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«by Dan Chyutin BFA, Film Production, Tel Aviv University, 2005 MA, Cinema Studies, New York University, 2007 Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of The ...»

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Dan Chyutin

BFA, Film Production, Tel Aviv University, 2005

MA, Cinema Studies, New York University, 2007

Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of

The Kenneth P. Dietrich School of

Arts and Sciences in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

University of Pittsburgh




This dissertation was presented by Dan Chyutin It was defended on November 13, 2015 And approved by Adam Lowenstein, PhD, Associate Professor, English Neepa Majumdar, PhD, Associate Professor, English Adam Shear, PhD, Associate Professor, Religious Studies Dissertation Director: Lucy Fischer, PhD, Distinguished Professor, English ii Copyright © Dan Chyutin 2015 All Rights Reserved iii



Dan Chyutin, PhD University of Pittsburgh, 2015 Throughout its brief history, Israeli cinema largely ignored Jewish religious identity, aligning itself with Zionism’s rejection of Judaism as a marker of diasporic existence. Yet over the past two decades, as traditional Zionism slowly declined, and religion’s presence became more pronounced in the public sphere, Israeli filmmakers began to treat Judaism as a legitimate cinematic concern.

The result has been a growth in the number of Israeli films dealing with the realities of devoutly religious Jews, amounting to a veritable “Judaic turn” in Israel’s cinematic landscape. As of now, this “turn” has received meager attention within Israeli film scholarship. The following, then, addresses this scholarly lack by offering an extensive investigation of contemporary Judaic-themed Israeli cinema.

This intervention pursues two interconnected lines of inquiry. The first seeks to analyze the corpus in question for what it says on the Judaic dimension of present-day Israeli society. In this context, this study argues that while a dialectic of secular vs. religious serves as the overall framework in which these films operate, it is habitually countermanded by gestures that bring these binary categories together into mutual recognition. Accordingly, what one finds in such filmic representations is a profound sense of ambivalence, which is indicative of a general equivocation within Israeli public discourse surrounding the rise in Israeli Judaism’s stature and its effects on a national ethos once so committed to secularism.

The second inquiry follows the lead of Judaic-themed Israeli cinema’s interest in Jewish mysticism, and extends it to a film-theoretical consideration of how Jewish mystical thought may help illuminate particular constituents of the cinematic experience. Here emphasis is placed on two related mystical elements to which certain Israeli films appeal—an enlightened vision that unravels iv form and a state of unity that ensues. The dissertation argues that these elements not only appear in the Israeli filmic context, but are also present in broader cinematic engagements, even when those are not necessarily organized through the theosophic coordinates of mysticism. Furthermore, it suggests that this cycle’s evocation of such elements is aimed to help its national audience transcend the ambivalences of Israel’s “Judaic imagination.”

–  –  –

I must first offer my thanks to faculty and staff members of the film programs at Tel Aviv University, New York University, and the University of Pittsburgh for their continued support of my work. To acknowledge each and every one of these individuals would take the length of this dissertation. While such a task may be too difficult to perform, I would nevertheless like to take this opportunity and single out in gratitude the members of my dissertation committee. Their advice has helped me beyond measure in navigating the turbulent waters of graduate school. Their generosity has made me feel at home in a field with which I was yet not too familiar. Their encouragement is what I take with me as I embark upon the next stages of my academic career. I could not have asked for a finer assembly of minds with which to discuss my project.

In particular, I want to also express my deepest appreciation to Lucy Fischer, the chair of this committee and a role model to me since my first days at the University of Pittsburgh. It is impossible to detail the many gifts she has given me over the years, not only as a mentor but as a friend. I would be remiss, however, if I were not to note at this juncture how much Lucy has influenced my work, and how much of what I have accomplished thus far has been a result of her invaluable guidance.

Also invaluable has been the presence of my fellow graduate students, past and present. Of these, I am obliged to give the greatest vote of thanks to Ali Patterson, who has accompanied my project from its earliest stages, and who has tirelessly read revision after revision and suffered through my episodes of amnesia, when I forgot what I was writing and why. Ali was the first person I met when I came to Pittsburgh, but that is not the real reason for our close friendship.

Rather it is because, by example, she has taught me that to be a scholar does not mean only to live a life of the mind, but also a life of the heart. Ali is one of the smartest people I know, but I don’t think I have ever met someone with such a big heart.

Collaborators on and readers of articles and book chapters that emerged from this study have also been impactful on my professional development. Rachel Harris deserves special mention ix in this context. During our first encounter, at a panel in the Association of Israel Studies conference, she informed me that we will become the best of friends. I was not sure of the validity of that prediction at the time, but now recognize it as uncannily clairvoyant. She has been the most vocal and persistent advocate of my work, and has made it possible for me to overcome my novice’s hesitancy and share my ideas with the broader academic world.

Further endorsements of my scholarship, without which I would not have been able to complete this body of research, have come in the form of an Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellowship from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Arts and Sciences and a doctoral scholarship from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. Several travel grants from the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English, as well as the overall logistic assistance of Directors of Graduate Studies Troy Boone and Nancy Glazener, have also proved immensely helpful.

Perhaps most taxed by these years of continuous writing have been my family and friends in Israel. To Iris and Nadav I wish to say: not only did you provide a source of emotional comfort through this long period, but your ideas on my topic of study had a profound impact on my thinking as a whole. To my parents, Miki and Bracha: I will forever be grateful to you for believing that there are no limits to what I can do in life. Though I do not always share this belief, it nevertheless exists within me. It is the shape of love, a hidden light.

And to the proprietors and servers of Té Café (Pittsburgh), Caribou Coffee (Pittsburgh), Café Masarik (Tel Aviv), Bookworm (Tel Aviv), Café Nini (Tel Aviv), and Alexandria (Tel Aviv)—thank you for allowing me to write eight hours a day on your tables for the price of a warm beverage.


In 2013, Israel’s leading daily newspaper Yediot Acharonot asked ten local “cultural figures” to determine “who was their favorite God-fearing character on the Israeli screen.” 1 The answers were diverse not only in their pick of character, but in the type of claims made about it. Amongst the accounts, respondents noted the merits of characters who honestly and painfully negotiate religion’s strict edicts and mores, who arrest the flow of narrative action to approach God and ask for providence, 2 who exhibit “seriousness” and “contemplation” or rather “simplicity” and “naiveté,” who capture with authenticity the details of religious life or alternatively embody its value system without adhering to all of its codes. Such a myriad of responses not only testifies to the presence of many “God-fearing characters” in Israeli films, but to the recognition that this presence carries with it a measure of significance that deserves our attention.

It may nevertheless come as a surprise to some that until recently this type of discussion would not have been possible. For the better part of its history, Israeli cinema paid little-to-no attention to the religious dimension of Jewish identity—i.e., to Judaism. 3 Judaic characters were few and far between, turning Judaism into a largely repressed presence within Israel’s cinematic landscape. Over the past fifteen years, however, this landscape has seen the release of an unprecedented number of films which deal explicitly with Judaism and which entice and even force their audience to negotiate the Judaic ingredient of an avowedly secular Jewish-Israeli culture. This study operates under the assumption that this “Judaic turn” marks a meaningful stage in the development of filmmaking in Israel, if not in the modern history of Judaism’s intersection with cinema. Its primary goal, then, is to outline the contours and investigate the implications of this shift on a sociocultural and a film-theoretical level.

1 Yitzhak Tessler, “Here He Comes: The Ultimate Dos in Israeli Cinema” [Hebrew], Ynet, February 26, 2013, accessed May 31, 2015 http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4348615,00.html. In this and all subsequent quotations from Hebrew sources, the translation is mine.

2 In the context of this study, God would be referred to in a third person singular masculine form (upper-case). This choice is not made with the intention of affirming the androcentric tendencies of Judaic culture, which the articulation of God as male epitomizes and justifies. Rather, this perception and its attendant language are retained for the sole purpose of accurately representing the traditions that are the object of this study.

3 This study subscribes to Nathan Abrams’s assertion “that there is a clear distinction between Jewishness, as ethnic identity, and Judaism, as a religion or a set of rites.” As a result it uses the term “Judaic” to designate the specifically religious elements of “Jewish” identity, experience, and history. See: Abrams, “‘My religion is American’: A Midrash on Judaism in American Films, 1990 to the Present,” in Religion in the United States, ed. Jeanne Cortiel et al. (Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, 2011), 209.

The augmented presence of Judaism within Israeli cinema poses considerable challenges to Israeli film scholarship. The evolution of this academic subfield coincided with Israeli cinema’s disavowal of the Judaic, and consequently scholars were not prompted to develop analytic perspectives with which to engage its filmic manifestation. Moreover, the secular-liberal orientation of Israeli film scholars also made them averse to relating to religion altogether, which in turn led to a dearth of questioning as to the meaning behind the structured absence of Judaism on the Israeli screen (as opposed, for example, to the intense questioning of ethnic structured absences, such as those of the Palestinian and the Arab-Jew). The overall result of these factors was that Israeli film scholarship has been late in noticing the turn in its object, and has yet to fully account for its significance. The present study is thus imagined as an initial attempt to address this scholarly gap, and offer tentative directions through which future research may expand on in its reading of Judaic-themed Israeli cinema.

First and foremost, the following pages bear the recognition that Israeli cinema’s Judaic turn reflects a shift in the attitude of Jewish-Israeli society to Judaism. 4 They therefore attempt to situate Judaic-themed Israeli cinema in the sociocultural moment of a strengthening in JewishIsraeli identity’s religious dimension, and interpret it as a manifestation of and a reaction to this change. Rather than collapse religion to other social categories (ethnicity, gender, class, etc.), this study wishes to highlight its formative role in shaping these categories, as well as Israeli culture as a whole. In so doing, it operates with sensitivity to the particular characteristics of Judaic life in Israel, as well as to the effects of their reshaping by audiovisual mediations which occupy disparate ideological positions on religion. It attempts to utilize the insights of previous scholarship, but also come to terms with their shortcomings, which have made it difficult, if not untenable, for Israeli film scholars to address this cinematic phenomenon. Drawing on scholarly work in other related 4 From a cultural standpoint, this study is primarily interested the negotiations of religious identity by Israeli Jews.

As such, it often reduces Israeli society to its Jewish majority and religion to Judaism, while excluding considerations of the religious identity in the Muslim and Christian Palestinian minority, as well as its relationship with Judaic identity. Such exclusion does not in any way indicate an understanding that Palestinian religious identity is unimportant within the Israeli context, or that it has not undergone similarly significant changes that merit scholarly attention. Rather, the reason for this measure is first and foremost one of focus, with the stipulation that the primary audience which these Judaic-themed Israeli films target, and which is supposed to benefit from their cultural work, is the Jewish-Israeli constituency. For more information on religious identity within the Palestinian constituency, see for example: Nuhad Ali, “The Islamic Movement in Israel: Between Religion, Nationalism, and Modernity” [Hebrew], in Maelstrom of Identities: A Critical Look at Religion and Secularity in Israel, ed. Yossi Yonah and Yehuda Goodman (Jerusalem: Van Leer Institute and Hakkibutz Hameuchad, 2004), 132-164.

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