Filmmaker Joseph Cedar has won awards and acclaim in Israel, Europe, and the United States, and has twice been a finalist for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Yet the day before the Academy Awards, a Shabbat, he walked several miles to a media event and addressed the crowd from a seat to which a microphone had been affixed beforehand, while his fellow panelists used hand-held microphones. This might make him seem like an American Orthodox dream come true, yet Cedar himself often wonders if the same avenues would have been open to him had his parents not made aliyah in 1973, when he was five. He looks at American Orthodoxy and sees that it has largely given up on attempting this balancing act, either by leaving the religion to assimilate and pursue ambitions, or by withdrawing from the broader cultural and professional world into a more exclusivist religious environment. He credits his sense of balance to his parents and the environment they chose to raise their family: “Their move to Israel meant I grew up with a values system that turned out to be superior to the one I would have adopted had they not made aliyah.”
Cedar does not consider himself an oleh. Aliyah, implies choice, and, as he puts it, “Nobody asked me.” He does not even consider himself American-Israeli, as his social milieu growing up in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood was almost entirely Hebrew-speaking. As Joseph and his five younger siblings grew up, even his parents’ home became Israeli. Yet American and world culture remained part and parcel of the home. “My parents exposed me to everything,” Joseph recalls, “not just American culture. The soundtrack of our house consisted of Broadway musicals, an American art form, but there were other things as well.”
Though he envisions a primarily Israeli audience when he makes his films, he acknowledges that this exposure, plus the additional years Joseph spent living in the US – as a student at NYU and when his father, a renowned molecular biologist, was on sabbatical – helped him consider a broader audience. His first two films (“Time of Favor”, 2000, and “Campfire”, 2004) explore aspects of the religious Zionist culture in which he was raised. They were acclaimed in Israel, but registered mild interest outside. His third film (“Beaufort”, 2007) examined the futility of Israel’s military presence in Lebanon. It won awards at major international film festivals. “Footnote” (2011), Cedar’s most acclaimed film, to date, is set in Hebrew University’s Talmud department and depicts the petty rivalries, competing theories, and sense of futility that characterize arcane academic disciplines. It won the award for best screenplay at Cannes and, like “Beaufort”, was an Oscar finalist.
Cedar made aliyah young enough to become a full-fledged, unhyphenated Israeli, a home-grown insider, but one who has been enriched by the culture, values, and religious sensibilities of his parents’ home. In this vein, he reminds us that the most profound way that Anglo olim make a difference in Israel is through their children and unborn generations who will be part of the Jewish future in the Jewish state.