Growing up, I saw that so many Israeli men around me were emotionally inept.Growing up in Israel, I was taught about the Holocaust from the first grade. Each year, around Holocaust Day, we would learn about it through movies, songs and literature. On the actual day, my classmates and I would take part in the annual commemoration ceremony. It would always take place in the big auditorium where a huge banner hung above the stage reading, “NEVER AGAIN.”
As a boy sitting in that auditorium, I understood that the man I was expected to become was strong and tough, competent and self-assured, stoic and controlled. I knew that this man would one day be expected to defend his people and his country.
The friends who sat near me at those Holocaust ceremonies did become tough, capable soldiers, many became war heroes, and I admired them. But as time went by, I began to understand that I wasn’t comfortable with this type of man – the man I was supposed to be. I came to realize that the strength demanded of me came at an extremely high cost. I saw that so many men around me were emotionally inept. They never expressed love or fear, even when tears were inevitable; the real Israeli man never cried.
As my generation came of age, some of us thought that things were changing. We saw that our wars no longer were about survival but about conquering our neighbors.
The victim we believed we were had become a victimizer.
For my friends and me, it felt bad. But for other Israeli men, it seemed necessary. Here we were signing peace agreements, but these men were terrified to admit that things were changing because if they were, the man they had worked so hard to become would be obsolete.
What would free the Israeli man from the old paradigm and the paralyzing expectations of the male he was supposed to be?
I thought of traveling back with this man, of taking him on a journey that would disarm him. To make him understand that the world is a different place, that the “NEVER AGAIN” sign can be folded up and put in a drawer. To help him realize that the changes were good and he could change with them. I wanted him to lay down his weapon and turn his energies to creating art and technology, to building communities and having a family. I wanted to create that journey in a film.
I remembered a very meaningful experience I had as a teenager when I traveled with an Israeli folk dancing troupe to perform in Germany. We danced our horas in front of crowds in Munich, Bonn and Stuttgart and stayed with the families of German kids our age in Karlsruhe. Every one of us expected to encounter the stern Germans we’d learned about in school – tall, humorless, blond men and women.
Instead, we met wonderful young people who were almost unbelievably good. They were politically progressive, socially aware and environmentally conscious. More than that, they were sweet.
For reasons I couldn’t fully understand then, most of the boys in our group could not realize that the Germans wanted to be our friends. They held back and were waiting for “the big fight” to happen. It never did. I had this strange feeling that a role reversal had taken place – that we Israelis had become the “bad guys” and the Germans were now the “good guys.”
As a young man, I went back to Germany and reconnected with some of the people I met on that first trip. After spending time with them, I realized that the good/bad dichotomy was not accurate. Something about these “good guys” was missing; they were too good. It didn’t seem real. Where was their anger, hostility and frustration? I felt that their goodness was as much a compensation for the past as our toughness and almost as debilitating.
What if I created a story in which an Israeli man of my generation interacts with a young German? What if I put them in a situation in which they would have to investigate each other, in which they would have no choice but to confront each other? What if the Israeli realized that his primal “enemy” does not exist any longer, that the enemy is also tormented by the past and is now holding out his hand in love?
Maybe together each will experience emotions they haven’t allowed themselves to feel. Maybe they’ll lose control. Maybe they’ll fall in love and be saved.
(Originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun)