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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
In A Hebrew Lesson, a new documentary opening in Tel Aviv this weekend, director David Ofek brings viewers on a six-month journey with a class of new immigrants learning Hebrew at an ulpan in Tel Aviv. A modern odyssey that explores the ins and outs of immigrants' lives in Israel, the film examines the successes and struggles of newcomers from different backgrounds and won awards for direction and editing at July's Jerusalem Film Festival.
Members of the onscreen Hebrew class are separated by more than their native languages. Left-wing German student Annabelle has left her career and country to live with her Israeli boyfriend, while conscientious Chinese student Chin married Ehud, an easygoing Ramat Aviv resident, in her homeland before joining him in Israel. Dong, a former TV reporter in China, is preparing a story on illegal workers from Asia and dates an Israeli when she's not in class. Marisol, a beautiful Peruvian student, works as a waitress on the Tel Aviv boardwalk and realizes during her intensive Hebrew class that she is pregnant. And finally, there's the teacher, Yoela, a divorced mom who underwent the absorption process herself after immigrating from France at 12.
The film's subject matter is rich, focusing on the intensive Hebrew classes that remain one of Israel's best-known institutions. Under the gaze of Ofek's camera, the ulpan is presented as it is today: a cultural crossroads and spot for unlikely meetings between students of different religions and motivations for learning Hebrew. A long-standing forum for adapting newcomers to the Jewish state, the institution in 2005 offered some 2,116 classes for adults taught by 850 teachers and attended by approximately 37,000 students.
Despite the drastic drop in immigration to Israel during the second intifada, the ulpan has retained its vibrancy, A Hebrew Lesson suggests, showcasing the strengths, weaknesses and occasional absurdities of Israeli society.
That society is explored on a number of levels by Ofek, who captures his subjects' fresh-eyed look at Israel by following their lives outside ulpan. A Hebrew Lesson indirectly explores the issue of illegal immigration by accompanying Dong as she visits a tent city of clandestine workers. The issue reemerges during one the film's most striking scenes, which takes place during Passover. With "Let My People Go" playing in the background, the camera alternates between the seder table at the ulpan and the halls of Ben-Gurion Airport, where Chin and another student begin short trips for the holiday and Marisol passes through after deciding to return to her life in Peru. In Yoela's class, meanwhile, the students are debating the notion of slavery, with some of the students seeing modern parallels their new country. "This expression applies to the illegal workers in Israel," Dong says.
The director didn't select his Hebrew Lesson subjects at random, with each bringing their own sets of concerns to the documentary. Among the students, three are not Jewish, and one of them can hardly understand the ideological motivations that drive many Jews to move to Israel.
Some of A Hebrew Lesson's students have left children in their native countries, and the majority are forced to search for jobs inferior to the ones they held in their previous lives. All experience moments of total loneliness, and the likelihood of their successful integration into Israeli society is never to be taken for granted. As Annabelle struggles with the absence of civil marriage in Israel, a French immigrant remarks that David Ben-Gurion founded the country as a haven for the Jewish people, setting off another discussion about the rights of different groups living in Israel. In hesitant Hebrew, one student offers his view by reading from the country's Declaration of Independence, emphasizing its guarantee of freedom of worship for each of Israel's citizens.
Particularly moving during these conversations is a public pledge by young Chinese-born Hebrew student not to become numb to the realities of life in Israel - a danger she sees as particularly relevant for ulpan students. "After two or three years," she says, "every new immigrant becomes insensitive to his surroundings."