The Matchmaker, directed by Avi Nesher is an Israeli film shown at the Israel film festival, that won 7 awards and was a candidate for best Israel film.It is a charming,delightful, and bittersweet film. it takes place in Haifa and It is not a political or a war film although politics and war are part of the reality of this story. The opening scene is in 2006 when the city is bombarded with Lebanese missiles,and even though we are focused on personal stories, we see some of the chaos, and throughout the movie, we are made aware of alarming newspaper headlines.The story quickly moves to remembrance of times past to 1968, and again we are deep into individual narratives…which carry a great amount of humor and sweetness…still, we see the newspapers delivered with headlines of catastrophes and we are made aware of the undercurrent of tragedy of WW11 if we choose to dwell on that. This is the theme of the characters in the story who are holocaust survivors. The horror is always there, and we see their daily struggle not to dwell on it. Relaxing in an American movie theater, looking at far away and long ago, this theme could not leave my consciousness, and made the positive dynamics of the survivors that I am invited to meet, heroic as they fashioned their lives in this vibrant city.
>> The main character, the Matchmaker is a survivor of the Holocaust, as are all of his friends who are occupied in making a life for themselves that will give them independence,safety and joy in a manner that they can handle with their scarred bodies and psyches.. the story is deep enough and fine enough in its acting and dialogue that we are always aware of inner struggles that are part of everything they do.The necessary facade however, is to smile, enjoy humor and maximize strength. In 1968, the holocaust was not yet far enough behind them to allow them to absorb in one way or another, its injuries, let alone the start of healing if at all possible. It was too early for much perspective. And as in America, in 1968, despite all the civil unrest, stories of the holocaust were just beginning to emerge after a long period of silence.Still, this movie can’t be substituted in its story, for an American town of similar size, industry, and even excitement. No, this is uniquely Haifa.
>> I thought of the breaking of the glass at weddings to remind us in a time of a happiness, the destruction of the temple and the start of diaspora .This is a happy story, even a joyful and bright movie, but it is a Jewish history and so there is a primary understory that is dark. It is always there.
>> As the narrative develops, we go to many areas of Haifa. The vigor and energy and the non uniformity of this city becomes one of the most enjoyable parts of the film. The opening scene is 2006, and a writer, still youthful in his early 50′s, and his father go to a lawyers office where they have been summoned. The lawyer tells them that one Yankele Bride has died, and his possessions, his apartment, money,investments are all left to Arik, the writer. It is a respectable amount. Arik is shocked. He hadn’t seen Yankele in almost 40 years. As a boy of 16 he had worked for him, and when Yankele left Haifa, Arik believed Yankele, who had been his employer hated him.
>> Now we follow Arik’s memory trail to 1968.He is 16 and playing in a very noisy heated basketball game that is happening in the courtyard outside the apartment complex where he lives.
A man of indeterminate age,wearing a hat,cane,jacket with an open collared sport shirt comes by and observes. HIs clothing is a bit formal, his gait slow with a limp that makes him seem bent and old, but his face is not old looking. He appears inquisitive,pleasant looking despite a large scar, but there is also an air of sadness and resignation he carries. He approaches the squabbling boys and asks if they have a sister or someone they know who is not happy because they don’t have a partner,a mate. He is a matchmaker, and it is his business to make people happy. Not getting much of a response to his intrusion into the clamor of sports arguing, he suggests that even if someone they know has a physical or mental problem that prevents them from attracting people, he will take care of that sort of person too…handicaps are no problem for him.
Arik lights up and says yes, he has a wonderful sister. She is 20, and kind and beautiful, but she has webbed feet and hands. She is well,a flipper, that is what her hands and feet are, and no man will look at her, and Arik says he feels so terrible for her.
Yankele says he can do something for her, and asks where Arik lives. Arik points to the stairs behind them. Yankele proceeds to the apartment. Along the way he stops to exchange pleasantries with a middle aged lady,carrying a large expensive looking purse. What a beautiful purse, he exclaims, “did your husband buy it for you?”. Oh,no she says, my husband is dead. This is the informative answer he hopes to get from all the people he meets, and stops to admire some item they have or are wearing. He introduces himself and starts to make a new client for himself. His manner is utterly charming,seemingly non intrusive, and caring. Of course he gets a positive response from her.
He proceeds to Ariks apartment. His knock is answered hesitantly by Arik’s father, who can’t make sense of this man who wants to meet his daughter…he has no daughter. He asks the name again.Yankele Bride. He says I knew a Yankele Bride when I was a schoolboy in Romania. Of course he did, and this is the same Yankele Bride….after many years and many lifetimes of terrible experience. Arik’s father is also holocaust survivor…but the subject is forbidden in his home, and those dire memories are only obliquely referred to as “back there” which is the term the holocaust survivors use to make a vague reference to a the horrors of the time that changed their lives forever.
As we live in a time today when holocaust experiences are filmed, written, and discussed in detail, it is interesting to go back to that time when it was not mentioned…when there was a silence about it…was it a denial? was it a fear? was it waiting for time to absorb into the nervous system of the society, was it comparable to childhood amnesia.Was it similar to children who won’t mention abuse because they feel they were to blame? Whatever it was, there was a time after the facts, when the holocaust experiences were not discussed..a fascinating lapse of memory that was too painful, and couldn’t yet find expression. This is that time. In this home where the father was a survivor from Romania, and the Israeli mother was not a survivor, it was definitely a forbidden topic. The father comments that the general attitude towards the survivors was that they had done something terrible,deceitful, and dishonorable that they had emerged as survivors, and the others had perished. What did you do , that you are here today…was the unspoken question that was sometimes actually said. The father says he is tired of defending himself…that they did nothing one way or another, and by luck they were here and others were not, so don’t talk about it. It is phenomenal to me today, that these survivors were not seen as heroic or courageous, but only deceptive.
But this defensiveness, spins for us a different story of the survivors, than what we are accustomed to today..and the self protection of this group is part of the fabric of this careful recreation of 1968.Arik comes upstairs to dinner after his basketball game to find the matchmaker from the street, now a guest in his home for dinner, and a honored guest of his father.
There is another part of the 1968 scene that is brought to life that doesn’t exist anymore and that is the difference in teenage life between America and Israel.but maybe I am wrong, and it actually does remain.
Arik’s best friend is Ben, his next door neighbor who is an Iraqi Jew. Arik is an only child in a quiet home, but Ben’s family is large and very noisy with many cousins, aunts and uncles. A wealthy uncle arrives from America to drop off his kids at his brothers home while he goes to Europe, and to visit Germany. He leaves his daughter,Tamara, a 16 year old who expresses the explosions happening in America. These are especially the emergence of a dominant,aggressive woman fast becoming accepted in all the disciplines formerly reserved for the male. The skirts are short, bras are being burned, the goal is “free love”, the heroes are the Beatles, the Jefferson Airplanes, rock music,and emancipation from societal structures of the past…a new world. Arik lives in a society where his friends work on a kibbutz, he is eagerly looking forward to military service, and his fantasy life is spent in reading detective stories and imagining himself to become a famous writer.
He is very stimulated by Tamara’s presence and sexuality.
Yankele, who has become a family friend has been carefully observing him, compliments him on his ingenious ability as a capable liar (which Yankele regards as a creative asset), and his devotion to the detective novel. Yankele offers him a job as a “spy-guy” and between this new job, and the exotic Tamara, Arik moves into a new state of being, and childhood is coming to an end.
The holocaust survivors in Haifa make their own neighborhood in the seamiest part of Haifa. It is down by the docks, and it is a colorful mix of transients, drug dealers and many petty criminals, prostitutes,gamblers, smugglers,musicians, artists,outcasts, a potpourri of those who don’t fit easily into social divisions. It is said that they live here because of the proximity to the water and boats, so they could leave in a hurry if need be. But whatever the reason they form an amiable comfortable neighborhood with others who had “back there”experiences, and the life is quite good and convenient for friendships and security. there are legitimate businesses there also. For example there is a movie theatre run by dwarfs…their lives altered by Mengele back there and there is Yankele’s matchmaking office which is next to a busy Pizza parlor. Yankele has other business investments also. His matchmaking business fills an emotional need not his financial one…perhaps in putting couples together he is building life force to negate the years of death from which he somehow escaped. his efforts are certainly an act of love.
We are introduced to Clara, a statuesque blonde woman who struggles with a fragility which is her legacy from “back there”, and prevents her from forming intimate associations. Yankele is clearly in love with her, but has the greatest respect for her need for distance, and protectively is her loving companion without ever making any demands on her.
There is humor in their business relationships.
Yankele prides himself on his work…it has nothing to do with making money. He is in the business of making people happy (happier) finding for the most unwanted and undesirable a mate.He listens empathetically to their wishes and dreams, and proceeds to find for them, the practical which is someone that will actually accept them and give them what they need…not necessarily what they want.
These people do not have much confidence in themselves, and all suffer from a severe lack of self esteem. Yankele fixes that by taking them to Clara. In her soft delicate fragile way, this woman leads them through a gentle conversation which is designed to point out that they have much beauty,ability,charm and other attributes that will enable them to get successfully involved in the process of loving, and being loved.It is a process of flattery, but is done with much sweetness,sincerity and delicacy, and we see how much these people need it, and respond to it. It is actually a survivor skill….to fabricate out of yourself what you need to pull through.
When Yankele has an interview with a prospective client, he is very conscientious and must know more intimate details of this person’s life before he can make the match. Yankele knows only too well, what liars people can be. this is why he hired Arik. Arik tails the prospective groom to see where he goes…very carefully records it in a notebook…the addresses of where this person disappears, when he goes and when he comes. and from this information Yankele makes his decisions on who should or should not meet his hopeful customers.
Clara cannot sleep. the horrors are too great. she is not alone. A large part of the survivor community cannot sleep so at night she runs an illegal card room where these survivors spend the terrible hours before dawn,calmly playing cards with friends…smoking, drinking,eating…for some money not great amounts…very subdued and quiet…but it is illegal. This is kept secret from Arik but he is aware that something is going on that is not quite kosher.
Arik has another friend from another part of his world. this is the head librarian,, Meier, in the public library where Arik is a frequent visitor checking out the numerous detective novels he reads. The librarian reads a lot, and suggests to Arik the best of detective novels, and Arik tells him about his new job. Meier is pleasant and intelligent but officious in a way that would negate any woman he might try to impress. He is alone in life and decides to go see Yankele for himself.
One of Yankele s best friend is Sylvia, the midget who owns (with her midget brother) the movie theatre. She is actually a beautiful and charming woman, but her diminutive size is a severe handicap for finding a lover. She reminds Yankele daily not to forget her. Her need is great, and her charm is so sweet, we are touched by her and hope it will happen.
Meier confesses to Yankele, that he does have doubts about his ability to win someone and he would like perhaps someone small. By this He means to say that he needs someone to look up to him,to see him as a towering hero. First Yankele takes him to see Clara who easily strengthens his doubts about himself. He emerges from that interview convinced of his male superiority. then Yankele takes him literally about his wish for a small woman, talks up Sylvia in a wonderful narrative, but neglects to say that she is a dwarf. when Yankele brings her to introduce her, and we see her with all of her expectation and excitement, and the disgust that Meier shows when he meets her, I couldn’t help but feel a bitter injustice of life that his lovely woman had to feel.
However Meier has fallen in love with Clara and makes himself an absolute pest by sending her love notes and appearing at her door with unwanted flowers. He is stalking her which frightens her, and she resists all of his advances which make him very angry. As he appears at her door which she opens a sliver, he is alerted by the room inside that has tables and chairs set up for something and she is clearly avoiding his entry.
These incidents lead to two outbursts that are significant in the hot summer of 1968 that Arik is remembering.
One involves the sexy Tamara. There is a campers night activity. this is similar to a Girl Scout campfire event. Teenagers group around a guitar player and sing wholesome and patriotic songs while holding hands and rocking back and forth.. this in no way matches the scenes of teen life in america with its protests and adolescent power exhibitions. Tamara becomes restless and agitated and rouses up the group to abandon their submissive behavior and all jump in the fountain and make a scene…which they do.This shocks and delights Arik. It is an expression of the then difference between the Israeli teen life where the tone was serious…their position was a part of society that was getting ready to grow up and take their place in an adult community and accept the responsibility of protecting their country, and the American teen which was fast becoming a vocal and visual group focused not on growing up but on their position as adolescents who demanded to be heard and respected for just what they were and their view of life as they saw it…make love, not war.
The other outburst was Meier who was going to explode with the rejection that Clara showed him. After all, it was she who taught him how wonderful he was. He was becoming very mean. He incorporated Arik into his witch hunt to phone him when some activity was happening.Arik did that and Meier phoned the police that something was gong on that wasn’t right. However, Clara saw the police coming and as survivors are quick to react to danger,when the police came, Clara showed them a peaceful room set up for dominoes. but it was enough for Yankele…they were being watched by police..the nightmare might become real again, and Yankele disappeared, never to be seen again by Arik.Arik could not get over his guilt that he had betrayed his friend. And the summer of 1968 disappeared into other events that became the newspaper headlines of later times.
The Matchmaker will give you 2 short hours to slip away into a reflective memory of 1968 that is not without humor, not without tragedy, not without soul searching, and with real and important questions of life and living. Is anything different? however it is exceedingly well told and your time will certainly be enjoyed , spent wisely and I believe you will add to your knowledge of how it was or how it is.