A new Turner Classic Movies series focusing on Jewish films includes Israel’s first hit movie, Sallah.
A half-century after its unexpected and enormous success, Sallah stands as a landmark of Israeli cinema and a window on a bygone era.
Israeli columnist, author and satirist Ephraim Kishon’s 1964 film debut is a take-no-prisoners, culture-clash comedy about the “education” of a Sephardic immigrant who wants nothing more than a new house for his large family. Improbably, the movie sold 1.5 million tickets at home, played for nine months in New York and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
The first film in the hugely prolific career of producer Menachem Golan, who passed away in early August, Sallah also introduced actor Chaim Topol to the wider world.
Newly restored for its 50th anniversary, and recently screened and celebrated at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Sallah airs Sept. 16 on Turner Classic Movies with another key title in the Israeli canon, the 1955 battlefield drama Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer.
The black-and-white double bill is the centerpiece of TCM’s expansive series airing Tuesdays in September, “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film.” Other highlights include the rarely screened Edward Dymytryk-Kirk Douglas drama The Juggler (part of a Sept. 9 focus on the Holocaust), the little-known 1934 historical drama The House of Rothschild (Sept. 23, when the theme is “Tackling Prejudice”) and the terrific World War II epic, The Young Lions, featuring Montgomery Clift as a Jewish G.I. (one of four coming-of-age sagas airing Sept. 30).
Sallah opens with the exuberant title character (a bearded, hulking Topol) and his wide-eyed brood deplaning in the Promised Land, anticipating the streets to be paved with opportunity, if not gold. After some perfunctory form-filling, they are loaded on a truck and taken to a transit camp of tawdry shacks (and an unpaved street).
Sallah may be an old-school patriarch but he’s also a schemer and ace negotiator, albeit with his own standard of integrity. He’s determined that his family won’t remain in their leaky, rundown house for long, no matter whose feathers he ruffles or what angles he works.
Sallah has a little bit of everything, from a musical number that foreshadows Topol’s portrayal of Tevye (onstage and in the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof) to a dig at American Jewish benefactors who support the idea of Israel but want nothing to do with the people working the fields.
A nearby kibbutz “adopts” the transit camp and dispatches a pretty, geeky social worker (a young Gila Almagor) with an armful of forms. But she's no match for Sallah’s bluster and blather. The fledgling, undeveloped state of Israel may not be a model of calm and order, but by comparison Sallah is an anarchist with no understanding or use for the prevailing procedures.
Viewers may cringe at Sallah’s boorishness, but it’s the most effective response to the Ashkenazi establishment’s relentless condescension to the pragmatic Sephardic immigrants. The kibbutzniks see themselves as educated and progressive, and the Mizrahis as barbarians with primitive customs that they should abandon and forget.
“Forget?” Sallah responds angrily. “Why should I forget? You always want us to forget what’s not good for you.”
As it happens, Sallah is defending the cash payment he’s demanded from his daughter’s matrimonially minded kibbutznik boyfriend. His argument is surprisingly persuasive, even to our modern ears, and cuts to the core of the then-existing inequality.
While Israel still has second-class citizens — Ethiopian immigrants and Filipino and Thai workers, to name a few — it must be said that Kishon’s satire doesn’t bite as hard today. When Sallah was made, the kibbutz symbolized Israel’s idealism at home and identity abroad. In the ensuing decades, the presence and power of the kibbutzim has waned.
At the same time, the friction between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews has been overshadowed by the tension between ultra-religious and secular Jews. Finally, it must be acknowledged that both the world and movies are harsher than they were in 1964.
That is not to take anything away from Kishon, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who lived in a transit camp, kibbutz and housing project after emigrating to Israel, and knew whereof he wrote.
In particular, he was steeped in the lesson that Sallah comes to learn the hard way: In Israel, you get what you don’t want.