Chyutin, Dan. A Hidden Light: Judaism, Contemporary Israeli Film, and the Cinematic Experience, PhD dissertation. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2015.
Throughout its brief history, Israeli cinema largely ignored Jewish religious identity, aligning itself with Zionism’s rejection of Judaism as a marker of diasporic existence. Yet over the past two decades, as traditional Zionism slowly declined, and religion’s presence became more pronounced in the public sphere, Israeli filmmakers began to treat Judaism as a legitimate cinematic concern. The result has been a growth in the number of Israeli films dealing with the realities of devoutly religious Jews, amounting to a veritable “Judaic turn” in Israel’s cinematic landscape. As of now, this “turn” has received meager attention within Israeli film scholarship. The following, then, addresses this scholarly lack by offering an extensive investigation of contemporary Judaic-themed Israeli cinema.
This intervention pursues two interconnected lines of inquiry. The first seeks to analyze the corpus in question for what it says on the Judaic dimension of present-day Israeli society. In this context, this study argues that while a dialectic of secular vs. religious serves as the overall framework in which these films operate, it is habitually countermanded by gestures that bring these binary categories together into mutual recognition. Accordingly, what one finds in such filmic representations is a profound sense of ambivalence, which is indicative of a general equivocation within Israeli public discourse surrounding the rise in Israeli Judaism’s stature and its effects on a national ethos once so committed to secularism.
The second inquiry follows the lead of Judaic-themed Israeli cinema’s interest in Jewish mysticism, and extends it to a film-theoretical consideration of how Jewish mystical thought may help illuminate particular constituents of the cinematic experience. Here emphasis is placed on two related mystical elements to which certain Israeli films appeal—an enlightened vision that unravels form and a state of unity that ensues. The dissertation argues that these elements not only appear in the Israeli filmic context, but are also present in broader cinematic engagements, even when those are not necessarily organized through the theosophic coordinates of mysticism. Furthermore, it suggests that this cycle’s evocation of such elements is aimed to help its national audience transcend the ambivalences of Israel’s “Judaic imagination.”