Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Happiest Man on Earth

The lowbrow Israeli filmmaker Yehuda Barkan, who died of COVID last week, leaves an underappreciated legacy of joy

by
Liel Leibovitz
October 28, 2020
Original photos: Cannon/Getty Images; Wikipedia
Original photos: Cannon/Getty Images; Wikipedia
Original photos: Cannon/Getty Images; Wikipedia
Original photos: Cannon/Getty Images; Wikipedia

Here’s a partial list of filmmakers you just had to adore if you wanted anyone to take you seriously as an Israeli film student in the 1990s: Whit Stillman, Atom Egoyan, Quentin Tarantino, Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklater.

The list of filmmakers you were expected to mock mercilessly was much shorter. It included one name: Yehuda Barkan.

Barkan, who died last week at 75 of COVID-19, brought more Israelis to the theaters than any other local filmmaker. On the list of the 100 most popular Israeli movies of all time, 10 either star Barkan, were directed by him, or both, including two entries in the top 10. Yet to the critics and the bien-pensants, Barkan was as desirable as incontinence; his films, quipped one haughty don, were “unfit for human consumption,” and another took to print to chide anyone who dared laugh at Barkan’s latest lowbrow antics.

So derided was this man who brought joy to millions that a new term was invented specifically to describe his work: Burekas Films, after the popular pastry considered a working-class fast food snack.

Barkan was the boss of the Burekas. In his movies, aloof and emotionally distant Ashkenazi Jews clashed with warm-hearted and charming Mizrahim, usually with a wedding or two driving the plot to its predictable but entirely satisfying end. Evil twins, egg-eating contests, mistaken identities galore—disbelief was suspended from the moment you walked into the theater, and by the time you walked out, you could already recite 20 or 30 lines of dialogue by heart. Stop any random Israeli in the street and say “after douche,” and they’ll likely squeal out “kiss very very,” a delightfully nonsensical line from Snooker, one of Barkan’s biggest hits. The same is true for at least 20 more catchphrases, quips so prevalent that they’ve become part of the national parlance.

And yet, the more popular Barkan got, the more eager were the gatekeepers of culture to ridicule and obscure his work. In 1975, for example, Snooker sold 607,000 tickets, an unimaginable number in a country whose population at the time was 3.4 million. Shlomo Shamgar, the influential film critic for Yediot Aharonot, wrote that the film was “like an ocean in which one constantly discovered deeper and darker lows.” Barkan watched as the cultural establishment, made up of a small gaggle of self-appointed intellectuals and academics tethered to the single left-wing political party that had governed Israel since its establishment, championed My Michael instead, an insufferably pretentious film based on Amos Oz’s political novel of the same name. My Michael won three Dan David prizes that year, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars at the time. Good luck finding any actual Israeli who bothered watching it.

‘Snooker,’ 1975

If all that snubbing ever got to Barkan, he wasn’t letting on. In 1980, feeling there were only so many Burekas plotlines to explore, he directed Smile, You’ve Been Had, a candid camera film that was so wildly popular it spawned a decade’s worth of sequels. Some of Barkan’s pranks have aged poorly, like the one in which Danuta Lato, a Polish model and actress, pretends to be a waitress at a café and exposes her breast every time customers asks for more milk in their coffee. Others remain as vital and uproarious as anything cooked up by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: In one memorable scene, for example, Barkan dispatched Moshon, his long-suffering sidekick, to pretend to be a mohel and show up at the bris of Barkan’s own nephew. Perky and upbeat, Moshon arrives and tells anyone who’d listen that he’s so excited, this being his first day on the new job and all. As he prattles on about how thrilled he is to finally perform a circumcision, the camera stays on Barkan’s parents, the proud bubbe and zayde, who are horrified but too polite and trusting to say anything and risk offending the nice young mohel. Moshon, meanwhile, gets to work, opening his leather bag and pulling out a host of instruments, from an oversize pair of gardening shears to a rusty saw. As the baby’s mother, Barkan’s sister, draws close to fainting, he finally reveals that it was all a hoax. The sister isn’t amused: She raises her arm and tries to smack her impish brother, who legs it just in time. Family drama, crowd psychology, and broad slapstick all come together to create a scene that, even after a decadeslong diet of reality TV, still feels fresh and extreme.

This second wave of crowd-pleasers brought Barkan no love. Neither did a trilogy of comic dramas, Aba Ganuv, about a divorced middle-aged skipper struggling to be a good father to his small boy. The films that received critical love—and, often, reams of foreign funding—were brooding dramas, very frequently about Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, a long string of forgettable yawns immortalized primarily in doctoral dissertations, not the hearts and minds of fans.

‘The Skipper,’ 1987

Feeling both abandoned by his industry and impervious to box office slip-ups, Barkan decided to bet big, borrowing considerable amounts of money, some from loan sharks, to make a new romantic comedy about a couple meeting after their dogs fall in love. It was supposed to be Burekas Nouveau, but Israel of the mid-1990s was a very different place than it had been just two decades earlier: Awash in a torrent of newly arrived cable and satellite TV channels, Israelis didn’t flock to theaters as often as they did when there was but one state-run channel on TV to choose from.

The movie tanked, and Barkan lost everything. In an interview conducted just a week before he was rushed to the hospital, he shared what happened next: He was summoned by his bank manager, he said, and informed that he was utterly broke. Desperate, he decided to take his own life, but before he could follow through with suicide, his assistant called to remind him that he’d promised to give a lecture later that morning. Barkan showed up at the address he was given, and learned that the lecture he’d committed to was for an audience of kids with special needs.

“I looked up to the sky,” Barkan told the interviewer, “and I said ‘Dear God, thank you! Thank you for helping me understand that for all my troubles, there are people out there who have to deal with much bigger problems.’” It was the first step on a short road to religious observance; for the last two decades of his life, Barkan resided in a small religious moshav, acting only sporadically and lecturing occasionally, mainly to Orthodox audiences interested in hearing about his spiritual journey. Eventually, the Israeli Academy of Film and Television granted him a lifetime achievement award.

‘Charlie and a Half,’ 1974

But the cultural commissars weren’t done with Barkan yet. The day of his funeral, Haaretz, the liberal publication beloved by the Israeli intelligentsia, ran a seething piece accusing Barkan of sexism and misogyny for films he’d directed three decades earlier in a radically different cultural climate. When readers took to social media to angrily note that the very same people now chiding Barkan had supported Roy Cheeky Arad—a former Haaretz critic and a trendy left-wing activist, poet, and singer—earlier this year when he was accused of raping and sexually harassing underage girls, the establishment did what it had always done when it came to Yehuda Barkan and simply ignored the whole thing.

This time, however, Barkan’s fans had platforms of their own on which to celebrate his work as loudly as his critics were panning it. When he passed away, thousands of Israelis took to social media to mourn the loss and share clips both from Barkan’s earlier movies and his late-in-life lectures. The lad with the twinkly eyes playing pool and dreaming up schemes and the elderly grandpa sharing Hasidic tales were clearly one and the same, separated by decades and outlooks but united by the rare and essential insight that there’s hardly a greater mitzvah in this world than making someone laugh.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.