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Arts & Culture Secular Israeli Film Writers Reclaim Jewish Texts at Tel Aviv Beit Midrash

May 8, 2006
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Huddled together over Styrofoam cups of coffee and copies of Kaddish, a group of Israel’s top television and film writers search for the meaning behind the words that symbolize Jewish grief. “It’s as if we are helping the dead ascend by thinking of them,” suggests Yulie Cohen-Gerstel, as she underlines a Chasidic commentary about Kaddish and cross-references it with a biblical passage from Ezekiel.

Cohen-Gerstel, 49, a documentarian, is one of 15 secular Israeli writers who gather Friday mornings to study Talmud and other Jewish texts at Alma College, a center for Hebrew culture in Tel Aviv.

Organizers hope the religious texts will find their way into the writers’ creations.

Last Friday, the group exchanged stories of loss and death that the reading of Kaddish triggered for them. The classes are a place of intense learning, debate and group study.

Rabbi Dov Singer, head of Mekor Haim Yeshiva in Kfar Etzion, helps teach the class. Singer, who lost his father recently, says that for him, hearing Kaddish is like hearing the voice of God’s tears.

Organizers hope that by introducing these influential writers to the material, they will be inspired to incorporate Jewish themes into their own work.

Like most of the other participants, Cohen-Gerstel had no prior experience studying Jewish texts. The sessions are helping her develop a film about her brother, a fervently Orthodox Jew.

“I wanted to understand him and understand myself and the Jewishness which is so foreign to me,” she says.

The Beit Midrash is supported by UJA-Federation of New York in partnership with Alma College, the Avi Chai Foundation, the Gesher Foundation and Keshet Broadcasting Company.

Ruth Calderon, founder of Alma College, teaches the class with Singer. She says they’re trying to help secular people with little or no Jewish background feel that the world of Jewish texts belongs to them as well.

“It’s amazing and far above any of my expectations,” Calderon says. “These are people who focus on words, so with their talent they take the texts further than I could have imagined.”

She hopes to continue the program in the future to include classes for advertising executives — another group, she says, with a direct influence on the public.

Maurice Goldstein from the Israel office of the UJA-Federation of New York says the program synthesizes professional worlds with the world of texts.

“They were totally disconnected and alienated, and this process stretches their Jewish memories back several thousand years and makes these ideas relevant to their professional lives,” he said.

The writers’ attitudes toward Jewish culture seem to have shifted through the class.

Tamar Maor, 35, a television writer who is currently working on the popular television series, “Ima’le,” says she has been drawn in by the intellectual challenge of the class and a sense of triumph that she and her colleagues are getting to know Jewish texts for themselves.

“This is something we secular people need to feel is also ours,” she said.

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