All About Their Fathers

For actors Lior Ashkenazi, Mohammed Bakri and Menashe Noy, the patriarchal world depicted in their new TV miniseries is something they all know from their childhoods - and fled.

Moshe Abecassis is sitting next to his wife's fresh grave. He whispers to the tombstone in French. He barely notices the car slowly pulling up behind him. Out steps his son, Alon. They haven't seen each other in years; Alon did not arrive in time to say good-bye to his mother. "You always were a big shit," the father says, stone-faced, "and you're still a big shit." The son cringes, weeps, crumples into his father's chest.

Thus begins the television miniseries "Adama" ("Land" ), which was written and directed by Rani Blair and premiered on Tuesday on channel HOT 3. It is the story of three generations of the Abecassis family, who live on a moshav in the western Negev.

Lior Ashkenazi, Mohammed Bakri and Menashe Noy
David Bachar

In keeping with the idea of the great distance between the lost son, played by Lior Ashkenazi, and his tough father, played by Mohammed Bakri, Blair decided to have the actors meet for the first time only when shooting the opening scene. And it was filmed in one take. Blair says he yelled "Cut" and burst into tears. It was a shattering experience for the cast.

Meanwhile, the three leading actors - Bakri, Ashkenazi and Menashe Noy, as the adopted brother, David - are still analyzing their characters, the latter's place in the family, and especially how to relate to the family's dynamics. Each of the actors has a distinct trademark and a distinguished career. Bakri, 58, is a political person, who often embodies the noble savage cliche in Israeli cinema. Noy, 51, zigzags between comedy and drama, and excels at portraying warm, paternal characters. Ashkenazi, 42, is the new all-Israeli guy, sensitive but only to a point.

The plot of "Adama" highlights certain elements shared by the three. Noy and Ashkenazi are the children of immigrant families: Noy's parents came from Iraq, and Ashkenazi's from Turkey. All three rebelled against their dominant fathers. In a conversation about the universal issues in the series - fatherhood, for example - they practically complete each other's sentences.

Noy: "David, my character, is an adopted son, which makes him someone with a very big debt to his father. This made him more of a son than the sons. He is stuck in this place due to a sense of guilt - and there I borrowed from my own life. He doesn't do everything he would have liked to do because of a sense of guilt and obligation to the father. In my own home, I've often felt I was being kept back because of some debt or a sense of guilt. This is David's strength. If he leaves, everything will fall apart, and that is a burden, but it is also a source of power."

"This role caused me a heart attack. A real one," Bakri says, hunched over, a lit cigarette wedged between his fingers, referring to his hospitalization a year ago. "Moshe is sick. I kept thinking about how to build the disease that keeps on getting worse, I took it too seriously and wound up with a heart attack. I felt there was something else going on here. I don't feel it's just a television series."

"I never considered myself to be rebelling against my father's patriarchy," Ashkenazi says after a moment's pause. "This was not what motivated me in life. My 'problem' with my parents was that they were stuck in the Diaspora. They barely learned Hebrew and kept using their own language. They didn't really integrate. As far as they were concerned they remained Turks, Europeans in their way of thinking, and I didn't accept that. They were busier surviving than dealing with me."

But you did rebel. As an early teen you went to live by yourself on a kibbutz.

Ashkenazi: "It's true I rebelled; it was very important to me to speak Hebrew, to be Israeli. I grew up in a period when the word 'sabra' [native-born Israeli] still existed. It was really important not to speak foreign languages, Yiddish or Ladino; I rebelled against that. I left [my family] and their environment, and they took it well. Maybe even with relief."

Didn't they fight to keep you?

"When I was in eighth grade my father and I went to find a kibbutz for me. Maybe they felt they had failed in educating me, but I did not feel they were giving me up. For me, any relinquishing was mutual. I didn't want to be like them. My character, Alon, runs away because he wants to make money, not be stuck in the village. In that, he and I have many things in common."

When did you reconcile with your parents?

"I am going through the opposite process, trying to go backward, to speak Ladino. It started when I was enrolled at Beit Zvi [the premier school for the performing arts], and since then I've been trying to go back to these roots. It also came from reconciling with my parents. The anger is long gone."

You wanted to be a sabra and it seems that of you three, film and TV categorize you as the one with that quality.

"The rebellion paid off, the transformation was complete," he grins, pumping both fists in the air. "We won."

'Dual messages'

Noy: "The more I deal with issues of identity, my own identity, the more I realize it is multifaceted. It's not as simple as saying, I grew up in a household of Iraqi immigrants with a patriarchal father here in Tel Aviv. The Iraqi identity was also complicated, as was Lior's Turkish identity and Mohammed's Arab identity. When I discuss it with others, I come to understand it is a much broader phenomenon than people think.

"My father, say, attended an English Jewish school in Iraq where boys and girls were segregated. When I looked back at how I was brought up, I thought about how, when he sat in a classroom, he didn't even try to get a peek at bras," Noy smiles. "He grew up in a strict environment. He got married in Israel, but people got to know each other through matchmakers and acquaintances - something we aren't familiar with. These are enormous generational differences, even though my father is an educated man with European values, or at least would like to be European. Let's call it Arab-European.

"I, like Lior, was born into something given that I didn't even feel I was rebelling against. Now, as I get older, I blame [my father]; my problem with him is that he didn't take a stand. He came here and saw what you could call the lawlessness; he saw something and didn't define or address it, whether it was good or bad, [or] whether it was something he wanted for me."

Ashkenazi: "Maybe he wanted you to be part of it?"

Noy: "He kept doing his own thing and conveyed [the feeling that] 'I don't want you to be like me' - yet signaled that he did not approve of what I was up to. It was very confusing. I can say I was raised with dual messages. I had to find the solutions myself; in a way, I had to raise myself in the face of a very dominant, very silent father."

Is silence a sign of dominance?

Noy: "I feel like I grew up with God's cousin. Somebody is silent, you don't know exactly what he's thinking, you try to read his mind because you love him, and you don't really succeed. All you have left is trial and error."

The conversation appears to agitate Bakri. Meanwhile, it's pouring outside.

"What Menashe said about his father's silence stunned me," Bakri says slowly, in a cracked voice. "My father was like that. When I was a student he used to take me to university. The roads were not like they are today, and my father had a Peugeot pickup with a cabin he would load with bolts of cloth. He had a pipe with Arab tobacco and that smell is hard to take, but I loved it because it was Dad's smell. He never spoke to me. We would drive from the village to the university, sit in the car and not exchange a word. We weren't two strangers, we had a bond. We were next to each other, feeling each other and not speaking. This went on for years. At home he would sit, a big man, for 10 hours and not talk to anyone. A mountain of a man sitting at home and not speaking."

Would you try to talk to him?

Bakri: "Talk? I was scared of him, scared to open my mouth. A mountain of a man sitting next to you at home and not speaking to you. Like Menashe said, you feel that God's cousin is sitting there. And it's not that he would just sit there apathetically. The whole time he's thinking."

Bakri demonstrates: His blue eyes turn to steel, his jaw clenches. "He sits there and tons of stuff is going on inside, but you don't know what. You can't know what."

Noy: "Have you seen that look? Moshe has that look ."

Bakri: "Moshe has the look, and this is perhaps what I brought to his character. He picks up on everything. He doesn't speak, but inside there is a volcano. This patriarchy we're talking about is in his blood, and his, and mine," he says, pointing at Ashkenazi, Noy and himself, "and Rani [Blair] also grew up in that sort of household."

The embrace

Bakri has six children: five sons and a daughter. Noy has a son and a daughter. Ashkenazi has a daughter.

"I think I'm a different kind of father," Noy says. "Nowadays, actually, when my father sees me with my son, I see a sadness in him ... It's a different generation; my dad kissed his father's hand with veneration. If I did that, my dad would slap me."

And your son wouldn't believe something like that even existed?

Noy: "Obviously. On the other hand, for men in general now, there is a problem. We aren't really finding our place. Somewhere along the line feminism confused us. We try really hard to cooperate with feminism, but don't always look out for our rights, our rights to have love. You try awfully hard to understand, but you don't always get what your place is."

Ashkenazi: "Speaking of confusing identities, there is something about the series that really drives the point home. Mohammed is an Israeli Arab who plays a Moroccan Jewish immigrant who tries to fit into Israeli culture. There is a major confusion of identities going on here that ties in with what's really happening today. If I, as a child, tried to disavow my parents and now I am trying to reconcile with them, and trying to revive their dead Ladino - that also is a confusion of identities. I ask myself what I'm supposed to be instilling in my daughter in this regard."

Bakri: "When I became a father I wanted to be the total opposite of my own father. He didn't talk to us, while I talk a lot with my kids. He didn't touch me, never hugged me; I hugged. Menashe says it's the feminist inside us. We touch our kids, we hug our kids."

A search for physical contact, for a bond - did that characterize your relationship with him?

"I don't remember my father ever hugging me. I always used to try to work my hand into his palm," Bakri says, demonstrating with his own hands. "He wouldn't resist, he'd leave my hand in his. I don't know how much he wanted to, but I would sneak up and snuggle against his belly. He didn't resist, but never initiated things. There is something nonphysical about this culture.

"With my embrace with Lior, I mean my son Alon [in the first scene], I didn't know what to do. Rani didn't prepare me. Lior started to cry, I didn't know him yet, we had no personal acquaintance, and suddenly I was in this situation. He began crying, broke down and approached me, folded into my belly and I hugged him. Whether it's the right thing or not, I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't have hugged him. Maybe it would have been more appropriate to leave my hands hanging at my sides and not to have hugged him. If we consider the type of relationship this son and father have, then perhaps it's not right, but this was my human response."

You couldn't do otherwise?

"Your child is weeping on your belly, are you just going to remain limp like that? I reacted like the father I am and not like Moshe."

What's left after everything you know has changed?

Ashkenazi: "A lack of contention. A masculine laziness that is the product of a culture, of not showing emotions, of being someone feared. The 'problem' is that in the 20th century, the more we progressed, culture changed and this was gradually undermined. It's also something in us, because I too went around saying I would definitely not be like my father, I would talk to my daughter. On the other hand, I talk to her and I'm not sure it's the right thing."

Noy: "You're doing the right thing."

Ashkenazi: "I don't know. I don't know that when she grows up she isn't going to say 'I'm not going to be like my dad who talked to me, because there needs to be a distance between parents and children.' Who knows what's the right thing? I remember my mother used to tell me that she and my father didn't treat me and my sister the way their parents treated them; they treated us much more openly. Open, my foot! Still. I worry my daughter will come to me someday and say 'I'm not your friend, I'm your daughter.' I didn't want to be the intimidating father, the one who eats his dinner in silence, who gets served first and everyone waits for him to finish. I wanted to be different, but maybe someday she will settle the score with me for my lack of authority."

Perhaps all three of you belong to an interim generation that is challenging the old conventions but does not yet fully understand the new rules.

Noy: "I think that in certain respects we did benefit. I wasn't told 'You have to get married,' there was more freedom. On the other hand, I'm also worried: An older friend of mine recently married off his daughter. He spoke at the ceremony and said the father no longer has a role in his daughter's wedding. There is no dowry, no bride price, you don't ask for her hand and the new couple didn't even come to consult. She barely introduced her parents.

"Keren [Mor, the actress] and I got married within three months. Her parents didn't meet me before the wedding; they were in New York at the time. She told them, 'It's the one from the Quintet' [the Cameri Quintet TV comedy group] and they asked which one. I told her recently that I'm not going to let it be this way with Naomi, our daughter. My inner Iraqi is coming out: What, she's going to bring the guy to me at the last moment?

"Modern man has utterly lost his word, you could say. On the other hand, there is something delightful in strong women who have their own world. Maybe there are no rules. Maybe things always have to change and be dynamic. What is clear is that for us this is not something you talk about," Noy says, gesturing toward Ashkenazi and Bakri. "We are all Arabs. We don't talk."

Amos Lavi's final role

"Mohammed was the first actor I thought of, and the casting began with him," says Rani Blair, the creator of "Adama" (and also "Shabatot Vehagim" and "Parashat Hashavua" ). "I was looking for someone who could be a proud old man, a kind of Eastern Clint Eastwood. We hadn't worked together before.

"After him I cast Menashe, and I knew he would be David from the time I was writing the third episode. For Alon I was looking for an actor with broad shoulders, someone who is Israeli, but also a man of the world."

Blair, who decided to film the series without rehearsals, looked for a specific quality in each of the actors: "Menashe is a man of the soil. He is a little stuck, he stayed on the moshav, didn't go to college, isn't very evolved. To me, Mohammed is the salt of the earth, he is connected to the character of Moshe by something Arab-European-Jewish. It is a highly dramatic and tragic role, inspired by my father who died two years ago of heart disease. Lior is the son who became a stranger."

Another character is a member of Moshe's generation, who shares similar characteristics. He was played by Amos Lavi, in what turned out to be his last role; Lavi passed away in November.

"None of us knew he was sick. It was a blow," Bakri says. "There is one scene ostensibly shot on Memorial Day. I give Amos a long embrace and then we say good-bye. I saw Amos sitting down and I remember thinking his face looked sick. I couldn't understand why and I thought maybe he was working on the character. In retrospect he really was sick and we didn't know."

"Up until the last moment nobody knew," Ashkenazi adds. "Amos was always laughing, every sentence was accompanied by laughter. It didn't show on him, he went on acting in real life too. A good actor, he took his own character to the extreme." (Gili Izikovich )