Jerusalem Take One! book review

Jerusalem, Take One! – Memoirs of a Jewish Filmmaker, by Alan Rosenthal (Publisher:  Southern Illinois University Press, 287 pp. )

Some people live extraordinary lives, full of adventure, and have the knack (or luck, or good fortune) to be in the right places at the right times.  Surely filmmaker Alan Rosenthal is one of these.  Rosenthal was born in England in 1936, studied law at Oxford and later practiced as a solicitor in London.  This is how he describes his background in his first thirty or so years:  English. Jewish. London. Middle class.  Oxford. Law.  It would have turned out to be a pretty conventional life had not “Israel inserted itself into my life in a most devious way and had I not become a documentary filmmaker.” 

Rosenthal’s first big experience of film in Israel was working on the televising of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961.  But the big commitment began in 1968, following the Six-Day War, when the Israeli government decided that the power and propaganda value of television was too important, and that the country needed its own television network.  Rosenthal was one of a team of overseas advisors brought in to set up the new television service, and the next thirty-two years of his life – and film career – have revolved around that country.

During this time, he has experienced first-hand – and documented on film – the Oslo agreement, the search for the menorah from the Second Temple, the history of Zionism on the television screen, the Yom Kippur War and much else.  Rosenthal has also become one of the world’s noted documentarians and writers about documentary films.  His credits include more than sixty films made for television (including one of the episodes of the “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews” series), many awards and a number of significant books, including The Documentary Conscience and Writing Docudrama.  He has also lectured widely around the world – including a significant period in Australia in 1983 at what turned into the present Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS).  His most recent visit to Australia was in May 1999, when he had a lecture tour of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

So what of Rosenthal’s new book Jerusalem, Take One! – Memoirs of a Jewish Filmmaker?  This is pretty much exactly what the title promises: a memoir, not a history, and Rosenthal himself is the subject.  But the real question is:  should anyone care?  When we read books, we do so for one of many reasons – to be entertained, to be informed, to be moved, or simply to glory in its prose.  If we are really lucky, we find the occasional book which does all of these things.  Jerusalem, Take One! is not one of those books.

There are a few problems with Jerusalem, Take One!, the first being that Rosenthal was never close to the corridors of power, and he himself was never such a significant player to change the course of history.  So there are no great political insights or revelations.  He has lots of anecdotes, and most of them have a valid point.  About Australia in the 1980s when he lectured at “McQuarie” (sic) University, he writes that the strong support for the Palestinian cause resulted because “in a country as happy and content as Australia, it was necessary to weep for some dire cause.  At first it had been Vietnam.  Later it would be East Timor.  And now the flavor of the day was Palestinian Arabs.”  Yes, okay, but a real analysis of this might also uncover a great deal more about left-wing political movements in Australia.  But Rosenthal documents rather than deeply analyses.

On so many levels, Jerusalem, Take One! promises so much, and that’s what makes the book so frustrating.  Another example:  Rosenthal writes the following quite provocative sentence:  “There are four or five good reasons for going to Israel, but Zionism isn’t one of them.”  A great sentence.  Wow.  So what are the reasons for going to Israel, if not for Zionism?  Rosenthal never tells us.

The best autobiographies (and biographies) are those books which truly understand the times in which the subject lived, and give us unusual insights into those times through what the stories reveal.  There are literally hundreds of small revelations here (Cohens won’t go into a cemetary, Israeli TV never worked well for propaganda purposes, television coverage has changed the nature of the Israel-Arab conflict through instant images around the world), but the totality of Jerusalem, Take One! is definitely less than the sum of its individual parts.  The result, then, is a moderately valuable reference book; it is, for example, one of the very few in English which describe the history of Israeli television.  But a compelling book this is not, still leaving the way clear for someone to write the classic book about Jewish filmmaking.

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