Gei Oni, a film review

Gei Oni, directed by Dan Wolman
(2010, 105 minutes, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic with English subtitles)

— Ben Burrows

Gei Oni, a film by Israeli producer-director Dan Wolman, was shown this weekend at Drexel University as part of the Philadelphia Israeli Film Festival. Wolman introduced the film, and took questions afterward. A film of light or darkness, of wide expanses or of tightly enclosed spaces, the cinematography is gorgeous, and focuses the audience on its major characters, Fania and Yechiel, with its deceptively simple visual palette. Fania arrives in Jaffa from late 19th century Russia with her baby daughter in tow, accompanied by Shuvale Mandelstam, who may be her husband, but later claims to be her uncle. They are fleeing the Russian pogrom, which killed Fania’s parents, and which has driven her brother Lolik mad and silenced. They are surprised when their relative in Jerusalem has not come to meet them at the port, and Shuvale travels to Jerusalem — only to find his relative, a newspaper editor, has fallen on hard times — so the new immigrants must rely on the charity of strangers. While Fania waits for Shuvale to return, she meets Yechiel, a recently widowed local farmer with two children from his previous marriage. Yechiel is clearly stricken by Fania’s beauty, although he must know she possesses few household skills, when she causes a small explosion while lighting a lantern near the hotel where she waits for Shuvale to return. A marriage is quickly arranged and celebrated, but there is a dark secret which prevents Fania from consummating the relationship. She tells Yechiel that she still mourns the death of her daughter’s father. Yechiel decides to accept her reluctance for the time being, and accepts responsibility to support her brother Lolik. Shuvale retires from the scene, and the new family returns to Yechiel’s village of Jauni.

More after the jump.
Wolman admitted during questioning to a number of interests in making this movie, from the novel Gei Oni by Shulamit Lapid. He wanted to portray a time when Jews actually purchased land from their Arab neighbors. He was interested in the positive romantic aspects of the novel, and did not include Yechiel’s death from malaria or Fania’s remarriage, as dramatic over-complications. He wanted to portray the different Jewish, Syrian Christian, and Arab Muslim cultures coexisting uncomfortably, with different levels of communication layered by the different practical experiences of male and female experience. As I watched the story unfold, I could not help but see parallels between the story of Fania and Yechiel with the stories of Sarah and Avraham. For so long as they pretended that Sarah was Avraham’s sister, the patriarchal couple brought plague to the land of Egypt, where they were sojourning. For so long as Fania kept her secret shame from Yechiel, one misfortune after another befalls the little settlement of Jauni. The Zionist and Biblical patriarchal couples seem equally distant to the modern eye, and both situations are resolved by a return to the Land, the Divine provision of additional people and resources, and the discovery of their mutual love for one another. By the final scene, Yechiel and Fania have brought new life into the world, and the village has begun to produce wheat from their rocky and difficult terrain.

Gei Oni is celebrated as an early feminist Israeli novel. The Jewish Women’s Archive describes Lapid’s Fania and her place in Israeli literature:

After several collections of short stories, Lapid first gained readers’ attention with her popular novel, … , which was the first Israeli book to be labelled “feminist.” Its feminism is, however, displaced, the action taking place in Palestine of the 1890s, thereby establishing a precedent in Israeli fiction for masking feminist protest by historical distancing. Framed in a narrative about first-settlers struggling with a harsh motherland, in a culture that kept gender roles distinct and separate, Lapid’s heroine, Fania, stands out in her attempt to cross boundaries. She is both mother and merchant, venturing out on the road alone, even defending herself against armed Arab horsemen when attacked.

The author had a life of her own, and made a family with Tommy Lapid, of blessed memory. Tommy Lapid was a member of the Knesset, and a champion of secular Shinui Party, which fought the influence of haredi restrictions into everyday Israeli life. Later in life, Tommy Lapid directed Yad VaShem: Preserving the Past to Ensure the Future.

Gei Oni had a difficult time finding distribution in Israel, despite Wolman’s extensive oeuvre, and his track record at attracting audiences. After being rejected multiple times, Wolman at last found a distributor willing to show his film. When Wolman saw the terms of his contract however, he saw that he might never be paid a cent, after the costs of the distributor (never enumerated) were subtracted off the top. When Wolman asked for a more specific enumeration of costs, or for an estimate of audience head count which might be required to achieve some payback, none was forthcoming. It was then that Wolman decided to arrange for his own private distribution of the film, at theaters who had shown his films in the past. He wrote and emailed everyone he could, and urged his friends to see the film in the first two weeks, explaining his predicament. The guerrilla distribution plan worked, and the film’s success in Israel has brought the film here to Philadelphia.

We Are #1

The Daily Beast ranked American cities according to their yiddishkeit, as determined by their Jewish population, synagogues per capital, and number of Kosher restaurants. New York City took the top honors with 9.6% Jews and 504 Kosher restaurants. However, New York City only ranks #4 in terms of Synagogues per capita.

Who has the most synagogues per capita?


Palace Royal: A Kosher Gem In Philadelphia’s “Little Odessa”

  • 9859 Bustleton Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19115-2611  
  • Mon-Thu,Sun 11am-10pm; Fri 11am-3pm; Sat 8pm-12am
  • (215) 677-3323
  • Glatt Kosher with supervision by the Orthodox Vaad of Philadelphia

Ronit Treatman

Odessa is a city on the shores of the Black Sea in Ukraine.  Its port made it a gateway to trade between the Russian Empire and the rest of the world.  As a result it was a very diverse city with influences from Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Caucasus.  Philadelphia’s “Little Odessa” is centered on Bustleton Avenue in North East Philadelphia.  Cyrillic writing is everywhere, and there is Russian music playing in the stores.  Tucked away in one of the strip malls along Bustleton Avenue is Palace Royal, a glatt kosher “Russian” restaurant.  I invited my mother to join me there for lunch.

Stepping into the restaurant feels like arriving at a wedding.  The tables are elegantly set, with flowers everywhere.  The restroom is very clean.  There is a small stage set up with all the musical instruments for the restaurant’s band.  In the evenings during the week, there is jazz music.  Over the weekends there is Russian, Israeli, and all sorts of contemporary music.  We were welcomed warmly by our waiter and shown to our table.  The menu reflects the diversity of Odessa.  There are dishes from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Austria, Persia, Turkey, and Greece among others.  Everything is glatt kosher.

More after the jump.

It wasn’t always this way.  Steve Klipatch came to the U.S. from Odessa in 1992.  He grew up knowing that he was Jewish, but with no observance at all.  “It was safer for me not to participate in Jewish life at the time in Ukraine,” he explained.  A professional musician and chef, he opened a restaurant shortly after arriving in this country.  For ten years, he ran a restaurant that was not kosher.  With time, he developed a longing to learn about his Jewish tradition. Many of his friends and acquaintances who came here from the former USSR were also very interested in learning about their Jewish heritage.  Steve met Rabbi Boruch Shlain from Congregation Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center.  This Kollel has young Rabbis from the United States, Russia, and Israel.  Its mission is to for these Rabbis to share their knowledge with anyone in the community who is interested, no matter what language they speak.  Steve started learning Torah with Rabbi Shlain, who is originally from Belarus.  As a result of these studies, Steve became observant.  About three years ago, Steve Klipatch had an epiphany.  “I thought to myself, I am feeding other Jews; I should be feeding them kosher food,” he said.  Steve Klipatch decided to transform his restaurant into a glatt kosher establishment.  After he did this, his clients changed.  He used to get more Russians.  Now more Americans and Israelis came to his establishment.  Russians who are becoming more observant are now attracted to Palace Royal as well.  

There is a part of his heritage that Steve Klipatch did get in Odessa and is keeping.  He has the recipes from his grandmothers’ kitchens.  At Palace Royal, the gefilte fish, Challah, Borscht, chicken noodle soup, blintzes, and cakes are cooked from recipes handed down in the family.

We started our meal with a very traditional Ukrainian dish, Blintzes with Salmon roe caviar.  The crepes were paper thin, and the golden orbs of salmon caviar burst with flavor over our tongues.  A Levantine specialty that we could not pass up was the Kubbeh with mushrooms.  This stuffed bulgur croquette arrived at our table perfectly crispy and crunchy, with a deliciously flavorful filling.  We had to try the Assorted Pickled Vegetable Platter, a combination of crunchy half sour cucumbers, half sour cabbage and carrot slaw, and half sour cherry tomatoes.  It was delicious and refreshing! This was followed by a Turkish dish called Ki Kil’ with meat, which is a flat bread filled with spiced minced meat.  It was very flavorful and satisfying.  We concluded our meal with two desserts.  I got the homemade blintzes with pareve ice cream and berries.  My mom got the rugalah with ice cream and fruits.  My blintzes were delicious.  When my mother bit into her chocolate rugalah, she exclaimed, “Wow!”  She told me that in that instance she was transported back to Rishon LeZion, Israel in 1952, to her mother’s kitchen.  This was the exact same cake that her Polish-born mother used to bake for Shabbat.  I saw a tear glistening in the corner of her eye as she told me that she hasn’t tasted a cake like this in twenty-five years.  

I would like to come back with my family on a Saturday or Sunday night, when the room is full and the band is playing.  We can bring our own kosher wine or vodka.  There are so many delicious foods left to taste on the menu.  Maybe I will get to meet Rabbi Shlain.  It is a glatt kosher restaurant, so he can indulge.  And the Rabbi’s favorite dish? Shnitzel.