Under the microscope

Secular Jewish identity is explored in ‘Jews Now.’

Religious and secular Jews 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Religious and secular Jews 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘It’s a story about people who are struggling to be who they are,” says director Galya Oz of her latest documentary, Jews Now (Yehudim Akshav), a look at how secular Jews experience their Judaism, which will air on Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on Channel One.
Oz, who is the daughter of novelist Amos Oz and a children’s book author (she has written a book called The Disappearing Shakshuka and two sequels), grew up secular on a kibbutz, but this is not her story.
There is a long history of secular Israelis ridiculing, dismissing or ignoring religious impulses as nonsense and championing a spirituality-free secular Zionism, but Oz has no interest in going that route.
“I wanted to explore what secular Judaism is,” she says. “I didn’t want it just to be talking heads.”
So she chose to focus mainly on three people who have a complex relationship to Judaism and their own beliefs. The first is Dr. Hagai Dagan, head of the Jewish Studies program at Sapir College and a novelist who grew up on a secular kibbutz of the Hashomer Hatza’ir movement.
“Hagai is probably the most secular of the people in the film. He sees himself as an atheist and a secularist, but he is the one who is most engaged with the idea of God,” says Oz. As the film goes on, he meets with Israeli Jews from all across the spectrum, including utterly secular Tel Aviv residents, members of a neighborhood Orthodox congregation (who are more concerned with when he is getting married than anything else), and haredi educators. He speaks to his father, a Holocaust survivor, who is secular but has studied Judaism.
Dagan observes demonstrations by Jews in the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem who want the loyalty oath to be passed, but he doesn’t have anything to say to them.
Oz didn’t plan to include these activists in the movie when she started out, but she says that the film has a strong political agenda. “It’s political because it’s a kind of map of the tensions among Jews,” she explains. “My thesis is that Judaism can be what Jews actually do. It doesn’t have to be according to Jewish law. It can be a feeling of identity and culture.”
Oz characterizes the pro-oath activists as saying that “Jews are all of one kind, and we know what Judaism is... But the truth is that Judaism has so many faces.”
Two of those faces in the film are represented by two thoughtful young men, Yechiem Schlesinger and Eran Epstein. Both were raised in religious families and both are now questioning the traditions they grew up with. We see them at a pre-army camp at Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch, where they are studying. Among the most moving scenes in the film are those where the two try to justify to their parents their decision to stop being observant.
“I saw right away a symmetry between them and Hagai... It’s not by chance that there are three stories here of fathers and sons. Everybody needs to stand before their parents and justify the choices they have made,” says Oz.
Eran’s father, a Conservative rabbi from America, is clearly very hurt by his son’s choices but also wants to show that he loves him very much.
“I identify with his sorrow,” says Oz. “He is the most touching man in the film.”
However, she feels hope that the Epstein family will remain close and that Eran and his father will meet in the middle somewhere. “The children are more Israeli but less observant than the parents...Eran’s questioning is very Jewish....This is the price you pay for all the wandering.”
But if Oz has to pick the person in the film she most identifies with, it’s Dagan’s ex-girlfriend, Vicky, who speaks to him in Tel Aviv. “There is something very healthy in what she’s saying: ’Let me be here now, let me live my life, let me study if I want. I don’t need to deal with Jewish fate and Judaism all the time.’” Oz’s agenda in the film is simple: “Let go. Relax. Judaism is alive. It will keep being mixed up with all kinds of things, from all kinds of cultures.
People will move closer and farther away. It’s like a cosmic explosion.”