We don't want no housing.

“Lo rotzim shikun! Rotzim ma’abarah!”

UPDATE: Jewlicious commentor Jessi has recorded the song “Mashiach Ha-Zaken” that Sallah sings in the ma’abarah’s bar in the movie! You can listen to it here. Lyrics and translation here. Thanks Jessi!

Ephraim Kishon is a man after my own heart – a bit of a misfit who immigrated to Israel as a young man, discovered that he didn’t entirely fit in there either, and thus made a career out of gleefully toppling every single sacred cow he could find. Of course, beyond that the similarities are limited. I’m a cranky little bastard who writes for a blog, whereas Kishon survived a number of concentration camps and managed to flee while being transported to Sobibor, then disguised himself as a Slovakian to weather out the war, and made aliyah as Communism took over his native Hungary – and after all that, learned Hebrew and became one of Israel’s most beloved writers, playwrights and directors. I have a ways to go.

As a director, it’s something of a toss-up which of Kishon’s films is his most beloved in Israel. Is it Sallah Shabati or Ha-Shoter Azoulai (which I’m sure I’ll get to)? Both are excellent movies, but given my love for a ripping good satire, I’m going to have to side with Sallah, seeing as Azoulai is less satire and more character study.

Sallah Shabati is a landmark in Israeli film history because, coming out in 1964, it is perhaps the first major skewering of the ideology of Labor Zionism and the kibbutz movement (although unlike skewerings to come, it wasn’t at all mean-spirited). And Kishon doesn’t stop himself at the kibbutzim; essentially everything in Israeli society in the mid-1950s, when the movie takes place, is a target: petty bureaucracy, Israeli democracy, the ma’abarot, the Jewish National Fund, American Jewish donors and tourists, Yekkes, sabras, Ashkenazim and, in what would later become politically incorrect, the Mizrachi immigrants the story is built around.

The eponymous main character comes in the long-established tradition of main characters in satires – the wise idiot who, through either his wisdom or his idiocy (it’s never entirely clear) turns the established system onto its head in order to get what he wants. Sallah, played by Chaim Topol, who would later rocket to fame as Tevye in the film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, comes to Israel from an unnamed Arab country with the family in tow – in a series of jokes that would most likely (and wrongly) in today’s political climate be branded as racist and offensive, he’s unsure exactly how many children he has (“How many children do you have?” asks an official. “Six.” “It says here seven.” “Alright, seven.”) and he’s not entirely sure as to the identity of the little old woman who has come with the family (“Is she a relative of yours?” “Don’t know. Maybe she’s our relative. Otherwise why would she have come with us all the way from outside Israel to here? A relative.” “Who understands you people?”).

Considered for himself, Sallah is perhaps not an admirable character – he’s lazy, he’s a drunk, he’s a gambler who brings his sheshbesh board to the synagogue, his parenting style could charitably be described as “hands-off,” his attitude towards his wife ranges from “dismissive” to “insulting,” he generally ignores his female children, he on principle refuses to talk to women, and he’s perfectly willing to sell off his eldest daughter to the highest bidder. And yet, he may be the most lovable character in Israeli cinematic history.

Sallah and Batsheva

Sallah psychoanalyzes Batsheva the psychoanalyst

The plot concerns itself with Sallah trying to find work (he’s a cobbler who has never made a shoe in his life) and trying to get his family out of their leaky shack in the ma’abarah (immigrant transit camp) into a new housing project the government has built within sight of the ma’abarah and keeps empty with a system of bureaucratic entrapments. Meanwhile, the neighboring kibbutzniks decide to “adopt” the ma’abarah in order to civilize its “primitive” residents, sending the easily flustered Batsheva as a social worker and psychoanalyst (who winds up getting in turn psychoanalyzed by Sallah) and having the dashing Ziggy (played by a very young Arik Einstein) teach the immigrants how to plant trees for the JNF’s forests, which have a constantly rotating array of signs declaring in which rich American donor’s name the forest is planted (they switch out the signs as each donor visits).

The kibbutzniks bear the brunt of the satire – a classic scene at the beginning of the movie has the local driver attempting to explain to Sallah the concept of collective property as a kibbutz tractor blocks their path.

Driver: Big guy – a kibbutznik!
Sallah: But his trac…his vehicle is bigger.
Driver: It’s not his, it belongs to the kibbutz.
Sallah: And who does the kibbutz belong to?
Driver: To the kibbutznikim, who else?
Sallah: So why isn’t that his?
Driver: It’s not his! …Well, it’s his, but it’s not his.
Sallah: Mister, do you even hear what you’re saying?
Driver: Sure! Look at ’em…living together, eating together, working together…all the property belongs to everyone.
Sallah: Really? To everyone? And our house is there too?
Driver: No no, it’s a little further up.
Sallah: Baruch Hashem.

Israeli democracy gets it too – Sallah, who the politicians assume is the big man in the ma’abarah, cuts a deal with all the parties in return for ensuring the ma’abarah’s votes, whereupon he attempts to vote multiple times for every single party. And of course, it wouldn’t be a classic Israeli movie without the interethnic love stories – and this movie is so good, it has two. Sallah’s eldest daughter Habuba falls for Ziggy, whereas Batsheva falls for Sallah’s son Shimon. I won’t reveal the denouement, but let’s just say through a series of marital machinations, 800 liras change hands multiple times.

Ziggy and Habuba

“Ziggy, buy me from daddy.” Ziggy and Habuba.

Sallah Shabati actually may deal with Israel’s Ashkenazi/Sephardi ethnic strife in the most mature, realistic way of any movie to date. It shows the condescending attitude of the Ashkenazi societal elites towards the “primitive” Mizrachim, but it also touches on a fact often ignored in the field of Israeli ethnic relations – the racism often went both ways. When Habuba interrupts Sallah and the ma’abarah’s token Ashkenazi Mr. Goldstein in a game of sheshbesh so she can ask for permission to marry Ziggy, Sallah flies off the handle: “Ziggy…that’s an Ashkenazi name, isn’t it?” “Daddy, Mr. Goldstein is Ashkenazi.” “They’re good for losing at sheshbesh, NOT FOR MARRYING!” It’s a much franker appraisal of the issue than had come before or since.

But of course, it’s a movie, so it all turns out alright. And does Sallah finally get out of the ma’abarah and into the housing project? Let’s just say that the old Israeli axiom “Tamid meqablim mah she’lo rotzim” – “You always get what you don’t want” turns on a lightbulb for Sallah.

So what are you waiting for? Go out right now and buy this movie. Show it to your friends. Show it to your children. This is Israeli cinema at is very, very best, and a total nostalgia trip for a bygone Israel. Buy it in memory of Ephraim Kishon, who died last year. Just do it. You’ll thank me someday.

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  • You just gave away THE WHOLE DAMN MOVIE!
    But i must go find that DVD now!!!!

  • Of course I did! It’s an analysis of a classic Israeli movie, not a movie review! It’s more for people who have already seen it (and if somebody hasn’t already seen it, what the hell is wrong with them?)

  • You forgot the best part of the movie – the song about Jamilla!

  • Hi Simone! You’re right, I did forget…if I could capture video, I totally would have put the song up, but unfortunately I can’t. Maybe someday.

  • Interesting twist – the movie became a musical, basically the Israeli Fiddler on the Roof. In that incarnation, it became a vehicle for Mizrachi peformers, and has emerged as somewhat of a point of pride for them (similar to Kazablan).

    This Yom HaAtzma’ut our village’s drama group put on an abridged version – the starring role of Sallach being performed by a Yemenite neighbor with great pride, and to great acclaim.

    Apparrently only thin-skinned PC Western Jews worry about the racial overtones – Israelis Eastern and Western just roll with it.

  • I don’t know, the racial overtones never bothered me, although they certainly did our…thin-skinned, PC, Western Hebrew U professor who showed the movie.

    And congratulations, you mentioned Kazablan, a future Classic Israeli Movie of the Week and my personal favorite Israeli movie!

  • This movie was introduced to my class back in our 10th Grade Hebrew class, as our first true experience with Israeli cinema. Needless to say after this we could not go back.

  • How would one go about procuring this movie?
    Btw, great riff on Ushpizin – I really liked it, though my mother was absolutely furious. I thought it was very sweet, as well.

  • A friend, you can find it, and probably every other movie I’ll talk about, here.

    Now, all these movies (since they’re imported) are in Region 2, so they may not play on an American DVD player. If you have a DVD drive on your computer, I can explain to you if you buy the movie how to make your computer region-free so you can play it.

    Ushpizin was awesome. It was like the Israeli film industry was doing teshuva for Kadosh. If your mother had seen that piece of trash, she would be writing fan letters to the guys who made Ushpizin.

  • This really is an excellent movie. I recently saw it for the first time and loved the part with the “rotating donors” for the forest, signs and all- and the way Sallah keeps sending his kids to the line (over and over again) where the party is handing out gifts.

    Funny how Ephraim Kishon was so much more highly regarded all over the world than he was in Israel (according to him, anyway).

  • FYI, this link at Israel Catalog is cheaper than the link Michael links to and they also have many other great Israeli movies.

    Raanana, unfortunately it seems very Israeli and not suprising to me that Kishon was more highly regarded abroad than at home. Sadly, Israelis often don’t appreciate Israel or realize its negative aspects (sometimes even ascribing its positive aspects as negative).

  • If you guys wanna tell me how to post a mp3 i will…recorded of a mobile, needed the ringtone!

  • Baju manlan chai mashiach hazaken, bishvil livnot isha l’chatunen…Alaah Yodeah!

    Ha buba sheli hee lo susa!

    Its the best of Israel.

  • The last time I saw this movie was in at the 92nd Street Y, before I made aliya, sitting with a bunch of friends who were also planning to do the same. At the scene where he talks about how we are new immigrants now, and they are screwing us, but some day someone else will be the new immigrant, and oh how we’ll screw them, I turned to my friends and said “he’s talking about us”.

  • Jessi, e-mail the mp3 to [email protected] and I’ll upload it and put it on this post for everybody’s listening enjoyment.

    DB, kol ha-kavod on your transliteration and translation. I thought you didn’t speak loishn ha-koidesh!

    Warren – it’s funny…cuz it’s true.

  • US-based Sifrutake has Israeli DVDs in the Region 1/NTSC format. They carry Sallah Shabati, and a box set of Kishon’s films, by the way. Sifrutake doesn’t have quite as deep a selection of DVDs as Israel Music (www.israel-music.com) does, but if you’re in the US, you’ll get the DVDs you order more quickly than the three or more weeks it takes to get them from Israel. Some of the more popular DVDs on Israel-Music are in both NTSC and PAL formats, but the majority are Region 2/PAL only, so you’ll need a region-free (multizone) player to watch them.

    The direct link to the page with the Kishon film is http://www.sifrutake.com/scripts/main.cgi?action=search&category=40&show_all=1&p=4, but if you go to http://www.sifrutake.com and click on DVDs, you’ll find it about midway through the list.

  • It’s one of the the great classic Israeli movies, I have the collection of Kishon movies, but of all of them ( which are very good) we my husband and I have considered this the best! Also good is hagigah Bsnooker too( not by Kishon, but still has a cult following) hey its Israel of the 50’s, 60’s 70’s ( the scene with the JNF trees is hilarious–I have been to Israel many times and yet to find any of the trees I planted! My husband is a Sabra( he use to read Kishon’s satire all the time) the first Israeli movie I ever saw was Casablan in hebrew school. I could not imagine at the time that there was a distinction between mizrahi and ashkenazic ( I was just a kid at the time) later when I was older, I was told the story of my aunt who married an Israeli, his father found out he was in love with a Mizrachi girl and sent him to work as a merchant marine, he met my aunt in new york and married her! ( he did not speak english and she spoke no hebrew). Kishon still speaks volumes about what early Israel was like, and while Israeli cinema has come along away. These early movies ( and there are qutie a few around on DVD) are some of the best at whatIsrael was like at the time.

  • This film is mandatory to understand what happened with the immigrants who came from Africa and ArAb countries. Many jews who grew up in USA do not undersatnd or are not aware of the clashes between “Mizrachim” and “Ashkenazim” during the fifties and to some extent till today.

  • If you never saw Kishon’s The Blaumilch Canal, then you never saw satire. I’m surprised that you missed it. It’s a must see. On the other hand, I must admit that the film slows down in the 2nd half. But still great.

  • shiri@ my family was stuck in Maabarot for years and they are as Ashkenasi as Ashkenasi gets – the bigger problem was with the perception of Socialism towards “multiculturalism”, society building along side wars and a huge outside population coming back to Israel from too many places after too much time caused the leadership and existing institutions to overlook all the differences and try to give different people and different Jewish cultures, the same treatment, naturally that hurt too many people and attempts [the existing leadership didn’t try] to comprehend that Jews from Iraq didn’t live like Jews from Poland were never made. [and] that said, Zionism developed amongst European Jews so it wasn’t much different from the previous life style of European Jews so the creation of a new society was just an illusion and in fact Ashkensi culture dominated Zionism. beyond this huge systemic failure (that would have happened anywhere under those conditions), ‘tribalism’ was prominent and carried out by all sides. but all in all, despite all the difficulties, Israel has developed much better and much faster than most countries thanks to people like Ephraim Kishon amongst other reasons.