Fun in the park

“Observing the modes of behavior in the park, a stronghold of national festivities, led me to pinpoint ceremonious and ritual aspects that are embedded in public leisure-time routines.”

Filmmaker Tohar Lev Jacobson presents a microcosm of the haredi community’s leisure time activities (photo credit: Courtesy)
Filmmaker Tohar Lev Jacobson presents a microcosm of the haredi community’s leisure time activities
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tohar Lev Jacobson has, at least in nominal terms, a lot going for him. His given names translate as “purity of the heart” and, in fact, the bearded young graduating student of the Naggar School of Art in Musrara comes across as an almost innocent character.
That probably came into beneficial play when Jacobson made his way to Sacher Park for the initial foray on his protracted fieldwork, which eventually culminated in a video work entitled Esh Tukad (“A Fire Will Burn”), referencing a poem by 11th-century Spanish poet and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir ibn Ezra. Esh Tukad is Jacobson’s contribution to the fascinating exhibition by the art school’s graduates, whose works take in a wide stretch of disciplines and sensibilities.
The titular fire is a prevalent element in the 21-minute video, which offers an intriguing glimpse of the human ebb and flow through the large park. Almost all the “players” come from the religious community, and they are almost exclusively male.
“I wanted to show how religious people enjoy themselves in their off-duty hours,” Jacobson explains. “You know, yeshiva students spend all day learning and then some of them go to places like Sacher Park to let their hair down.”
The video evolved over a period of time, with Jacobson making visits to the park over several months. That also enabled him to capture the leisure activities of haredi men in different seasons, which enhanced the ambiance spread.
Esh Tukad had a predecessor of sorts, in the form of thousands of still photographs that Jacobson snapped in the park during daylight hours sometime earlier. The final degree project, however, was a very different kettle of fish.
“My work monitors the public leisure-time habits that take place in Sacher Park in Jerusalem,” explains Jacobson in the notes that accompany the screening at Beit Canada in Musrara. He says that the long sessions he put in observing the dynamics of religious Jewish men having after-hours fun paid off when it came to capturing the action on video.
“I spoke to everyone I filmed,” Jacobson explains. “Of course, I wanted to gain their confidence before pointing a camera at them.”
He clearly did that with aplomb. Esh Tukad makes for fascinating, social-anthropological viewing, as many of the subjects attend to their barbecuing duties. We see all kinds of religious males of all ages, hanging out together and praying together.
The frames Jacobson puts together attest to his deep understanding of the intricacies of still photography, too, and a keen sense of aesthetics.
“I wanted to catch the path of the [barbecue] smoke as it rose,” he says when we watch a particularly attractive shot play out. “I wanted to give the smoke substance of its own.” In so doing, Jacobson added an ethereal feel to the visual offering. There are a couple of frames in which the bountiful trees are presented in a particularly eye-catching manner, as the shot encompasses a wide palette of shades of green and arboreous textures.
Almost all the religious characters wear the obligatory black pants and white shirt combo, and that, in itself, enhances the chromatic scope. The monochrome garb serves to offset Mother Nature’s verdant backdrop, and vice versa.
There is a sociological point to the video exercise, too.
“My documentary creation presents the secular and sacred cycles in Sacher Park in Jerusalem,” notes Jacobson. “I was looking to explore the development of a hybrid tribal and national identity, while generating a confrontation between the traditional concepts of documentary cinema and still photography.”
Sacher Park was not a random choice.
“Observing the modes of behavior in the park, a stronghold of national festivities, led me to pinpoint ceremonious and ritual aspects that are embedded in public leisure-time routines.”
Jacobson says he was drawn to the project by the possibility it offered him of gaining a better handle on religious-sector practices, and presenting this to the public.
“Laying out the patchwork of the video encounters allows one to examine the potential embodied in mass culture of creating an extra-institutional public narrative. The ongoing identity-based conflict among those who belong to marginalized religious groups that gather in the park leads to a refreshing interpretation of religious thinking. This understanding is achieved through deconstructive dialogue of a sense of yearning and admiration vis-à-vis the reins of the Jewish religion.”
Jacobson hails from an Orthodox background and keeps a kosher home, and you discern his empathy for his subjects in the video. He has clearly managed to set most of them at their ease, although not all exude a sense of being laid-back. Five youngsters in one group, all clad in standard black and white, seem almost inanimate as they listen to a colleague telling his tale of his yeshiva experiences. Their facial expressions and body language seem to cover the full gamut of silent response. The central rotund character – “he’s the leader of the group,” advises Jacobson – looks authoritatively bemused; another appears to be maintaining his inner and outer equilibrium; a third remains poker-faced; another seems to be happy to go along with it all; while the last gives the impression of wanting to be somewhere else, anywhere else.”
The vast majority of Jacobson’s cast of characters come from the ultra-Orthodox fold, but he took pains to provide some counterpoint along the way. There is a lovely shot of an elderly couple sitting on a low wall. The woman is singing a traditional song, and her sweet vocal delivery is augmented by a man who is off camera. We learn that the woman was born in Vienna, while her unseen singing companion hails from Iraq.
“It is important to provide some variety, some sort of oxymoronic content, sort of reference points,” observes Jacobson.
He also provides some relief from the black-and-white brigade with a fetching shot of a young secular woman who is delicately making her way across a tightrope. And there is a fun vignette of a chunky non-religious teenager singing Mizrahi tunes into a microphone, while intermittently dragging on a cigarette.Jacobson has produced a work of aesthetic and sociopolitical value.
The exhibition closes on July 29.
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