LOS ANGELES, Jan. 16 (JTA) — After months of delay caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an Israeli film about a Jewish plot to blow up Jerusalem´s Temple Mount is set to open in the United States. "Time of Favor," Israel´s entry in the 2000 Academy Awards for foreign film, originally was scheduled to open in late September, but the attack on the World Trade Center put a crimp in those plans. First, work slowed for a while at the offices of the film´s distributor, like it did at many offices in Manhattan. "Our offices were virtually closed for a week,"says Gabriele Caroti, Kino´s director of publicity. Because of the film´s sensitive subject matter, Kino then waited to release "Time of Favor" until the war in Afghanistan slowed. The film opens Friday in New York and is scheduled to be shown in cities across North America during the next several months. "Time of Favor" — or "Hahesder" ("The Arrangement"), as the film is known in Hebrew — features fine performances by some of Israel´s top actors, a combination of low-key romance and nerve-tingling action, an authentic insider´s portrayal of Israel´s settler community, and a plot that appears ripped from today´s headlines on the turbulent Middle East — or the potential nightmare headlines of tomorrow. The film is set in an isolated West Bank settlement, surrounded by the stark Judean hills and desert. The head of the settlement´s yeshiva is charismatic Rabbi Meltzer — played in a bravura performance by film-maker Asi Dayan, son of Moshe Dayan and a fervently secular leftist — who foresees the time when Jerusalem´s Temple Mount will be cleared of Muslims and restored to Jewish hands. Meltzer has convinced the army to establish an all-Orthodox unit attracting the finest yeshiva students. Commanding the unit is Menachem, played by hunky Aki Avni, who is both Orthodox and a professional soldier. Among his men is the frail Pini (Edan Alterman), who has the making of a brilliant Talmudist and whom Meltzer wants to marry his daughter Michal, played by an Israeli actress named Tinkerbell. Independent-minded Michal instead is attracted to Menachem. Menachem also is drawn to her but, loyal to Pini and the rabbi, he rebuffs her. Distraught over Michal´s rejection and convinced that the rabbi´s futuristic vision calls for direct action, Pini plots to blow up the Muslim Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem´s Temple Mount. Israel´s Shin Bet security service is tipped off and, fearful that an attack on the shrine would ignite the entire Muslim world, works feverishly to forestall the explosion. The realization that such a deranged attempt is conceivable — and the consequences if it succeeds — is what gives the film´s climax its special edge. Adding to the film´s poignancy is director Joseph Cedar´s personal background. Cedar, 32, was born to a geneticist father and drama-psychotherapist mother in New York. In 1973, when Cedar was 5, the modern Orthodox family made aliyah. The family settled in the Bayit Vegan section of Jerusalem, dominated at the time by the national religious adherents of Gush Emunim. When he reached army age in 1986, Joseph served with an Israeli paratroop unit, where he was one of only three religious soldiers. After his discharge, he earned a bachelor´s degree at the Hebrew University and a graduate degree from New York University´s film school. When he started writing "Time of Favor" in 1995, Cedar moved to a West Bank settlement north of Ramallah. His friends in the settlement and in the wider Orthodox community had high hopes for his project. "They told me that since I was the first observant Jew to make an Israeli feature film, here was a chance to show how great we really are," Cedar recalls. As the screenplay evolved, however, it gradually moved away from the initial idea of a vehicle for the national religious movement´s viewpoint. "I came to believe that the central question of the film was how much an individual must sacrifice for the good of a group or to advance a cause," Cedar says. "It´s a question now facing Israeli society, and I don´t know the answer. Like the film itself, I have more questions than answers."
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Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.