Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Goodbye to all of that...

David Volach who won the 2007 Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York with his movie My Father My Lord," - "Hufshat Kayitz" (Summer Vacation), talks about his haredi past and why he became secular in the following interview.

I want to share this interview with you for us to understand why many among us are abandoning Orthodoxy nowadays. Do agree with some of the points he makes? Do you disagree? Why? What can be done to prevent the assimilation of fellow Orthodox Jews?

One evening two decades ago, David Volach was walking in the center of Jerusalem. Through the high glass windows of the Kings Hotel he noticed two elderly men sitting in the lobby. Volach, who was then studying at the Ponevezh Yeshiva, straightened his black suit and entered. "Your appearance piqued my curiosity," he said, explaining why a religiously observant Jew was spending time with two heretics. "Are you even allowed to come in here?" one of the two, whose face was deeply wrinkled, asked, and invited him to sit down. He then introduced himself. "I am David Avidan. I am the best poet in the country." A lengthy conversation ensued, at the end of which Avidan invited Volach to visit him at his home in Tel Aviv. "I thought he was totally sick," Volach recalls. "He talked as though he were a messiah. But he expressed himself clearly. We exchanged phone numbers and he begged me to study with him. In the conversation we talked about [Prof. Yeshayahu] Leibowitz, whom I had met as a boy in Jerusalem. He told me that he did not hold him in high regard either, and suddenly we became friends and everything fit."

Despite the powerful experience, it would take Volach a few more years to cross the lines. Outwardly he continued to conduct the life of a yeshiva student from a respected family of Lithuanian Jews - he had 20 brothers and sisters - living in Jerusalem's Mekor Baruch neighborhood. Inwardly, he burned with curiosity about the secular world of the spirit.

Twenty years after that meeting, now aged 37 and deeply ensconced on the secular side, Volach suggests a reciprocal visit. This time he invites secular people to visit the home of a religiously observant Jew. The intimate meeting takes place in his debut film, "My Father My Lord," - "Hufshat Kayitz" (Summer Vacation) in Hebrew - which tells the story of relationships in the family of a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi, played by Assi Dayan. The film won the 2007 Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, but it is different from other successful Israeli films, and not only because all the characters in it are Haredim. Volach, whose entire cinema experience consisted of one year of film studies at the Open University, makes abundant use of long shots and creates an atmosphere of gloom, marked by long silences. His film evokes the cinema of Krzysztof Kieslwoski and Ingmar Bergman.

Why I was attracted to secularism from childhood
"At the age of three you start to learn aleph-bais. You are taken with a tallis [prayer shawl] covering your eyes, so you will not see forbidden sights. Not even modest women. To glory in holiness. For years I have the memory of the taxi from the house to the kindergarten, even though my eyes were covered. In retrospect I said: On that day I lost my faith. I always had a tendency to see life beyond the way it is defined. A friend of mine met me in Geula [an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood] and saw me without the Haredi apparel. He said, 'David, I'm going nuts. One day when we were 12 you were with us and we saw an advertisement of an ass on the bus. You explained to us that some asses are like pears and some are like apples.' "As a boy I would go to talk to Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He behaved like a good granddad. I asked him how he lived his religion - on the one hand, Orthodox faithfulness, and on the other hostility to the tradition. His answers did not satisfy me, and with good reason: he hated psychoanalysis, but the only thing that could have helped him was serious therapy. In my view he was the copywriter of the philosophers. He could sell you cheese without ever having tasted it. "After Ponevezh I went to the yeshiva of Rabbi Zilberman, where Uri Zohar [a comic and filmmaker who became religious] studied, in the Old City of Jerusalem. Zilberman did not want to send his children to institutions, so he opened a chaider [in modern Hebrew, heder, a religious elementary school] in which he taught. Then they grew up and so the yeshiva was built. They were not involved in Haredi politics, but were religious freaks. They wore tefillin [phylacteries] all the time. From my point of view, this was religious progress. Religion invites you to totality, and for me to study in his yeshiva was an invitation to totality in conformist conditions. "I had to find my own thing. I went to consult with Rabbi Schach [who was head of Ponevezh Yeshiva and leader of Lithuanian - non-Hasidic Haredi - Jewry]. I wanted his approval. He was an authority. To talk with Rabbi Schach is grandeur, a personal leap upward. I had also bothered him earlier with questions. But I did not hold him in regard; in my view he was not developed in the religious sphere. He engaged in Talmudic pilpul [hairsplitting] and was not one who thought and reflected. "Under Zilberman I achieved insane heights of worshiping God. I would shower at 4 A.M. with freezing cold water in the winter in order to eradicate desire. To devote myself. I also entered a boiling mikveh [ritual bath]. I imagined that it was Hell. Religious challenges in order to identify the larger-than-life. "I left after half a year. The totality gives you involvement, and involvement gives you knowledge. The two of them give you independence and freedom."

Why I recoiled from Haredi education
"What does it mean to be elitist? It means there are not many cultural authorities above you. The education at home was very elitist. My father, Yitzhak, was a talmid hakham [Torah scholar]. The status was made clear to me. Something triumphant. If you are imbued with the power of an elitist self-image, it will stay in you and will be expressed even if you move to a different side, society or culture. The way Robin Hood came from a rich family. "There is no politically correct in Haredi society. Everything is on the table. Like social classes in 18th- century England. It is accepted and legitimate to tell a girl, 'I cannot take you, because you are from a poor home.' You see it as an overt obligation to uphold your status. You are afraid of losing something of life. The commitment to a fantasy of supremacy frightens me. It shows me the success of the racist Haredi education: to persuade you not to be other. That is so Jewish, so Haredi. "When I wanted to explain the film's main character to Assi Dayan, I told him, 'Think of your family and do a conversion. Understand the elitism, the status. There is Moshe Dayan and his son is named Assi Dayan.' I did not want the righteousness of the character to steal the show. Righteousness comes from elitism."

Why I smoked on Shabbat
"Usually people say that those who lost their faith either have a conscience or are afraid. Not me. The first time I smoked on Shabbat I did it with love. I said a blessing: 'Blessed art thou, Lord, who sanctified us with thy commandments and commanded us to smoke on Shabbat.' "After I returned from Rabbi Zilberman's yeshiva, I started to develop a strong contempt for the Haredi way, contempt for the structure - your father figure is undermined. And then you slowly allow yourself to turn it into actions. You hook up with people who resemble you in conversations, in the life of idleness, in solidarity with the departure from the commitment. To walk on the street without a hat and a suit is a revolution. Off the wall. "I had a black leather kippa. I lived in Jerusalem in a rented apartment. One day a close friend said to me, 'You are neither here nor there, and you are 25. Maybe you should get married?' I set a deadline of four months: either I would move to Tel Aviv, take off the kippa completely and study film, or I would get married in a Haredi environment and maintain dress codes. "During those four months I constantly persuaded myself and mustered mental strength. On Friday evening I would take the car, park a long way off, have the Shabbat meal at my parents' place and then drive back to the apartment. But on one Shabbat, Leah, my mother, caught me smoking. I said, 'Ho, I so much want for you not to see this.' She said, 'That is the problem? To see?' For me it was the way to live, for them the way to grief. It broke them. A cigarette on Shabbat means you are in a bad way, that you are told that your son is sick with an advanced state of cancer and there is nothing to be done. The taboo is so strong that if you violate it you can do anything. The cigarette was the slope. As the disaster unfolded I understood that it was worthy. "In the family's eyes, leaving religion is betrayal, failure. That drove me crazy. It's no fun to make your parents feel distress. For them everything was a disaster. There was no prolonged process that had to be understood, only disaster after disaster. Betrayal of the essence, the community. There is tension between the Haredi and secular societies, and suddenly you switch sides. To be Haredi is not an independent experience; it is to stand up against the secular society. "Automatically my parents stopped talking to me. And that went on for many years. I felt I had paid a very high price, that I had no choice but to be perfect. A child loves his parents. I have 20 brothers and sisters, and my mother is reserved, sweet. You won't believe it, but she never shouted at us. 'That's not done,' she says, and that's all. A very special mother. I went through a very hard time. I felt like damaged goods, and my conscience said, 'What are you doing to your parents?' "I was completely alone in terms of family, but I had friends, a girl who went on this journey with me. We had love, dependency, ties. But it's always alone. Things like this you do alone. It is a fundamental change. I did not go to organizations like HILLEL ("The Right to Choose") and I did not connect with the idea of a foster family. But there is no quid pro quo for freedom. It's an ongoing climax. It's absolutely intoxicating. "Haredim ask me, 'Why be secular? If you want sex, go to prostitutes. If you want publicity, go to the Haredi media.' I replied, 'It has to do with the culture I want to live.'"

Why I drive a car every Yom Kippur
"I make a point of driving in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. It's very hard for me. I come back with tears and an aching heart. A thorn in the ass. It is an extremely difficult experience. I do not want to rebel against anyone. I am literally sick for a day after that. I feel like a criminal. "It is not a right, it is an obligation. A civic obligation. I can respect Yom Kippur more than anyone else. But in Israel it is very grave that on Yom Kippur everyone becomes Haredi. That all-of-us scares me very much. It exists on a religious foundation. To preserve all the ugly things in the religion: we are the Chosen People. That is an opening to suppression. Someone who drives on Yom Kippur should be exempt from all the civic obligations. He is like someone who has saved his country from an atomic bomb. With that act I suddenly feel that I am a citizen."

Why I am still a bit Haredi
"Sometimes I have a great hankering to eat kishke, gefilte fish, cholent. The heart hungers for it, not only the gut. It's a custom, with childhood memories, granddad, grandma, Shabbat, moments. Flavor and food, the mouth never moves away from suckling on the tit. It's not a longing for something that is not there; it's something that remains there. "My friends say, 'You removed the kippa but you stayed Haredi. Look at how you talk, look at your hand motions.' From their point of view, that is a type of failure. He chose not to be religious, but nothing helped: he remained religious. When I am stoned I speak the way I would sound today if I had stayed Haredi. "Do you know what a mental effort is needed to repress it, so people won't see it in you, so no sign will be left that will give you away, so people will not discern your hunger to integrate? A person doesn't want to be hungrier than the others at a meal."

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