Quite a few films have turned their lens on Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of Israel’s most original and controversial thinkers. But most, notes veteran filmmaker Uri Rosenwaks, were produced abroad and never shown in Israel.
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“Leibowitz: Faith, Country and Man,” a three-hour documentary divided into three one-hour segments and now opening in theaters around the country, is the first film to be made about this iconoclastic figure – a scientist, philosopher and Orthodox Jew, who was also a vocal critic of the occupation and the religious establishment - since he passed away nearly 19 years ago aged 91.
“There’s an entire generation who grew up here not knowing anything about Leibowitz, except that he was the man who coined the phrase ‘Judeo-Nazis’ to refer to Israeli soldiers,” notes Rosenwaks, who co-directed the film with Rinat Klein. “He was quite the provocateur and drew lots of fire when he was alive. But now that the dust has settled, we thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit this unusual figure, who embodied so many contrasts, and present him anew to Israeli audiences.”
A special subtitled version of the film, targeting English-speaking audiences, will be screened in two separate segments this month at the Smadar Theater in Jerusalem. Rosenwaks will hold an English-language presentation at the screening of the first one-hour segment on June 19. The second and third one-hour segments will be screened consecutively for the same audience a week later on June 26.
“Leibowitz” won special mention at last year’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, where it premiered, and has since been broadcast on cable television in Israel.
As the title suggests, the film broaches three broad themes in Leibowitz’s life, exploring them with the help of old archival clips and more recent interviews with his grandchildren and former students, quite a few of whom have taken his lead and become social activists. The insights and recollections that come out of these interviews reveal intriguing facets of Leibowitz’s personality that don’t always mesh with his public persona.
Viewers may be surprised to learn, for example, that the man, who so often appeared angry on camera, had a soft and very human side. This becomes particularly evident in one scene depicting an exchange of letters he had with a bereaved mother from the Yom Kippur War (Another rather unknown fact that comes out in the film is that Leibowitz lost two of his own six children when they were quite young.) As documentary reveals, he was also a doting husband and big supporter of women’s rights. And for a raging prophet, it turns out, he possessed quite a sense humor.
Indeed, in a clip from a television interview conducted toward the end of his life and included in the film, Leibowitz laments the fact that he no longer has the energy to read as he once did, often finding himself dozing off in the middle of a book. After a pause, he corrects himself, telling his host that the one exception is when he reads “pornographic novels.”
In another rather revealing segment, his grandson recalls visiting Leibowitz after serving with his Israel Defense Forces unit in Gaza. His grandfather, he recalls, was interested in hearing details of his experiences but much to his surprise, never once offered any words of advice. While they were in the midst of their conversation, the phone rang and Leibowitz answered it. When he understood that it was a reporter on the other end, he immediately switched gears, and as the grandson recounts many years later, proceeded to deliver a lecture over the phone on the importance of refusing military orders.
Like many left-wingers of his generation, Rosenwaks says he was very influenced by Leibowitz. “I grew up in a home where both of my parents were atheists, and he was one of the few people they spoke of with reverence,” recalls the filmmaker, who himself sat in jail for refusing to do reserve duty in the territories during the first intifada. “He was definitely an icon of the left, and like many leftists, I was thrilled to hear a religious man like this come down on the right, but we didn’t totally understand where he was coming from because he wasn’t really a part of the liberal left.”
What made Leibowitz such an unusual and paradoxical figure, as the film suggests, was that his biggest fans generally had little understanding of, or connection to, the Orthodox Jewish life he led, whereas those who shared his religious convictions tended to view him as the great nemesis of the Jewish people.
Explaining what drew him to his subject, Rosenwaks says: “He so truly fulfilled the role of an intellectual in society. He accepted every invitation to speak without ever asking for money. He challenged his listeners, he forced them to question their beliefs and never pandered to them. You don’t find people like that around here anymore.”
In one of the film’s final scenes, two young men recall when as high school students they finally gathered up the nerve to call Leibowitz at home and invite him to speak at their school. Much to their surprise, he agreed right away, but on one condition: He asked that they pick him up at his home and drive him there. As the two now-grown men recount in the film, it was quite a ride.