Israel’s “Matchmaker” Now at Your Service

Once I Was

Whatever images come to mind when encountering the title "The Matchmaker," don't expect a heartwarming shtetl romance or a Hollywoodish "Father of the Bride" comedy.

The film, whose Hebrew title translates as "Once I Was," has its humorous moments, but basically it is an honest though sympathetic view of the underbelly of Israeli society, its outsiders, from scarred Holocaust survivors and black market dealers to prostitutes and, I kid you not, seven dwarfs.

Set in Haifa's Lower City, the often gritty harbor area, far from the well-appointed homes on Mount Carmel, with their magnificent views of the Mediterranean, the time is 1968, one year after Israel's stunning victory in the Six-Day War. Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), the title's matchmaker, is right at home in this milieu. A Holocaust survivor, whose backstory we never learn, he is a man with a scarred face, whose professional motto is, "I'll give you what you need, not what you want," and who "specializes on special cases" among his clientele.

One is Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), caught up in the real-life story of seven Romanian dwarfs, fancied by Dr. Mengele for his Auschwitz experiments, who came to Israel and opened a movie theater in the Lower City, showing only romance pictures, mainly from India.

With a beautiful, luminous face, Sylvia "has a big heart in a small body," as Yankele tells potential suitors.Then there's Meir (Dror Keren), the shy, unprepossessing librarian, who takes lessons in the social graces from the beautiful and mysterious Clara (Maya Dagan), who hides her Holocaust scars and is Yankele's constant companion and ally in some of his shadier dealings. Joining this odd set of characters is Arik Burstein (Tuval Shafir), a 17-year old sabra from a middle-class family, who is recruited by Yankele to scout for new prospects and as a private eye to check out backgrounds of dubious clients.

Arik yearns to become a soldier and war hero, but in the meanwhile is a voracious reader of the then popular Stalag novels, in which sadistic Nazis made sport with voluptuous Jewish women prisoners. The boy shares the belief of most Israelis of the time that the Holocaust survivors in their midst were kind of freakish and must have done something highly immoral and devious in the camps to escape death.

Since Arik's own parents are survivors, he dare not ask them about their own experiences, even if they were willing to discuss them, for fear of what he might find out.

While Israel's outsiders continued to struggle, for most young natives 1968 was the year they discovered the summer of love, rock music and other American innovations.

For Arik, loves comes in the shapely form of Tamara (Neta Porat), daughter of a wealthy Iraqi family, who was raised in the United States. She brings startling news of women's liberation, free love, and jumps fully clothed into a water fountain during a chaste scout meeting.

Director and co-writer of "The Matchmaker" is Avi Nesher and the film reflects much of his life and upbringing. He grew up the son of Holocaust survivors, who never spoke of their past, and, as a 15-year old in 1968, Nesher absorbed the changes brought about by the Six-Day War victory and the youthful revolts of the decade.

Nesher spent much of his adolescence in the United States, returned to Israel for his army service, where, to his embarrassment, he found out that he now spoke Hebrew with an American accent (and English with an Israeli accent). At 23, he made his first film, "The Troupe," about an army entertainment group, which was an instant hit. He followed with a number of other successful movies, but received so much flak with his 1984 picture "Rage and Glory," about the pre-state underground Stern gang, that he decided to leave for Hollywood. During a decade in the movie capital, he made a series of low-budget films, which made the studios - and him - a nice pot of money. However, as his children grew up, he decided it was time to return to Israel, and right away scored big with the 2004 movie "Turn Left at the End of the World," which became the biggest-grossing movie in Israeli history.

"The Matchmaker" is Nesher's most personal film to date, and while he abhors the idea of making a genre "Holocaust" movie, it is a subject which he and Israel cannot leave behind. "The memory and mythology of the Shoah is in our DNA, for good or for bad," Nesher said in a lengthy phone interview. "This catastrophe is still unresolved, it needs to be discussed and understood. It is part of the dialogue between myself and my kids."

"The Matchmaker," he insisted, is not a Holocaust film. "It is mainly a coming-of-age movie, about a kid growing up, he learns about the Holocaust, while at the same time finding out about the nature of love."

Nesher feels equally at home in Israel and in the United States, he said, and writes in English and Hebrew with equal fluency. He acknowledges, though, that he would find it difficult to survive in the Jewish homeland without being able to follow his beloved New York Giants on ESPN.

His family reflects the international outlook. "My father came from Romania, my mother is from Russia, my wife is Italian, and my kids are American," he said. His next film will be about an American woman living in Israel.

"The Matchmaker" won two Ophirs, Israel's equivalent of the Oscars, one for Adir Miller in the title role as best actor, the second to Maya Dagan (Clara) as best actress.

Nesher, now 58, finds making movies in Israel "intoxicating," with special psychological rewards. "When I run on the beach in the morning, some seven or eight people will stop me to say something nice about my last picture or ask me what I'll be doing next," he said.