Academic journal article Shofar

Israeli Mothers in Film: "Re-Visioning" Culture, Engendering Autonomy

Academic journal article Shofar

Israeli Mothers in Film: "Re-Visioning" Culture, Engendering Autonomy

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

It would be comforting to think that we swim in culture like fish in water: simply nourished, supported, sustained. But contemporary scholarship tells a more complicated story. Culture has become for recent theorists a site not only of orderly systems that help us to grasp the meanings of our lives, and that teach us how to behave, but also a context in which "disjunctures and contradictions" are largely taken for granted.1 Not always compliant, we seem now to filter the culture in which we swim, to resist or negotiate as often as we accept cultural norms. And much of this activity may not be fully conscious, for we internalize elements of our culture and take its imperatives to heart-participating, whether we will or no, in practices that may not always validate our sense of ourselves, or secure our comfort in the world. This more ambiguous, more problematic, and more deeply conflicted sense of the intersection between individuals and their cultural contexts comes vividly to life in many Israeli films that feature mothers.

The power of films to represent cultural experience is rooted, anthropologists noted long ago, in the peculiar reflexivity of human performance. Because we are what Victor Turner called "self performing animals," we reveal ourselves to ourselves and to one another in performance; collectively, "one set of human beings may come to know themselves better through observing . . . performances generated and presented by another set of human beings."2 Like the earliest ritual dramas, which both sustained "social and cultural principles and forms" and also examined them, sometimes turning "them upside down,"3 films give us complex performative representations in which elements of character and narrative can become culturally reflexive. This paper extracts from several Israeli films one character: the mother-who becomes culturally reflexive as she brings into focus the issue of gender in Israeli culture, clarifying its effects on mothers and their daughters.

The first section of this paper contextualizes these films by examining, in the work of historians and sociologists, gendered assumptions that persist in the culture of the early decades. The second section looks at seven films set in the first three decades of the state's existence, selecting elements within the films that highlight the issue of gender. Characters foreground this issue as they perform the particular vulnerability of mothers to cultural imperatives apparently nourished by gendered assumptions. These films explore in their own time the often unspoken imperatives that had shaped the lives of Israeli women. Made between the 1970s and the first decade of the new century, the films perform what Adrienne Rich once called a "re-visioning" of the past: an "act of looking back," "of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction." This was, she believed, "an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves."4 From a perspective developed decades later than the time these seven films portray, they "re-vision" the early years of the state from a "new critical direction." But the effect of the films is less critical than diagnostic: as filmmakers uncover the effects of cultural assumptions on particular characters, the films become productively, culturally reflexive. They enable viewers, as Miri Talmon has pointed out, "to negotiate our identities, discover who we have become."5

Here, discussion of these films "reads," through the lens they provide, and with the help of social historians, the experience of characters who play primary, maternal, roles in the films. These characters belong to different el- ements of Israeli society. Some of them are recent immigrants: Mizrahim, or Holocaust survivors; others belong to the Ashkenazi majority. Every film is, of course, preoccupied with issues other than gender. But this essay attempts to lift clear only the elements of character and narrative that expose the intersection in which mothers experience and respond to the gendered imperatives of Israeli culture. …

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