ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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At impromptu Tel Aviv vigil, accidental documentarian covers war’s ‘little stories’

In under two minutes, American filmmaker Eli Katzoff captures spontaneous ‘1,300 Candle Vigil’ in Dizengoff Square, recording how a united Israel mourns together in public

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

  • A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
    A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
  • A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. The sign reads 'No more words.' (Eli Katzoff)
    A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. The sign reads 'No more words.' (Eli Katzoff)
  • A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
    A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
  • A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
    A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
  • A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
    A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
  • A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)
    A scene from the 1300 Candle Vigil in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023. (Eli Katzoff)

American tourist Eli Katzoff stumbled onto a moving, candle-lit vigil in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square Thursday night. As a professional filmmaker, he took out his camera and began documenting the spontaneous, grassroots-organized moment.

“It just came out of nowhere,” he tells The Times of Israel. He made a few inquiries and learned that a few Tel Avivians had come up with the idea of what they called the “1,300 Candle Vigil” and started the temporary public memorial, partnering with the Youth of Light organization to obtain the original candles. Local residents caught wind and started to bring candles of their own.

“They quickly came and lit the candles and then they left, then let the community come in and do their thing,” he relates. In the Israeli news cycle, it was a blip. Biking in the area on Thursday night, had he blinked, he would have missed it.

“To watch that unfold was beautiful and powerful, so I took out my camera and started filming and I did some interviews; it was an incredibly powerful moment,” Katzoff says.

The resulting video is a stunning two-minute film that captures the pain, pride and unity of this unique Israeli moment.

A woman describes her impetus for coming out to Dizengoff Square. To the strains of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, being sung in the background, she says, “I’m trying to find a moment to cry and I’m trying to go to places where I feel like I’ll be able to, and I want to let it out. I feel like it’s too big.”

Another young man describes his own cocktail of emotions: “What I’m feeling? I’m feeling proud, I’m feeling grateful, I’m feeling humility, I’m feeling just a great sense of family — it’s nothing short of beautiful. It’s the best thing I’ve seen in a while,” he says.

Filmed with the iconic water fountain in the background, to close the video, a young woman describes the moment for her: “Israelis are filled with love, everyone wants to help each other and be there with each other. So being here tonight, it gives me a lot of strength and a lot of hope, because we’ve lost most of our hope this last week,” she says.

It’s not the first video Katzoff has made this week with an eye to both document this tumultuous time and to help explain it abroad.

Katzoff, 38, is a documentary filmmaker and photographer from the Boston area who has been traveling back and forth between the US and Israel for the last few years. “I saw how [our] community was coming together, and I saw the news cycle covering all the bombs and explosions… I felt useless. My Hebrew is terrible and I can barely navigate around,” he said.

On the morning of Saturday, October 7, 2023, when the Hamas terror group launched their multi-pronged assault from Gaza, Katzoff was on a hike in southern Israel near Mitzpe Rimon. That morning would result in scenes of horrific slaughter and stories of extreme bravery and would start a new and different war for Israel.

“I went on a three-day hike with about 25 people in the Mitzpe Rimon area, and one day the booms woke us up. We hiked up a mountain top and we turned on our phones… It was a cacophony of buzzes and rings. There was something happening,” Katzoff relates.

He had arrived just two weeks before on his latest trip, but once the war began, he decided to stay and use what he calls his “powerful skill, which is visual imagery.”

“So I started just documenting little human stories, like a man opening his pizza shop because he couldn’t stand to watch the news anymore,” he says. “The next thing you know, I am back in Tel Aviv and I get a call from a friend saying, ‘Hey, can you drop off some beef jerky for us, we are on reserve duty.’”

“So I drove out to near Gaza… [the soldiers] were in a fortified kindergarten and they wanted to speak,” he explains.

The resulting short film captures the nuances and realities of young Israeli soldiers on the verge of battle, bunkered down in a school built to withstand missiles because it is so near the Gaza border. In the poignant end scene, one soldier explains how he already knows at least five people who have been killed or kidnapped by Hamas, and he breaks down.

That soldier, after, came up to Katzoff and thanked him, explaining that that moment was the first time he was able to truly cry for his losses.

“One thing I’ve noticed… people don’t have time to mourn, they just sprang into action. There’s a general feeling like that,” Katzoff says.

Katzoff, who is used to having a 5-10 person film crew on shoots, is now dedicated to documenting “with whatever equipment I can,” the little stories that are unfolding in Israel now, he says.

“The subtext of all of this is that I am seeing a society that is so good at coming together in these times. And that contrasts with the US, where there is more isolation. There you take care of yourself and your family, but as a society, it’s not the same,” Katzoff says.

“My goal is to keep on doing it, just keep getting these things out,” he says.

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