Where myth and reality meet

'Eyes Wide Open' follows a diverse array of American Jewish tourists in Israel.

Weiman-Kelman 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Weiman-Kelman 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'This topic isn't for me," thought Jerusalem-based filmmaker Paula Weiman-Kelman when she was approached in 2005 to make a film about American Jews and their connection to Israel. "Then I was sitting in my garden drinking coffee and had a flashback of the first time I came to Israel - that feeling of walking down the street and thinking that your life has more meaning here. It was a life-changing experience, and I decided I wanted to reconnect with that more innocent me," the veteran immigrant director from the US told The Jerusalem Post last week, a few days before the Israel premiere of Eyes Wide Open at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. The film proves Weiman-Kelman to be wrong in her estimation that it wasn't a topic for her. Touted as a documentary that takes a close and candid look at the preconceptions and revelations of American Jews who visit Israel, the sensitive production focuses for the most part on the type of American Jew for whom support of Israel is not a foregone conclusion. According to 2007 study commissioned by The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, only 48% of the non-Orthodox respondents under the age of 35 agreed that "Israel's destruction would be a personal tragedy," and just 54% are "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish State." With her hand-held camera and unobtrusive style, Weiman-Kelman eschewed the conventional American Jewish tourist - the kippa sruga observant Jew with unwielding support for the country and its policies. Instead, she followed a diverse collection of American Jews - a birthright group, a New Israel Fund mission, two Americans working for Palestinian rights, a delegation from New York's Bnai Yishurun synagogue, a lesbian couple - and attempted to probe their feelings and thought processes as they grapple with the often harsh realities of what they see in Israel, which is often contradictory to their liberal leanings. As fate would have it, many of the visits take place before, during and after the Second Lebanon War in August 2006, adding a sense of urgency and drama to the film. "It's a film... which represents a new development in the complexities of the American Jewish community," explained the film's writer, Stuart Schoffman. "Orthodox Jews, percentage wise anyway, are the ones who come here and are the least conflicted, so that's why the emphasis is not on them. The emphasis is on people who [feel conflicted in a real way]. I think the audiences who will identify with the film are the Jews who are able to see it and discuss how it reflects on their own lives and on their own way of resolving these issues." EYES WIDE Open's aim is to take a "hard look at long standing beliefs and myths about Israel, demythologize them and then remythologize them for a new generation of American Jews for whom the old myths ring false," continued Schoffman. "If the old myth is Ari Ben-Canaan and the Exodus, folk dancing, swamp draining, and a return to Zion after 2,000 years of dispersion, then the demythologization is 'oh my God, look what happened - we need soup kitchens, and a separation barriers to protect us against our neighbors.' All those thing are familiar to us and we take them for granted, but our brothers and sisters in America don't really understand it. It's not in their kishkes," he said. Remythologization is more complicated, and manifests in different ways. For one filmed visitor, it's walking through Mahane Yehuda on Friday and identifying with an entire country getting ready for Shabbat. For another, it's identifying with helping the underdog and downtrodden by rebuilding Palestinian houses in Anata that were demolished by the IDF. One liberal American Jew named Karen sums up her mixed emotions about the country by saying "I wish I could be non-conflicted," followed by "but I love it here." "The remythologization for these people is the idea that 'I love it here, not only despite the conflict, but in some way because the conflict makes it more exciting, alive, vivid," said Schoffman. To some people, this might bring sadness. Schoffman points to the example of Rabbi Ron Fish, a mission leader from Connecticut, who appears onscreen throughout the film. Near the end, he thoughtfully talks about all the wars the country's been through and wonders what they're going to say about the 2006 war. In other scenes, the liberal rabbi attends a minyan in a small shul in Tel Aviv, and in another instance his group conducts a roadside egalitarian minyan to the consternation of some observant Israeli men who can be heard muttering about the inclusion of women in the minyan. "Despite all his concerns, and some disconnect between the liberal Judaism he practices and the Judaism he finds in Israel, what transcends all this is the feeling of peoplehood," said Schoffman. Peoplehood was also on the mind of the person who first formulated the idea for the film, producer Jon Lopatin, a New York businessman who was visiting Israel in 2005. "I was in the lobby of the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem watching a UJA mission checking in. I'd never been involved with making a film before, but observing the experience of these people, some of them here for the first time, made me think about myself. My own thoughts about Israel are very personal and complicated, and I have trouble talking about Israel with Jews at home," he said. "So I had this idea of making a film, as a way of starting a conversation which would have been difficult for me to have otherwise. [I decided] to follow American Jews around Israel and ask them about their thoughts as they traveled around, which morphed into Eyes Wide Open." The film premiered in New York at the JCC of Manhattan, and over the next few months, it will be screened at the 92nd St. YMCA, at Jewish film festivals, Hillels and synagogues throughout the US. "We have wonderful education packets that go with the film for discussions after the screening," said Weiman-Kelman. "We wanted to raise questions and talk about Israel in a real way." The film's producers are not ignoring Israelis though. Hebrew subtitles are being added and Weiman-Kelman said that there is discussion underway to screen the film at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the Bima secular yeshiva. "I think the film will be eye-opening for Israelis. There's lots of preconceptions among Israelis regarding American Jews that I think will change," she said. For Lopatin, the film succeeds in doing what he hoped it would - to connect American Jews to Israel. "We want American Jews to be connected to Israel and to come to Israel. But in order to do that, you have to open up the conversation for complicated feelings and thoughts. The sort of narrow top-down way of thinking that a lot of us grew up with doesn't accord with my, or a lot of peoples', experiences here," he said. For Schoffman, the message of the film is clear. "The intention is [to say] that there's no substitute for being here - even for a short time. The more you can absorb and take back home with you far exceeds going on to the Internet and reading about it." And for Weiman-Kelman, the experience of working on Eyes Wide Open opened her eyes to the intrinsically difficult relationship between American Jews and Israel. "I was surprised by how complex the relationship really is. I know being an American Israeli is a complicated existence, but I would take it any day over being an American Jew," she laughed. She said that she hopes more American Jews will visit Israel as a result of the film - "the kind that have been coming, but different Jews too, the kind that appear in the film. We don't want blind love from American Jews, we want reality."