Let This TV Show Teach You About the Intricacies of Israeli Society

'Zagouri Imperia' provides a thoughtful and entertaining take on the Sephardi-Ashkenazi rift.

In the normal order of things, I don’t often write about original Israeli TV series, for the very simple reason that they are bound to be Greek for our overseas readers. True, with our planet being one global village, there is not much that is strictly local, and successful Israeli series are currently being transplanted (see “Homeland” or “In Treatment”). But I don’t want to wait until this happens to “Zagouri Imperia,” for fear that in the process it may lose some of its very special flavor, with all its Hebrew-Arabic lingual and cultural idiosyncrasies.

“Zagouri Imperia” (Zagouri Empire) is one of the most impressive original productions of the HOT cable provider, and as of this week (starting February 3) it embarks on its second season on Channel 3. It was conceived, written and directed by Maor Zagouri, with 25 episodes in each season, broadcast twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The first season (both were filmed in one creative spurt) garnered more than 12 million VOD views. The series provides a rare glimpse into the intricacies of Israeli life, underscoring the troubled relations between Jews of differing hues: those of Ashkenazi (i.e. Western-European) and Sephardi (i.e. coming from Arabic-speaking countries) descent.

The Zagouri clan (mother, father, five male and three female offspring in the main nuclear family) are of Moroccan descent, all of them carrying chips of varying weight on their shoulders. The paterfamilias, Albert (“Beber”), is played by Moshe Ivgi, one of the best and most successful Israeli movie actors, himself of Sephardi descent. He runs a falafel eatery in the southern city of Be’er Sheva. His wife, Vivian, (played by Sarah von Schwartze, an excellent theater actress and daughter of German converts) is the only daughter of another local falafel tycoon, Pinto (with whom Beber competed in the falafel business), who died at the beginning of the first season, without a will, but with one of his grandchildren obliged by an oath to carry on selling “his” falafel (although the secret recipe is missing).

Each of the characters in the series – main and supporting and recurring – is a world of its own, with the focus being on a trio: the fair Aviel (played by TV idol Oz Zehavi), the apple of his mother’s eye, who spent most of his years in prestigious boarding schools and is currently a successful officer in the IDF. He returns to the Zagouri fold, burdened by the obligation to keep Pinto Falafel alive, and challenges the authority of his own father. Back in Be’er Sheva he encounters his close female sibling Avishag (Shugi), a (by now) estranged soulmate, played by Chen Amsalem. (The series’ first season made her into a celebrity, and she is the current spouse of the series’ creator.) The third side of the triangle is Lizzie, the beautiful, enigmatic girl from the hood, and Aviel’s unrequited (and vice versa) puppy love long ago. She is played by Ninet Tayeb, a rock musician celebrity.

A heavy whiff of incest hovers over the series: Beber’s patriarchal reign over his grownup daughters, Vivian’s love and devotion to Aviel, Avishag’s relations with Aviel, and the overt Oedipal motive introduced and indeed flaunted by the writer. And if all that is not enough to create a stir, there are local spices aplenty, a very interesting textual mix of Hebrew-Arabic dialect, and the whole complex inferiority-superiority concoction of the Ashkenazi-Sephardi socio-cultural cocktail.

Much has been made of the fact that unlike in many Israeli movies, the Sephardi case is presented by one of their own, and the characters and their milieu are written about and directed by one of their own (that is why the Empire carries the name of its creator), fully fleshed, and not used for comic relief as laughable stock creatures. Maor Zagouri himself said in an interview that it is high time for Israeli society to move beyond the Sephardi-Ashkenazi rift, which has been utilized by many politicians from all sides in election battles, the current one included.

There is no point in me going into more detail, and not only because of spoiler-phobia: you will have to see for yourself, if you wish (and I recommend it; but alas, there are no English subtitles). Before winding the column up, I would just like to quote one line from the dialogue of the last episode of the first season.

The women of the Zagouri clan are on their way to Aviel’s army base for some kind of army ceremony to which families are invited. The seemingly nave and unsophisticated Lizzie joins Vivian and Shugi, heavily overdressed. Shugi looks at her and states/asks (and I’m paraphrasing, as the original Hebrew is unusual, original, brilliant and untranslatable): “Do you have that in a ‘more unaware’ style?”

Shugi uses a phrase employed in shopping: “do you have that in” She applies it to an adjective describing Lizzie’s attitude or state of mind, treating her behavior as merchandise, which can be presented as more or less of its kind, i.e. a conscious behavior, implying that what Lizzie does is an “act,” that she is actually much smarter and calculating than she seems to be. But what she asks of Lizzie is to be “more unaware,” as if one can mark degrees of unawareness, or “grade” levels of subconsciousness. The moment you grade the subconscious, it is not subconscious anymore.

And this is the main achievement of “Zagouri Imperia” and its creator, and what makes it unique: The characters behave as if they are completely unaware of the mores they challenge, the ghosts they raise and the feathers they ruffle in Israeli society. The first episode of the second season takes place on Holocaust Remembrance Day, with Beber behaving like it is not his business at all, as the Moroccan Jews were mistreated when they arrived in Israel, and he feels offended, and acts offensively. Aviel admonishes his parents and siblings in the name of some Israeli common ethos. All the characters speak and argue using platitudes, in a way unaware of how blatantly, politically incorrect or overcorrect, yet true, they sound. But Maor Zagouri, the creator, is deeply aware of all of these intricacies, and maneuvers very adeptly between the overt and covert, between the unspoken and outspoken, hovering over the thin line separating the sub and the conscious, like a true work of art – even if it is a popular TV series – should.