On my first morning in Tel Aviv University’s film school, a short gentleman with a shiny bald head and a neatly trimmed white beard walked into the classroom and told us that he was very sorry to announce that our professor, Avraham Hefner, had fallen ill, and that class was therefore canceled until further notice. Disappointed, we got up and collected our notebooks; we’d all heard much about the legendary Hefner, the director of some of the most influential films in Israeli cinema history, and were looking forward to meeting him. As we began filing out of the classroom, however, the bearded man eased into a chair and started laughing. We stopped at the doorway, baffled, then walked back in and took our seats. Hefner, still laughing, never bothered introducing himself formally. He’d already taught us an important lesson: If you have to make art—and not everybody does—remember not only to question conventions but, most important, to have fun. The rest of the semester wasn’t always as playful, but it was never less than profound. And when it was over, it wasn’t difficult to understand why so many of the directors and the screenwriters responsible for so many recent and excellent Israeli films and television shows considered themselves Hefner’s ardent students.
Hefner passed away last week at age 79. He’d been declining for some time. In 2005, while standing at a bus stop in Jerusalem, a speeding bus swerved into his path, forcing him to leap away. He hit his head against a pole and broke his glasses. He paid it to no mind at the time, but soon, he started forgetting words. A visit to the doctor revealed serious brain trauma, and his condition steadily deteriorated. His influence, however, seems to grow with each year: A recent survey selected his 1972 masterpiece But Where Is Daniel Wax? as the second-most-influential Israeli film ever made, second only to the cult hit Metzitzim.
Like all Hefner’s films, Wax is a biography thinly disguised as fiction. Every film, Hefner would tell us while sitting on top of his desk dangling his legs, is a documentary: You can make a science-fiction flick, but you’re still filming real people in real places expressing real emotions, and these places and these emotions are the only thing that matters. In the case of Wax, the place was Israel in the aftermath of the Six Day War, and the prevalent emotion was confusion.
The film tells the story of Shpitz, an Israeli singer who, like Hefner, moved to New York after his military service and, unlike Hefner, hit the big time there. Returning home for his high-school reunion, he meets up with Lipkin, his closest childhood friend, now a morose physician, and together they decide to go looking for their idol, the best athlete in school, the fierce intellectual, the ladies’ favorite, the handsome and humorous and otherworldly Daniel Wax.
But Wax is nowhere to be found. Rumors about him swirl furiously—is he in London? had he died?—and as Shpitz and Lipkin try to piece the puzzle together, they run into their old classmates, each now a couple of decades older and a lot more sober.
It may sound like a banal premise—of course people get older, of course they grow up, of course they lose the passions and the waistlines of their youth—but for Israel in the early 1970s, this was also an apt allegory for the national crisis. A generation of founding fathers and mothers had fought and dared and delivered the first independent Jewish state in millennia; what would their children do for an encore? And was life really tolerable for these sons and daughters of the Zionist revolution if it meant nothing more than having a job and a family and a mortgage, a perfectly dull manifestation of bourgeois life everywhere else in the world?
Hefner’s answer is surprising. As the movie draws to its end, Shpitz runs into Sylvia, the class drama queen, rumored to have killed herself in grisly fashion years before. She’s very much alive, however, and pregnant. She’s also married to Daniel Wax, and she leads Shpitz and Lipkin, finally, to the idol of their youth. It should come as little surprise to learn that Wax is no longer the fiery sabra he-man he’d been as a teenager: He’s chubby and bald, a professor of something or other living in a small apartment in Be’er Sheva, pontificating on theory and boring his listeners beyond relief. But he’s still smart, and he’s a decent human being, and he has a lovely wife and a kid on the way, and while it’s impossible not to feel disappointed that Wax hadn’t grown up to be another celebrated general or brilliant artist, it’s also very hard not to ask, however softly, what the hell was wrong with a small life in a small apartment filled with family and contentment.
This was Hefner’s true genius: Other directors might’ve used Wax as a stand-in for Israel’s existential ennui, but he refused grand narratives on both the personal and national level. Hefner loved people, and if these people were no longer mythical creatures who fought and loved on the largest scale, they were all the more human and all for the better. The film’s true message, then, is delivered not by Daniel Wax but by one of his ex girlfriends, who’d become an undistinguished painter. Even a bad artist, she says, is better than a non-artist, because at least the bad artist tries making something that might connect him or her to other people.
Hefner’s own attempts at connecting were rarely without challenge. When he completed Wax, he took it to one theater owner after another; all refused to screen it. The film, went the consensus, was out of sync with the times. It wasn’t a Zionist epic—a popular genre at the time—or a bourekas movie, another popular genre consisting of comedies and melodramas based on broad ethnic stereotypes and packaged as entertainment for the masses. In short, it wasn’t Israeli enough.
But then came the Yom Kippur War, and the Israel it had left in its wake was very ready for the sort of soul-searching Hefner had to offer. But Where Is Daniel Wax? was finally released in 1974, and became a major hit.
It gave Hefner a boost, but only for a while. He continued to make the sort of films that were far from obvious. Aunt Clara, for example, was a paean to Israel’s Polish community, Hefner’s own, and The Last Love of Laura Adler told the story of a fading star of a faltering Yiddish theater determined to win the spotlight one last time. Hefner had more commercial success on TV—where he created, among other things, a wildly beloved show for children about road safety—but he found his true calling when he was invited to join Tel Aviv’s University’s faculty. From that moment on, whenever he was introduced, he insisted that whatever he had written or directed or created, he was a teacher first.
And what a teacher he was: In December of 2012, when his daughter Maya, herself a gifted screenwriter, published a collection of Hefner’s screenplays, his students all showed up for a tribute in Tel Aviv’s cinematheque. The man of the hour wasn’t there to witness the brightest lights of contemporary Israeli cinema take the stage and offer their thanks to the man who had taught them so much. Had he been, he might’ve taken the stage and announced in a faux authoritative voice that Hefner had fallen ill and that the tribute to him was therefore canceled until further notice. There will be many more tributes, most likely, now that he’s gone, but a society that still grapples with its own foundational mythology, that still struggles to reinvent itself in light of its shifting reality, that still asks itself what happened to all the Daniel Waxes of its collective youth, can ask for no better bard than Avraham Hefner.
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