Sharper Vision

Sharper Vision


By Eetta Prince-Gibson
Extract of an article in Issue 26 of The Jerusalem Report
April 14, 2008

"I come to Israel often," says Jonathan Lopatin, a soft-spoken former investment banker and a current Jewish activist and student of Judaism from New York. "And one day, as I was watching American tourists in a hotel lobby, I suddenly realized that we need to think about the relationship that American Jews have with Israel," he recounts in an interview with The Report. "It's a difficult and complex relationship and I wanted to make a film that would examine, and even embrace, that complexity."

The result of his impulse is the documentary, "Eyes Wide Open," which premiered in late January in New York City and in late February in Israel. Directed by Jerusalem-based filmmaker Paula Weiman-Kelman, scripted by journalist and longtime Jerusalem Report columnist Stuart Schoffman and produced by Lopatin, the film serves as a provocative call for a reappraisal of the connections between Israeli and American Jews, as Israel approaches its 60th anniversary.

"I would love to be non-conflicted about this place and about Jewish peoplehood," says a young American woman tourist to the camera. "But I am conflicted. And so it's the constant tension of trying to figure out what it all means - it's a part of who I am."

Lopatin, who says that he grew up in a non-religious home but has now become more involved in learning about his own Judaism, is currently studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, having retired from his position as a partner in the Goldman-Sachs Investment Bank. Today, he is active in several liberal organizations, including the New Israel Fund, on whose board he serves.

Echoing the ambivalence of the young woman tourist, he describes his motivations for initiating and producing the film. "I grew up with a formula about what you were supposed to think and feel about Israel. It was a top-down model, and maybe it worked at that time, because it was a certain period in history."

"We were taught to be loyal and connected - but not too connected, because then I might come and live here, and then I would have been considered crazy. I was taught to cheer for Israel and not to be too critical. There are times when I'm thrilled to play that role. I have '16-year-old moments' when I'm delighted to feel hopelessly romantic about Israel. But most times, my feelings are conflicted.

Israel does things that I don't understand, or don't agree with, or don't approve of - politically, or socially, or religiously - but I understand that my feelings are no less strong just because they are complicated."

And because the issues are complex, he says, the movie refrains from providing a formula for what the relationship between Israel and American Jews "should" be. "Eyes Wide Open," he hopes, will generate a new, more realistic and more pragmatic discussion of the role that Israel can, should, and does play in American Jews' identity.

Paula Weiman-Kelman's distinctive yet unobtrusive style, as notable in "Eyes Wide Open" as it was in her earlier films (which include "Blessings: Roommates in Jerusalem," about developmentally delayed adults in Jerusalem and "Rights of Passage: The Spiritual Journey of Alice Shalvi"), allows for a sensitive exploration of these difficult questions. Using a small, hand-held camera and natural lighting, she is able to move into personal and small spaces in an intimate way. The film has almost no narration, allowing the American Jews to speak, each for himself or herself, and for their communities.

The title of the movie refers to a poem written by the popular Israeli poet Natan Alterman (1910-1970) and well-known to Israelis in a musical version sung by pop singer Arik Einstein. Avoid "rose-tinted glasses" it says, and look at the world with eyes wide open, seeing things as they are.

Yet, as this movie shows, few American Jews - and, for that matter, few of the Israeli Jews who incidentally appear in the movie - are actually able to do that.

Some keep their eyes tightly shut, refusing to see any of the reality of the sovereign state that surrounds them, clinging to the myth of the heroic, King David-like Israel. Others are wide-eyed, seeing their own dreams through the windows of their tour buses. Some avert their eyes from the difficulties or constrict their vision to see only what they want, or need, to see.

The complex relationship of the kind that Lopatin has woven with Israel seems far too demanding for most American Jewish tourists. It is only towards the end of the hour-long film that one middle-aged woman seems to arrive at a more nuanced view.

Reminiscing nostalgically over the early years of the state, she recalls she experienced such a strong feeling of purpose and togetherness. Recognizing the difficulties that Israel now experiences, noting the social inequalities and poverty, she says, "This trip [to Israel] has been traumatic. Because I realize that the reality of Israel is different. But you can love profoundly, while at the same time knowing what the realities and difficulties are."

"Eyes Wide Open" follows different individuals' and groups' journeys to and from Israel: an ultra-Orthodox couple who come to Jerusalem every year to feel spiritually uplifted, Birthright groups, synagogue missions, a tour sponsored by the New Israel Fund.

Some come in search of identity, such as the young woman from Hawthorne Woods, Illinois, who says that to her, history usually seems more like fiction, but here everything "feels real." Others come on a spiritual quest that cannot be found anywhere else, such as Rabbi Roly Matalon from Congregation B'nei Jeshrun, who exhorts his congregants to not merely go through the landscape of Israel, but to allow the land of Israel to go through them. Yet others come to reconcile with Palestinians in the name of the Jewish people, or to be what one young man describes "as Jewish as it gets" by, rebuilding a Palestinian home "with people who are supposed to be my enemy and are facing terrible injustices at the hands of a powerful enemy [Israel]."

Once You Visit Israel, Everything Looks Different