Happy Birthday Israel – aka review of “Off the Beaten Track in Israel” (Israel, 1953, 28 min)

Happy 72nd birthday Israel! Today is Yom Ha’atzmaut, commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. I celebrated it  by watching a 28 minutes long documentary or travel video titled “Off the Beaten Track in Israel”, made in 1953. You can watch it below and read my review even further below. If you want to dig deeper and watch old movies about Israel I recommend checking in the collection of 51 short movies titled “State of Israel: Israel’s Birth by The Spielberg Archive. 

Nowadays if you hear the phrase “off the beaten track” you expect to learn about wild characters, unusual places, surprising events. I assume the expression had the same connotation in the 1950’s when this movie was made too. However when thinking of a location what constitutes “unusual” might be very different based on one’s personal experience, expectations and travel history; i.e. whether the viewer was at the same place or not. I personally would not have considered about 80% of the movie “off the beaten track”, because I have been to the same places. Despite my familiarity with some of the places it was fascinating to see how they looked 70 years ago. I also can extrapolate that back then these were indeed exotic spots for an American tourist. 

Off the Beaten Track in Israel

Then there was the other 20% which was new for me too. The one I enjoyed the most and at the same time aroused my curiosity the most was why was the segment with the wedding dance and music of the Bukharan Jews cut so much longer than the rest of the short clips the movie was made up of. It took some digging, but I think I found the reason: the writer liked it. The documentary is clearly scripted, although the story line tried to make it look like a natural development. The story says that an average, yet curious dentist from Wisconsin does the standard tour of Israel first. He has “been taken to the theater in Tel-Aviv,  danced in a fishermen settlement in Galilea,  stood on the mountain where King Saul battled the Philistines,  swam in the gulf where King Solomon’s navy put out the sea, spent Hanukkah in the Judean hills and Christmas in Nazareth.” The movie picks up after the official tour ends and he befriends a 13 year old local boy who shows the other side of Israel to him. 

The script was written by Millard Lampell, a name that meant nothing to me. Scouting online I learned that  in his 20’s he was a founding member of the folk music group Almanac Singers, along with Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. His background as a folk music enthusiast must have been the reason for the length and details of the fascinating Bukharan  scene. After the Almanac Singers disbanded Lampell become a scriptwriter for movies and television. He wrote for more than a dozen shows, but I’ve only seen (bits of) “Rich Man, Poor Man”. I can only guess what he lived from in the 1950’s, when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and got blacklisted. My guess includes writing for non-American films, such as this one, produced by the “Israel Government Tourist Office”.

I appreciated both the content of the narration and its presentation by the only voice on the film, probably Stephen L. Sheriff‘s who produced and directed the piece. Sure, some of the writing sounds too formulaic by today’s standards, but it was effective and engaging enough storytelling. I am not going to list all the places the dentist and his young, self-appointed guide visited; watch and enjoy it for yourself. A few comments are necessary though:

  • They visited several Christian places of worship and not a single Jewish one. As a Jewish person I found a bit irritating the multiple references to the glorious and heroic Crusaders. 
  • There were lots of references to the Bible (which is quite natural in the Holy Land) and about half of them from the New Testament. 
  • Past and contemporary topics were presented about 70-30 ratio. Meaning, the majority of the visuals were about places with historical importance but also devoted time to show (off) modern Israel too.
  • They covered at least 15 locations, in the whole territory of Israel, which seemed like in an impossible short time: two days. 
  • The movie covered in a sympathetic (albeit Orientalist) manner the Druze, the Bedouins and the Bukaharan Jews while the orthodox Ashkenazi Jews were mostly referred to as relics of the past.
  • The quality of the footage on YouTube is not high definition, I wish I could see more details sometimes. 
  • My favorite sentence from the movie was about Uri, the young boy: “Like any 13 years old he was a bit of a show-off, bit of  a clown and bit of a poet; except being Israeli he had a passion for the past.”
  • My favorite concept: “finding the lost art of discovery.”

Watching this movie helped to reach my goal: learn and watch a bit of Israel’s history on its birthday. May it help you too.

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