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SF Jewish Film Festival: “Yoel, Israel & the Pashkevils”

Posted by FriarYid on August 1, 2007


I had the pleasure of seeing another couple of films as part of the SFJFF– this time it was an Orthodox Double Feature, two documentaries about Haredim in Israel. The first film, “Yoel, Israel & the Pashkevils,” explored the contours of two Haredi men living in Meah Shearim: Yoel Krause, a Breslov Hasidic member of Neturei Karta, and Israel Kletzkin, a self-described “liberal” from the same neighborhood. The two men’s lives and stories are told in part through their intersection with pashkevils, or protest posters. As most forms of printed media are banned in Meah Shearim, the pashkevil is the primary mode of public communication. They use fiery language and aren’t above making personal attacks, but they also perform essential functions for the community.

Kletzkin and Krause are natural foils: Israel, in addition to working as a funeral “town crier” (making tape recordings announcing deaths, funerals, and the occasional eulogy and then attaching a loudspeaker to his car or rented taxis), prints pashkevils. Yoel has been collecting the posters for almost 15 years and sees himself as a kind of community historian (though his collection, located in a claustrophobic cellar accessible only through a secret door and staircase hidden in a bookcase, seems more reminiscent of a hermit’s apartment than a historical archive). Asked for details by the filmmaker, Yoel estimates he has about 20,000 pashkevils, if he “includes the small ones.” Yoel & Israel’s relationship (they meet only once, at the local synagogue, but seem to know each other at least by name) is also contrasted by their politics. Yoel refuses any assistance from the Israeli government (he even gets milk from his own cow, since all the food producers in Israel are “Zionists”), while Israel describes himself as “liberal” or “neutral.” Israel doesn’t vote, which still puts him in a pretty small minority of Israeli Haredim, but he pays taxes and identifies as a citizen of the state and “does his duty,” though not a Zionist, per se. The rub is that Israel has been given the municipal pashkevil contract, which puts him on the bad side of people like Yoel because now Israel is a tool of the state.

One of the interesting things about the movie was that it showed how much work, and in particular, how technology, is used by Haredim in order to maintain their shtetl-ish way of life (incidentally, there are some really neat moments of background shots of life in Meah Shearim, and it’s amazing to see the strong sense of community and identity going on in this small area, with so many things and people shoved all together). A fascinating moment came when the filmmaker , Lana Chaplin, was speaking with Yoel about how many things are forbidden by his lifestyle- television, movies, even going to the beach (“In short, everything is forbidden.”) Suddenly, his cell phone rings and he answers. Afterwards, she asks him, “aren’t cell phones forbidden?” He smiles sheepishly. “Only the new ones.” In Yoel’s view, the whole purpose of Judaism is “to fight against nature,” which I assume refers to the animal, base nature and desires of humans.

Yoel is definitely the soft-spoken ideologue- we follow him to protests where he calls soldiers Nazis (one surreal moment occurs when Yoel watches video-he claims it is only the second time-of himself at the demonstration. But he also has tender moments, such as when we see him buying bread- “Isn’t that the Zionists’ bread?” Chaplin asks. He nods. “It wouldn’t be fair to ask my wife to make bread for me and nine children.” The reminder that Yoel’s large family lives pretty close to the poverty line makes his decision to refuse state assistance all the more poignant, and earns him a lot more respect for sticking to his guns.

Israel, by contrast, claims to run his household in a more open way, giving his children the “right to choose” (not surprisingly, they all “choose” to stay in the community). Israel seems to be, if not apolitical, then certainly a pragmatist. His main priority is providing for his family. In some ways, he actually seems contemptuous of the entire pashkevil culture (insofar as it seems to exemplify the most insular, isolationist and personally vicious elements of the community), but his desire to make a living leads one to question whether Israel doesn’t in some ways compromise with his own, more liberal values, in order to remain in his culture, and specifically, in his job. He even shows the cameras pashkevils denouncing him! (He runs some and refuses others.) As the film goes on, we see things heat up for Israel- he is accosted in public and called a sheigetz, we see pashkevils against him go up in the neighborhood, and he shows us pictures of his family van getting stoned. Again, we get Nazi references: “10 cm more, and he would have killed my daughter. What’s the difference between him and a Nazi?” Some of Kletzker’s troubles come from his involvement with the film- people accuse him of airing dirty laundry in public and of bringing “television” to the neighborhood.

Another current running through the movie is the near-constant conflict, and in particular factionalization, of the Haredi world as well as the larger Jewish world itself. At one point Yoel comments that in Meah Shearim, there are moderates like Israel and extremists like himself- while simultaneously identifying other, even more extreme people than him (Yoel, for instance, says he has nothing against Israel personally and defended him to others at the risk of being stoned). Yoel calls the two camps “two nations.” This is really amazing when you consider the fact that, to most outsiders, Yoel and Israel would be considered part of the same “sector”, group, whatever. And on a lot of issues, they probably agree. But they certainly consider themselves very different. As the film winds down, we hear Yoel’s wife, Rachel, comment that it’s always nice to see the director (really?), because in the end, the Jews are all one nation- “am echad.” It’s a nice sentiment, but it seems to be challenged by the pashkevils, and the people behind them and the conflicts they represent, not only between Jews in general, but even Orthodox Jews of different stripes.


3 Responses to “SF Jewish Film Festival: “Yoel, Israel & the Pashkevils””

  1. […] SF Jewish Film Festival: “Yoel, Israel & the Pashkevils” […]

  2. curbofthederech said

    I was wondering if anyone knows how to get a copy of these films. Searching the internet doesn’t seem to help.

  3. anne said

    Try writing to the distributor, Gp2films in Israel. Check their website, http://www.to2films.com

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