Deconstructing the visual narratives of aliya: the joys of Jamie Geller

The Exodus approaches the shores of Mandate Palestine. Under the leadership of the Sabra Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), the ship’s crew has managed successfully to break the British blockade: the Exodus is now free to reach its final destination.

Otto Preminger, the legendary director of this Zionist Hollywood-produced epic, films the ship in a wide shot. The rusty old Exodus sails slowly on the calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Suddenly, land on the horizon: the camera cuts to the refugees standing, crammed, on the deck. Men and women, young and old, survivors of the Holocaust impatiently waiting to restart their damaged lives in the safety of their ancestors’ land. Ernest Gold’s soundtrack sustains the joy and hopes of the olim. A huge flag of Israel waves in the breeze: the destiny of the people is bound to the soon-to-be re-established Motherland.

There are no main characters in this sequence; even Paul Newman, the superstar of the film, fades into the background. A choral dimension imbues the scene describing an historical moment that belongs to the people. It’s the history of the chosen people in the making: another exodus, another promise, another salvation in the same land.

This choral element has been a constant in the visual representation of aliya: from the black and white images of the Mizrachi olim in the fifties to the televised color images of Ethiopian Jews waiting for the airlift, passing through the color film stock showing the Soviet Jews arriving at Tel Aviv airport. All these aliyot have been told using images conveying a mass experience rather than an individual one: the packed plains, the crowded terminals, the overflowing ships with their high numbers underlying the urgency of those historic moments.

Now that the age of the great Aliyot with their biblical resonance has come to an end, we are seeing a different visual narrative more in tune with the current patterns of Jewish immigration to Israel and with contemporary sensitivity.

Partly thanks to the lightness of digital media and to the wide possibilities of web broadcasting, the Aliyah stories of today are told through an individual perspective: the mass is not, anymore, at the center of the discourse.

Interestingly, the American organization Nefesh be’Nefesh has produced a web series titled The Joys of Aliyah to promote Jewish immigration to Israel. Joys is the serialized account of the Aliyah of Kosher food superstar Jamie Geller who left the leafy American suburb to settle in Ramat Beit Shemesh. On the website of NbN and on its Youtube channel, we can follow Geller’s Aliyah preparations, her goodbyes to family and friends, the long plain journey with her little kids and husband, the arrival at Ben Gurion Airport and the first days of the family in Israel.

From the cinema to the web, from Otto Preminger to Nefesh be’Nefesh, Aliyah has become a collection of individual stories in a sort of post-Warholian vision.

But if each oleh/ah is the protagonist of his story, is there still space for a collective telling of the Aliyah experience?

Here’s a challenge for the storytellers of today

About the Author
Olé Hadash, cinephile, avid reader.