NEW YORK — The American Jewish Committee’s ACCESS initiative offers programs and conversations with young Jewish professionals, and boy howdy did I feel like Methuselah himself when I arrived at the AJC’s Manhattan HQ on Tuesday for a podcast taping. No less than four very eager, sharply-dressed, bright-eyed young women were there to warmly greet me. Anyone worried that Jewish advocacy agencies are in danger of aging-out ought to put that fear aside.
I was there to watch a recording of “People of the Pod,” the AJC’s collaborative podcast with The Times of Israel. This evening’s featured guest would be film and television director Joseph Cedar, discussing his new HBO project “Our Boys” with host Seffi Kogen.
“When we realized Joseph Cedar was coming on the show, we figured why not make it into a mini ACCESS event?” one of the night’s many organizers said to me. I regret I didn’t get her name, as my head was already swimming at the realization that no one else in the room remembered a time when phones hung on a wall. Plus I was eyeing the rugelach. But after a little schmoozing (I overheard a young woman say, “No, right now I’m just pre-Aliyah,” as if it were a college major or medical condition) the guest of honor entered, ensuring I wasn’t the only 20th century dinosaur.
Joseph Cedar, a 51-year-old with roots both in New York City and in Israel, is best known for his 2011 film “Footnote,” cinema’s first (and probably last) dramatic comedy about Talmudic study. It had its debut in the main competition at Cannes and was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film (as was his earlier movie “Beaufort”).
His 2016 project, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” is a rare thing in life: perfection. Though based on an original story, it has the feel of an adapted Isaac Bashevis Singer story, and, as I discussed with him years ago, is notable for capturing Richard Gere eating pickled herring in a synagogue’s basement.
So what’s Cedar been up to lately? Something quite different.
As he explained to Kogen during the “People of the Pod” taping, the HBO series “Our Boys” (which, as of this writing, still has two more episodes of 10 to air) began as an assignment. HBO approached Hagai Levi (creator of “In Treatment,” among other things), hoping he could do something about “the summer of 2014 in Israel.” Levi came to Cedar and then they both went to Palestinian writer/director Tawfik Abu-Wael. Together they talked and eventually found the lens through which they wanted to tell the story of this time period.
And that led to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing them of being anti-Semitic.
“It was great for publicity,” Cedar admitted with a smile when Kogen brought the controversy up, but was quick to add that the charge has to be viewed in the context of Netanyahu being in the middle of an election campaign when he made it. “It’s cynical, and harmful,” he added.
Though Netanyahu’s claim was unexpected (and one I personally disagree with), it didn’t come completely out of nowhere. The first episode of “Our Boys” begins with showing how the entirety of Israeli society was caught up in the kidnapping and murder of three teens by Hamas terrorists. Sadly, when the bodies were discovered, it led to moments of unsavory public speech (“Death to the Arabs!” a large crowd chants in the show, as they did in reality) then the reprisal killing and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old living in East Jerusalem. The bulk of the program (though I should disclose that I’ve only seen the first three episodes) is a police procedural, focused on a Shin Bet agent (played by Shlomi Elkabetz) tracking down Abu Khdeir’s killers.
What “Our Boys” doesn’t show — as an AJC audience member pointed out during the Q&A portion — was how most Israelis didn’t go a day in the summer of 2014 without racing into a bomb shelter.
The series does show how Abu Khdeir’s murderers were rogue elements of Israeli society, but it does not (at least thus far) show how the three boys’ killers were considered by Palestinian society.
Accusations of being one-sided were not argued down, but put into context. Cedar reminded that “Our Boys” has three creators, each with his own point of view. If there is a spectrum between the Israeli right and left, he says, imagine extending that from the Israeli right all the way through the Palestinian right.
Cedar also hopes that the series will force Jews and Israelis to question whether conceiving of themselves as “victims” does more harm than good for a tribal narrative.
On a lighter note, Cedar explained why the show was called “Our Boys.” Original ideas for the title included “Flesh of Our Flesh” and “Summer of 2014,” but eventually all parties settled on “The Boys,” which remains the Hebrew title. But HBO reminded them that Seth Rogen had a show called “The Boys,” so “the” became “our.” Personally, I think it has a nice poetry to it.
Though I’ve only seen three of the eventual 10 hours, I can say the show, while upsetting, is gripping, emotional and extremely well-made. While I do understand why some, particularly if they were in Israel in 2014, may wish to shrug it off, thinking it “one-sided,” I fall back on a familiar argument. This is an Israeli project that dares to be self-critical, in the hope of finding some kind of higher truth. That is, in my opinion, a noble and Jewish aim.
I have seen approximately four billion motion pictures from the Arab world, many of which are brilliant. However, I can’t think of too many that offer more than a Planck-length of doubt about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is reason enough to side with “Our Boys.”