There’s no place like Jerusalem.
That’s what drove an Israeli filmmaker to leave Brooklyn and move to the city where she was born and raised.
In 2010, Danae Elon persuaded her partner, Philip Touitou, to resettle in Jerusalem with their young sons.
“P.S. Jerusalem” is a deeply personal film about a Jewish mother trying to make a home with her family in a place that’s easy to fall in love with, but can be difficult to live in.
“Israel has always been Jerusalem for me,” Elon tells me.
Elon turns the camera on her own family. At first, she thought of making the film about her father, the famous Israeli journalist Amos Elon.
He wrote about Israel’s war of independence in 1948. But he had become disillusioned about the Jewish State after the 1967 war and its occupation of Arab lands and in 2000, he left the country for good.
Amos Elon urged his only daughter to not go back. But soon after her father died, Danae and her family made the move anyway. During her first year in Jerusalem, she gave birth to a third son and named him Amos.
“He was the only member of our family besides me who was actually born here,” Elon explains in the film.
Courtesy of Danae Elon
Instead of focusing on her late father, the main characters in the film are Philip and their young sons. The two older boys go to school at the only place in Jerusalem where young Jews and Arabs get a public education together.
“The school is a nucleus of an island,” Elon says. “A community that is basically struggling against all odds. Here you have a very racist and sectarian population that is so divided and hateful to one another.”
“In the school, where people are trying to work out their differences and come together, regardless of religion, ... it becomes a family.”
Families are complex, Elon says. So everything was not rosy and wonderful all the time.
“But it definitely felt like an island of sanity in all this hate,” Elon says.
The Max Rayne Hand-in-Hand Bilingual School, where students learn both Hebrew and Arabic, felt the same way to me. It’s where my own two kids went to school when I was a Jerusalem-based correspondent for PRI’s The World.
“I wanted my kids to grow up in an environment where both Jews and Arab live together,” Elon says.
“I wanted my kids to learn Arabic, and Hebrew, and English. And I wanted my kids to be a different kind of citizen, if you may call it. I wanted them to have a complexity and understand in a place for so long they’ve been proclaiming only one narrative and still do, there were actually many narratives.”
“P.S. Jerusalem” shows how Elon and her partner, and especially the kids, handle these conflicting narratives in their daily life. During one scene, several contradictions come on a drive to a West Bank settlement, where one of the boys’ classmates lives.
“Mommy,” Elon’s son Andrei asks. “What are settlements?”
“Mostly places where other people should not be living,” Elon answers.
Later in the drive, the family passes Israeli police officers on the roadside and they look at a field of olive trees that have been burned by arson.
When Andrei asks why anyone would burn olive trees, Philip explains that it’s a way of driving people off their land.
At one point, Elon’s partner describes living in Jerusalem as a gift to their sons. Philip says the boys are learning about Jewish and Arab history, culture and identity, and about what’s right and wrong.
But as time goes on, things get messy.
A turning point in the film comes when Philip describes walking in the street with his toddler, Amos, and seeing an Arab boy come up to the toddler and slap him for no apparent reason.
“Slap the Jew,” Philip describes on camera. “This hate coming out of him — it revolts me. First of all, because of my boy, my son. But because of the whole situation.”
“So, I came to him and I slapped him as well,” he says.
Philip was horrified with himself and he tells Danae that he doesn’t want to live like this.
Throughout the film, the stress builds. Elon says Jerusalem life nearly tore her family apart. But she hopes the film conveys a larger story than the one about her own family.
“It’s the experience of Israelis that want peace, that want a different reality in Israel and are choked by nationalism and by hatred,” Elon says.
“That voice of Israel and of Jews in particular doesn’t come out, … and it’s a very, very real picture.”
In the end, Danae and Philip made a difficult decision. And it’s one she says she still wrestles with.
She left the city she loves. The family moved to Montreal.