovered that she was attracted to women.

“I’m not the kind of person who makes a lot of noise about things,” she says. “I’m pretty quiet and introverted, but at the same time I do what feels right to me and don’t worry about what other people think. And that really saved me when I found myself in love with a girl.”

But only after her father died did she feel ready to reveal her lesbianism to her family. “My mother, rather than trying to deny it, accepted the reality and came and talked with me about it. I think that was brave of her. Not that it was easy,” Barkai Yacov says.

“She told me right away that I needed treatment, but at least I was spared the stage of being in the closet. I always had to go with what I felt, and the world around me just had to accept it. Or not,” she laughs.

Tsivia Barkai and Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov.Credit: Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov

Of the five siblings, only one has remained faithful to the lifestyle and environment in which they grew up. Four of the sisters have distanced themselves from religion to one degree or another. “In terms of religious Zionism, we’re not such a successful family statistically,” Barkai Yacov says with a smile.

After graduating from the ulpana, she did a year of national service and then studied film at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem. After that she worked in film editing, as a counselor for emotionally troubled teens, and also for a time at Beit Dror in Tel Aviv – a temporary home for youths forced to leave home due to their sexual or gender orientation.

She started writing the script for “Red Cow” a decade ago. Though she received some support from the Israel Film Fund, she waited a long time in the hopes of raising more money from another source. After a few years, when she and producer Itai Tamir saw that this wasn’t happening, they decided to suffice with a low-budget production.

Her search for a cinematographer led her to Boaz Yehonatan Yacov, who was highly regarded in the industry and had become religiously observant after a secular upbringing. He agreed to join the project, she was glad, and neither imagined that in just a few months they – the formerly religious lesbian and the newly religious guy – would be madly in love.

“The shoot was such a happy time for me; I was in love with everyone. After the filming was over, Boaz and I kept on talking, and at some point it hit me that I was thinking about him too much, that this infatuation hadn’t passed. At first I told myself that maybe I just wanted to shoot another movie with him, but later I understood that it was more than that,” she says cheerfully.

“And this was a very strange thought, because it went against everything that I thought could happen to me. I was working at the Hadassah Youth Village at the time, and I can clearly remember when it suddenly hit me that we were going to be happy together,” she adds.

“It wasn’t simple at all, because I had to break up an eight-year relationship with a female partner; it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. But I knew that I couldn’t give up on Boaz.”

A month after filming, they were a couple. Six months later they were standing under the wedding canopy. There she was, marrying a man, and a religious man to boot – just the opposite of what she thought would happen to her.

“On the social level, our identities are very dichotomized, but on the psychological level they’re much more fluid. We live in several worlds at once. Even this label – ‘formerly religious’ – is a little dumb, because it doesn’t really work that way,” she says.

“Any place that you were in psychologically and emotionally – both in terms of religion and sexual orientation – will always stay with you no matter what. It’s not like that’s it, now you’re not attracted to women at all anymore, or now you’re totally secular. You don’t have to be just one thing or the other, you can be several things at once.”

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