Mendy (Oren Rehany) and Sasha (Tchelet Semel) in The Holy Land (Courtesy photo)

Exploring an Israeli conflict within the soul of a young kosher

The Holy Land, whose title oozes with irony, begins with an image of the burning of an Israeli flag. "Men in the Middle East are primitive and stupid," observes a prostitute named Sasha (Semel), a recent arrival from Ukraine. "I hope Jews and Arabs kill each other off until nobody is left."

Despite its politically provocative opening, The Holy Land is not primarily about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Another conflict, between religious and secular partisans, has caused almost as much turmoil within the Jewish state. But in his first feature film, writer-director Eitan Gorlin, an Orthodox American Jew who lost his faith while living in Israel, explores yet another struggle - within the soul of a 20-year-old Jew who is torn between the strict piety in which he has grown up, and the temptations of the flesh.

Menachem "Mendy" Weinbaum (Rehany), the son of a rabbi, still lives with his parents in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox community outside Tel Aviv. Early in the film, we spy him masturbating in the bathroom before being summoned for the ceremonial shabbat dinner. "God lives in your dick," an Arab D.H. Lawrence later observes, but reconciling the sacred and the profane remains a challenge for the young kosher Jew.

When Mendy is caught reading Siddhartha instead of Talmud in the house of prayer, a rabbi advises him to get the evil instinct out of his system by visiting a harlot. So one night he wanders off to Tel Aviv and timorously makes his way into a topless bar called the Love Boat. Taking him into a back room, handy Sasha makes quick work of Mendy. But, like Emil Jannings, the prudish professor in The Blue Angel who is smitten with Marlene Dietrich's cabaret singer, Mendy comes back again for more. Infatuated with Sasha, he begins to plan a life with her, while she, a tough professional, does not know quite how to deal with affection in a customer. "Nice boys don't make whores wet," she tries to convince Mendy, and herself.

Another of Sasha's clients, a former war photographer named Mike (Stein), invites Mendy and the Love Boat women to visit the lively bar he owns in Jerusalem. The Holy Land is set in 2000, before the current Intifadah, when it was still possible for Mike's Place to be a vibrant gathering as varied as Israel itself - Jews, Muslims, Christians, natives, immigrants, vagrants, leftists, West Bank settlers, intellectuals, and uncouth drunks. Under the pretext of furthering his religious studies, Mendy moves to Jerusalem and gets a job tending bar for Mike. "In Jerusalem, you feel God everywhere," says his father as he gives his blessing to the move. But in Jerusalem, where Sasha, too, comes to stay, Mendy feels God as Eros and feels guilty for his transgressions against sacred Jewish law. Soon enough, he loses his earlocks, the curls of hair that signify piety.

The Holy Land
Dir. & writ. Eitan Gorlin; feat. Oren Rehany, Tchelet Semel, Saul Stein, Albert Illuz, Aryeh Moskona (NR)
In the current crisis of escalating violence, it is hard to imagine two of Mike's Place regulars in particular hanging out together and becoming buddies. A militant Jewish nationalist who is committed to rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and who calls himself the Exterminator (Moskona) befriends Mendy. He is also on friendly terms with Razi (Illuz), whom Mike describes as "the only Arab who likes Dylan." Razi is making a fortune selling West Bank real estate to Jewish settlers and smuggling drugs and arms in and out of the territories. In the company of Mike, Sasha, Razi, and the Exterminator, Mendy wanders into areas between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River that he - like the viewer - should have reason to be wary of.

A bit of a travelogue and, ultimately, discordantly, a thriller, The Holy Land seems too accommodating to its non-Israeli viewer: Characters often break into English after beginning their sentences in Hebrew or Arabic. That might make sense with Mendy's mother or Mike, both of them immigrants from America, but the only justification for having other characters speak English is to have them understood in New York, Los Angeles, and San Antonio. The Holy Land tells an ancient story about savoring and souring on the forbidden fruit. It does not presume to provide an inside view of the Orthodox Jewish community, only of one sheepish schlemiel who goes astray. •

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