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Classic Israeli Movie of the Week #2: Chagigah b’Snooker!

Kvodo ha-Rav
Kvodo Rabbi Chanukah Ben Moshe Halevi

Before you read this post, I want you to make sure that you have a platter of bourekasim at hand. Cheese, potato, mushroom, I don’t care (although I’m a potato bourekas man myself), but it just wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss sirtei bourekas without the accompaniment of the food that gave its name to an entire genre.

Okay. Now that you’re adequately equipped with flakey sesame seed-y stuffed Mediterranean goodness, it’s time to learn about that uniquely Israel cinematic creation, the seret bourekas – the bourekas movie! The bourekas movies were perhaps the first major Israeli cultural acknowledgment of the Mizrachi population, whose artistic output and cultural identity had been largely shunted aside by the then-dominant Ashkenazi-secular-socialist-kibbutz-Mapai axis, which was interested more in filling up towns in Israel’s sparsely populated regions than listening to musika mizrachit.

The classic bourekas movies grew out of a collaboration between generally Ashkenazi writers and directors (Menachem Golan, Boaz Davidson) and Sephardi/Mizrachi comedians and actors (Ze’ev Revach, Yehuda Barkan, Yehoram Gaon, Shaike Levi, Aryeh Elias) and balanced light, goofy comedy (vicious satire like that of Ephraim Kishon was generally absent) with simple love stories, often between a tough Sephardi boy with a heart of gold from the wrong side of the tracks and an Ashkenazi girl whose parents don’t want her to be seen with an ars. They usually end with all sides reconciling in time for the inevitable wedding, because in the world of sirtei bourekas, love always triumphs, which is part of what makes them so endearing.

The undisputed king of the genre, and a prime contender for most beloved Israeli movie ever, is the 1975 classic Chagigah b’Snooker. Snooker has become a pillar of Israeli pop culture, which is readily apparent to anyone keeping their eyes open: go into any small Israeli workingman’s restaurant or falafel kiosk or bakery from Metulla to Eilat, and you’re likely to see a big print of a bug-eyed black hatter with bottlecap lenses stuffing his face with ktzitzot – a tribute to the movie’s most hilarious scene.

Crossdressing
Chanukah makes an inexplicably successful attempt to seduce Salvador

Chanukah (Ze’ev Revach) and Gavriel (Yehuda Barkan), a pair of generally disreputable bums, own a Tel Aviv beachfront cafe and pool hall called “Moadon Snooker,” which seems to exist mostly so that Chanukah can trick customers into betting big money against Gavri in a game of snooker – Gavri, of course, is a bona fide pool champ and always cleans up. But one day, they make the mistake of conning the nephew of an expatriate Israeli mobster named Salvador, and Salvador comes to the Snooker for revenge and bests Gavri in a game, leaving Chanukah and Gavri owing him a massive amount of money.

Chanukah wants Gavri to pay the debt by selling the valuable family home, which sits on land intended for development, but, in a deliciously only-in-the-movies plot twist, Gavri’s deceased father specified in his will that the house could only be sold once Gavri’s brother Azriel get married. While Gavriel is a thug and an ignoramus, Azriel is a modest, humble, and extremely pious fruit seller who takes care of stray puppies in his spare time – and also Gavri’s twin. Meanwhile, Salvador is trying to get his blockheaded nephew Moshon into an arranged marriage with Yona (Nitza Shaul), the lovely daughter of a prominent rabbi – but Yona loves Azriel, who is too shy to reveal his feelings even though his religiosity and good-heartedness make him the perfect match for the rabbi’s daughter.

Hijinks ensue.

The movie is essentially a vehicle for Ze’ev Revach to do what Ze’ev Revach does best – dress and act ridiculously. Chanukah dresses as a woman (Israelis love drag for some reason) and tries to seduce Salvador and, most memorably, disguises himself as the Jerusalem matchmaker and rabbi Chanukah Ben Moshe Halevi to try to get the rabbi to agree to letting Azriel marry his daughter. Except Chanukah doesn’t really know enough about Judaism to be a successful rabbi impersonator, and accidentally invites both Gavriel-posing-as-Azriel and Azriel himself to meet with the rabbi. Did I mention hijinks ensuing?

the harbor
Chanukah posing as a fisherman, Gavri posing as Azriel, and Yona. Got all that?

Like most bourekas movies, Snooker mines the rich tradition of Jewish comedy, mixing the aforementioned drag with heavy doses of slapstick, wordplay and jokes about Judaism. In fact, instead of focusing on the Ashkenazi/Sephardi divide as many bourekas movies do, Snooker (which features next to no Ashkenazi characters) is mostly a humorous protrayal of the clash between secular and religious Israel, as the Israeli-ized, secular Gavri and Chanukah bump up against the Old Country traditions of the rabbi, with the rest of the characters trapped somewhere in between.

If you’re not convinced to go out and see this movie right now, allow me to reiterate: it’s hilarious, it’s heartwarming, and it’s safe for the whole family (unless your children are well acquainted with the amusingly vulgar Arabic profanity Chanukah likes to throw around). And it has a great soundtrack! It’s not the king of sirtei bourekas for nothing.

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7 Comments

  1. D.B. Cooper

    6/6/2006 at 11:23 am

    Michael & I are raising money to open a borekas stand called B.A. Borekas (“I pity the fool who doesn’t try our delicious potato borekas!”).

  2. ofri

    6/6/2006 at 12:04 pm

    I think my favorite memory of my birthright trip was the day the American kids discovered bourekas and requested to purchase a single “boo-ray-ka.” How the merchants manage to keep a straight face, I’ll never know.

  3. amechad

    6/6/2006 at 12:43 pm

    Ah — I always wondered what the pictures of the funny looking guy was.

  4. yaaziel

    6/6/2006 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks! How can someone in the states get to see these wonderful-sounding movies? Any good resources for Israeli video/DVD?

  5. michael

    6/6/2006 at 3:10 pm

    You can find Israeli DVDs at Israel Music and Sifrutake. Chagigah b’Snooker is here.

    Although there may be DVD region issues…

  6. Sarah

    6/6/2006 at 4:57 pm

    This is a fantastic series. I’m learning so much! Thanks for putting this together.

  7. amechad

    6/7/2006 at 2:58 am

    To solve the region issues, at least in terms of playing DVD’s on the computer, buy DVDXPlayer. It’s available for a free trial download and it’s a multi-zone DVD viewer, with no need for any kind of technical switching. There may also be codes you can enter in regular DVD players. There are also other sites to buy Israeli DVDs (I can’t find the link to the one I’m thinking of with the cheapest prices but it advertises on Jpost.com and Haaretz.com

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