Interview about “Unchained” (“Matir Agunot” original title) / TV Series 2019.
Translation from Hebrew to English: Adi Levi.
I participated in a small role on the TV series “Unchained”, and have felt that the plot was very current and personally touching. Questions awoke in me about the borders between my personal position and the social agenda – questions that I wanted answered, and thus came the idea of interviewing the creator of the series.
“Max. Born in Siberia, lives and works in Tel Aviv-Yafo. Freelance artist who works in research, study and involvement, science and art. Max specializes in BioArt (BioArt is art that literally works in the continuum of biomaterials, from DNA, proteins, and cells to full organisms. BioArt manipulates, modifies or creates life and living processes), but her vast artistic vocation spreads upon many styles, different means of expression and diverse artforms. Max’s creations tend to be radical in nature, and her use of unusual materials such as blood or jellyfish carcasses reveals deep layers of trauma, journey and struggle, woven into capturing personal and artistic life. The process of inquiry and obsessive self reflection turns into cruel and expository creations that ecoes a unique narrative.”
M: Hi Yossi.
M: We are friends and are familiar with each other, so let’s be informal. What always made me curious and is a mystery to me – I knew that but never really had the chance to ask – you grew up with an orthodox family in Jerusalem?
Y: It was a family that wasn’t exactly orthodox, they lived in an orthodox neighbourhood, a religious family, but it was a time, during the seventies, when Jews who came from Arabic countries were yet to define themselves with exact titles.The title of religious/orthodox/non-religious were very European and during the seventies the Jews who came from Arabic countries – oriental Jews – hadn’t yet internalized these titles. And because everyone was also religious, that is to say, all of the oriental Jews, it wasn’t like in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century when people radically left religion. In Arabic countries the thing happened 70-80 years later, and gradually, so they (my family) hadn’t defined themselves in any set terms, because we lived in a Jewish-orthodox neighbourhood it so happened that yes, we were in the same school – same everything.
M: Where did your family come from – were they in Israel for generations upon generations?
Y: They were in Israel for a few generations, about 140 years, and they didn’t completely understand the world around them, that there is such a thing as “non-religious” or that there is more than one kind of “religious” orthodox and non-orthodox. To them it was the same, there are Jews and they are all of the same sequence – some of them more religious and some less. That meant that there wasn’t any distribution among separate groups.
M: Weren’t there the same separations and definitions like we have now?
Y: No! There weren’t! They weren’t sharp. Not very sharp anyway.
M: And they didn’t find it significant?
Y: They began to take notice… that was a start. If I was to go back 30 years they wouldn’t at all. During the seventies, however, they began to take heed of these terms: orthodox/religious/non-religious, but still, there wasn’t a complete separation. It’s like today, when they say, for example – you can be straight or you can be gay – you can also be in the middle – on a sequence.
M: Does it come from the modern world?
Y: Yes. The separation is very very dichotomic, very very defined – it’s not something that was back then.
M: OK, so you actually were religious?
Y: Yes. I was religious. From the point of view of the environment I was religious, I was in an orthodox neighborhood, so more or less I was a part of that kind of society. But my home wasn’t… It wasn’t like: we’re orthodox and there are non-religious and we’re hostile towards each other – they didn’t even understand the concept.
M: Does that mean they lived in peace?
Y: Yes, yes, that’s how it was for oriental – Jews, at least, but what I’m saying doesn’t apply to the Jews that came from Poland and Europe at all.
M: They came because of the war – otherwise they wouldn’t have come.
Y: Lots of them. What I’m saying really only applies to that kind of family that mine was who were oriental, so, even though I became non-religious that doesn’t mean it was a trauma! It wasn’t like in orthodox families today, where if someone leaves religion it spells disaster!
M: Yes, even now there are special homes and non-profit organizations for people, especially youth, who left religion.
Y: Yes, who left religion and because of that were left with nothing.
M: That their family cursed them, threw them out… boycotted… and now they have nothing.
Y: True… true… In oriental families, however, it wasn’t like that, sure it was tough when the kid stops going to the synagogue, stops doing what the parents tells them, but they weren’t cut off! No sudden major changes, that was a bit different. So that was a relief for me.
M: So you weren’t going through any trauma?
Y: There was one, but tiny, you disappoint your parents… disappointed your father…
M: But nothing like throwing you out and boycotting you?
Y: No no no, it was more like disappointing someone.
M: OK – we’re all a disappointment to our parents…
Y: Yes – in some shape or form – yes.
M: So, you’re in touch with your family?
Y: Of course! Of course! With all of them!
M: Cool! So it’s not at all like what I assumed (Max smiles).
Y: (laughs) So that’s it. But like you said – orthodox society – most of society in Israel these days is orthodox – that’s a major trauma if someone leaves and becomes non-religious. I know about that. I know about a lot of these.
M: I also know about people who left their family – and were forced to live in the street.
Y: Yes, true, there are a lot of these – sure. During the course of the series we talk about that too. Without major spoilers, from episode 8 it starts to acknowledge the world of people who left religion, but you’ll get to that part.
M: OK. This moved me very very much. Also, the performance of Rabbi Joseph… And I read about Avigayil who is actually also from a religious family – she left the religious world.
Y: Right. So this is a funny story. I’ll tell you why, because she left the religious world, and the guy who plays Rabbi Joseph, he repented! Yes, this is really funny…
M: Yes, you can see it in Avigayil’s movements, in her performance, she knows that world.
Y: Yes yes.
M: I know of your creations, “Redemption” was also about religious people, and about the word/term “redemption”: where did you get the idea for this piece? Where did it come from? Was it a commission – or was it all you?
Y: It was an idea that sat with me for maybe 15 years… it’s a story that I heard from someone – an insurance agent. An insurance agent came to sell me a policy – an insurance policy, he was so boring… and during the conversation he told me that he got married a few weeks ago, so as not to bore myself further I asked him: “well, how did you meet the mrs.? where have you two met?”. He told me that he met her at some friend’s party, fell in love, fell for her immediately. And after a few days he got her phone and told her: “I fell in love – I want you to be my wife, such mad love, in an instant…” so then she cried, she suddenly cried. And so he asked her: “why are you crying?” and she says to him: “listen, I have also felt something for you, but I’m agunah (which means chained woman – a woman that cannot married again – according to the Jewish law a woman can get a divorce only if her husband agrees). And furthermore – her husband disappeared, ran off. He was half-criminal so he fled… she was religious, which prevented her from performing intercourse and remarrying. Because she’s religious, you see, If she ever brought a child into this world, this kid would be branded a bastard. And being a bastard is something that would hamper him in many things – in the Rabbinate (the supreme Jewish religious governing body in the state of Israel) – he would never be able to get married.
M: If he will be religious…
Y: Yes, if he was religious, but also if he wasn’t… and that disturbed her because she was like that, and so, she told my insurance agent all that, and he said – well – I find your husband. And she tells him – no chance – we sent a detective… applied for the help of the Rabbinate… there isn’t any chance, and even if you do find him, he will never divorce me because he’s crazy. But my insurance agent did learn, did research on that husband. He even managed to contact his father, and discovered that he’s in the USA, working at a gas station, and he went to look for him. Because he knew him so well, as a result of the research, he managed to convince him to get a divorce. OK? He was like a psychologist. That’s a bit like the work of a psychologist.
M: Yes, Rabbi Joseph is also a psychologist.
Y: Right, right. And then he returned to Israel and married his wife. That’s the story of my insurance agent that was interesting to me, and that’s the foundation of the series, but the series touches on many things that interested me, like the place that… I won’t call it “feministic”, but the place that’s tied to women’s rights – which in Judaism, and in society in general, being a woman is being in a kind of prison, that’s more obvious in religious Judaism of course. It actually touches the idea that a woman is the property of her husband.
M: Actually, all these parts of the series, when I see them – it startles me! I feel as if I’m on fire!
Y: You mean the part where you can’t touch a woman during the time she’s having her period… that’s basically the prison.
M: As if she’s some kind of a womb with legs, a walking womb!
Y: True, true. So the series moves between two places: first he loves her truly, but on the other hand, as you said – she’s a walking womb.
M: Because he’s religious. He’s religious in his mind. Even if he is a smart guy…
Y: True, but he cannot, and wouldn’t abandon this concept.
M: It’s by definition for him. I’ll grant you, he’s a very smart guy, very emphatic…
Y: True, she’s having her period, can’t be touched for 4 days and also a week later she’s impure, and those are the rules in the Jewish religion, and that’s reality.
M: I know.
Y: But they don’t see it like you do, they tell themselves a different story. That imprisonment contributes to many aspects of their lives…
M: I’m aware. Because that’s what the Torah says, and therefore there must be a justification.
Y: That’s right, so that’s something that’ll interest me too, the religious law about the treatment of women and this place of the story that I heard from the insurance agent, these two places of that prison. Even the physiology of the woman is a kind of prison – her period is what I mean. That place interests me and from there the idea came, and I offered that idea to the TV channels, and it wasn’t accepted, for a long time it wasn’t accepted. But finally the public access station took it, because you can offer it again and again.
Y: I began writing this 15 years ago…
M: Wow! It means that you’re dragging this thing…
Y: Yes, but not obsessively. It wasn’t an obsession. So it came to me and I remembered it in the back of my mind. Back there it sat. From time to time it arose but it wasn’t an obsession. And then, as mentioned, when the new public access station was established, things turned out OK.
M: OK… ummm… there are scenes in the series… where you besmirch Rabbi Nachman! You besmarched him!
Y: Yes, yes – I wouldn’t call it “besmirching”, but those parts were the hardest to watch for those who are religious.
M: You were besmirching. Now that I know about your family and how you got out scot-free and that you’re still in touch. Yet, In the series you don’t give a crap, you show the dirty side religious-Israeli society, disgust included.
Y: That’s right. There was criticism, even harsh criticism, but I also have sympathy towards them.
M: Sure. Me too, but still – you mean business – you show these things.
Y: Right. Listen – there is no such thing in art – no such thing as meaning business. Once you mean business – you find yourself in showbiz rather than in the world of art.
M: But still, not everyone has the courage to do that, like not many people have the courage to present what I’m presenting.
Y: Sometimes my family shows discomfort. They look and say “nice, nice”, but I understand that they’re not always comfortable. I have certain worries because I care about what they’ll say, not only the family – the orthodox society in general. Even reading a talkback of an orthodox person who was hurt – it does something to me. But I see the compensation for that in the fact that the series does not hate them – you can’t hate them.
M: I see that.
Y: OK… let’s say that there is such a thing – Communism – a Communist ideal. You can separate between the ideal and what happened in the USSR – which was cruelty and madness. I think that you can separate between Jewish philosophy and things that happenes in Jewish society – like you said: the Rabbis are corrupted – true! There are many corrupted Rabbis. But what enraged orthodox viewers the most was that I insulted Rabbi Nachman. It was hard for them, that was the most annoying part (both laughs), later there will be even more anger-inducing things, in regard to Christianity.
M: At first I studied all the episodes thoroughly. And for some reason decided to watch “The Passion of the Christ” again, a very harsh film, where the Jews killed Jesus. I think it’s one of the best movies, it gets the message across.
Y: You mean the Mel Gibson movie? Yeah, great movie, but it didn’t get recognized enough, for fear of angering Jewish viewers.
M: Because they were afraid. In some countries they only sold tickets to Christians and not to Muslims, feared that it’ll cause a wave of anti-semitism…
Y: Yes, but it’s not politically correct that movie, that was the problem.
M: And when I saw it, I wept through the whole thing – devastated from crying.
Y: Solid movie.
M: Very solid… so Jews killed Jesus!
Y: Eventually, yes.
M: For religion – rather, in the name of religion.
Y: Eventually in the name of religion. They let him die in the name of religion, yes.
M: They didn’t let him – they killed him!
Y: Whoever knocked the nails, you mean?
M: No! Whoever decided to execute him – the Jewish priests, they even offered them Barabbas (the killer) in his stead.
Y: Yes, I would have said that the Jews didn’t save him from death, that’s the definition, that’s what it says in the gospel, word for word – he didn’t make stuff up, did Mel Gibson.
M: I know – I studied the subject thoroughly. Let us continue… And of course: money, Jewish=MONEY!.
Y: Say, are you Jewish?
M: Half, but according to Halakha (collective body of Jewish religious laws) I’m not. I’m also a bastard.
Y: According to Halakha you are not Jewish.
M: My father is Jewish. And I was born outside the law as well.
Y: Was your mother married? Not divorced?… But because she’s not Jewish, you aren’t considered a bastard!
M: Sure – I’m considered nothing. Don’t know what I am, I don’t care for that. I know my father was Jewish and I was born outside the law. But even in Russia they were always saying things and pointing at me – bastard! Smelly Jew! All the time! My aunt was fanatical communist.
Y: Aunt on your father’s side? Mother’s side?
M: Mother’s side. She hated me. When I was very little she would grab me by my feet – shaking and shouting: “You are a smelly Jew!” “You are a bastard!”
Y: Was that in Ukraine?
M: Russia – Siberia. She was also very violent towards me.
Y: Yes, you told me.
M: Well… she was a sick woman (mentally). So, money! Let’s talk straight – Jews=MONEY!
Y: It’s a thing, yes.
M: But it’s a very big thing. Even on the series, that part with uncle Shimon – a dying man, a sick man, and what do they care about the most? Money!
Y: True, but you know – the moment it’s done humorously – people have an easier time looking at it.
M: You know, even when I’m walking down the street – and I don’t have a smartphone… I turn around, looking, listening to what people say – or on the bus – most conversations are about money.
Y: Could be something in Jewish history, at least in Europe Jews were forbidden from being farmers. There was a law that stated: Jew can’t be a farmer, so actually Jews passed into all the jobs that involved money. And it could be that this sociology has something to do with that. Jews couldn’t work in more than one place – so they mostly went to commerce and banking.
M: And then they evolved in the genes.
Y: I don’t know about the genes – but in sociology – in culture. I hope it’s culture, because if it’s the genes than you can’t change that. It’s a cultural thing.
M: They are very successful in this field, too.
Y: Yes. They were a minority for all these years and needed to be very sophisticated to succeed.
M: And that’s the reality of what’s happening right now. Terrible horrific disgusting reality – of corruption, of lies… orthodox people visiting hookers… in Uman for example everyone already knows what they’re coming to get, some of them, and you know – an entire society – with a severe case of Pedophilia and sexual violence towards children.
Y: I guess that the phenomenon is more common there because of all the prohibition among other things.
M: But it’s a religious person! So what does it matter???
Y: You’re right, I’m not trying to defend anyone, rather I’m trying to explain where it comes from. There is, in that society, a large gap between what we see on the outside to what’s actually happening on the inside. In that respect, religion turned into a kind of bourgeoisie. What’s bourgeoisie? That on the outside everything seems alright – and on the inside, what you can’t see – not so bad, OK? So it’s important for them that people see how they wear tzitzit and payot and a beard. They perform all of the mitzvah, and there are of course many beautiful things there, but on the inside – much less important to them, that’s when religion turns into bourgeoisie.
M: But it’s not inside anymore – it’s been outside for a long time – that stench has come out already.
Y: Because you can’t hide things. That’s what’s so amazing! The gap between the inside and the outside. The series reaches these places – from episode 8, 9,10 that’s what the series deals with: that there is an unbelievable difference between the inside and the outside. On the outside you see very religious people, with orthodox attire, and on the inside you see something completely different, that’s interesting that’s amazing.
M: It’s terrible too.
M: It also means that if it’s not one then it’s two, and if it’s an entire society…
Y: Don’t know if it’s the entire society, I think that 30%-40% of people there don’t really believe in God.
M: I think so too.
Y: And if that’s the case, it means a third of them are purposelessly doing stuff, doing the mitzvah…
M: Like robots.
Y: Yet, thinking about it deeply – I think that these things exist in a non-religious society as well, be it less obvious.
M: Give me an example then.
Y: OK – say left-wing supporters, that say “we’re all for equality and acceptance for Arabs“ but aren’t really… they’ll have a hard time having an Arab neighbor. There are such cases amidst the Israeli left-wing supporters.
M: Umm… I don’t know… I know Oded (the closest human) and he’s left-wing and has no problem living near Arabs – because he’s honest.
Y: We’ll always have honest people. OK, but let’s say that part of the people from Herzliya Pituah (home to many wealthy Israelis, it is known for its hotels, restaurants and high-tech industry, and has the largest marina in Israel. It is considered one of Israel’s most prestigious neighbourhoods) that are left wing supporters or Meretz (a left-wing, social-democratic and green political party in Israel) supporters. I guess they won’t agree to living near Arabs.
M: No! they won’t! No way! They’re hypocrites!
Y: So the matter of “inner” and “outer” appearance is there too.
M: Not only in Herzliya Pituah – but they’ll not go to live near an Arab.
Y: OK, so the same goes for the outer appearance, and the lie.
M: OK, you gave a good example.
Y: I’m sure there are more examples.
M: I understood you. You actually answered the question – why did you choose the subject that is actually feminist in nature – “make her free”.
Y: Yes. We have on one hand – a protagonist who’s job is to make women free, but on the other hand he does the same thing to his wife, until it blows up further down the line… There’s a kind of irony here.
M: Yes. Come episode 7 he’s… we’ll see, there’s a clue that he’s beginning to see what he did to Hana.
Y: True. That he’s actually – making her go through a rape, yes – since episode 7 it starts being difficult. And episode 8 makes things even clearer.
M: I know that she’s been through rape because I was part of the cast – so I heard during filming. Because the entire story is that they can’t have an intercourse – there’s something there…
Y: True, that’s the last thing we learn about her.
M: You had the intention in that creation to pass a certain message to the Israeli society? To the viewers? Did you think about that?
Y: Yes! There always is, you always try to say something… largely, the message is – that Jewish Halakha is something that hasn’t changed for a long time, and if it wants to be relevant, it has to change. Now. And I wanted to say that out of love – not out of negativity… not out of – “let’s throw it into the trash”.
M: Time for a change?
Y: It has been time for more than 200 years. I’ll tell you a little about Jewish culture… Say, in the Torah, in “Book of Exodus” or in “Book of Leviticus” – there’s a rule: If a boy doesn’t do what his parent tells him to three times and he’s unruly – then he should be taken and stoned – says so in the Torah.
M: What do you mean? With stones?
Y: Kill him. Throw stones at him until he dies. Do you want me to show you where it says this (Max laughs)? I can show you.
Y: It was a rule that was common more than 3000 years ago.
M: And it’s still valid?
Y: No! 3000 years ago it was common throughout the world… the east at least. Yet, 2000 years ago it didn’t fit with what people felt was right… back in the time of Jesus Christ… a little before his time actually. The wise Jewish philosophers understood that it’s unthinkable, and they changed the ruling. They changed a law that existed in the Torah – they changed it – however illogical it sounds, but they had the influence and the wisdom – to change the rules, without really cancelling them. To turn it into a rule that will never actually be taking place, in practice it got cancelled. They cancelled it elegantly – they didn’t say – let’s throw it into the trash, they said – true, that law exists, but it can never actually be carried out. They had found something – like Jews do – found a bug in the system. And rules continued to change – in correspondence with the times – until about 1000 years ago. 1000 years ago – boom! It stopped changing entirely. Up until 1000 years ago Judaism was the most liberal thing in the world, it was more liberal than Islam, of course it was more liberal than Christianity. But 1000 years ago it got stuck in place – because books were written that were the “final word” – it’s called “laid table”, “laid table” is when a very important Rabbi, Joseph Karo, took all the already set rules and put them together into one book and gave it a stand – “Final”! Absolute! And that book actually summed up all the rules of Judaism – and signed that! Now there is more than one of these books – that pretty much closed all chances of change in Jewish law. In the end orthodox Jews of today are like the orthodox Jews of the year 1200 or 1300 – it hasn’t really changed. So then, the series shows the absurd, trying to show that it doesn’t fit. That there is something about these rules that has to change.
M: The outfit doesn’t fit anymore.
Y: Exactly – it doesn’t fit today’s world. It’s one message that’s directed more towards religious society. But I think that eventually the series deals also in the relationship between a man and a woman in general – outside of the religious world, showing the power games. It’s not exactly a message but it is to show them – listen – there are power games, it’s about controlling others. That’s it for the message. It’s not didactic… What exactly is the greatest bug in Judaism today? When all is set and done It’s the position of women, that’s the place where Jewish religion is stuck at. In the 18th century. The 19th century was when the women’s position in society began to change, but Jewish culture was stuck there. In, say, Christianity a woman can’t be a priest – so Christian society is also stuck. Catholic Christianity… Islam of course. But Judaism defined itself – here’s what’s funny – it defined itself at the start as the religion that changes, that readjusts itself to life, it’s DNA began as a religion that can change with the times, and at some point it broke down.
M: OK, fine,everything breaks.
Y: Everything breaks – all the ideologies.
M: So actually Rabbi Joseph – you can see he’s a smart man who was born religious, and he… has this restlessness – he’s searching all the time, he got into this job, that of “makes them free” because he’s that way.
M: So actually, in episode 7 the doctor that asks him – what’s that rush to know everything? What are all these questions? What is he after?… Why did you make the character that way?
Y: Because he’s a character that’s actually ambivalent – torn – derived from “to tear” – something torn apart inside. On the one hand, like you said, he’s a Rabbi and should act according to Halakha, on the other hand, he has something – in his subconscious, that goes against that – he’s drawn to the non-religious world – there’s no doubt about it – he’s drawn to forbidden things. He’s conflicted between the desire for freedom and the desire to follow the law. He has aspiration or desire – to break the rules, but he follows them.
M: He’s undergoing inner turmoil, yes, I understand – me too, am a person exploding with questions.
Y: But you don’t have aspirations to live by the law.
M: Which law?
Y: What counts as normal in your society.
M: It’s not an issue at all.
Y: OK – It’s not an issue for you, social law.
M: They can suck my dick – but there are things that I’ll never do.
Y: For him then, the conflict is between religious rules and his attraction to forbidden things.
M: Society also forces him! He’s under pressure! But I actually liked that he’s brimming with questions! And want to know! And wants to find out… some things he rejected, some he accepts.
Y: Even if he goes by religion and by Halakha, he’s always listening, always trying to learn.
M: I think we should stop here. You know, religion gives and religion takes away… religion is in fact some kind of… it gives you some footing, some security.
Y: Right! Right.
M: You know – like “I have a father now that I can lean on”.
Y: True. This world that is in chaos – if there are rules behind everything than it’s actually not that chaotic. Religion says that there are rules and even though you don’t always understand them, everything works by some kind of plan, and it’s not a coincidence – everything that’s happening. What actually scares us the most in that world? Finding out that it has no rules and anything can happen, and religion gives us a response, gives us an answer – a solution to that.
M: It doesn’t always give an answer…
Y: Which is why people leave religion…
M: But it gives some kind of illusion.
Y: You can call it an illusion… an illusion of confidence, listen, there are religious people out there who actually do ask questions and they approach philosophy and ask the tough questions…
M: I get what you’re saying.
Y: But eventually – at the basis of religion… to which there’s no proof, there is an irrational faith.
M: Like when in “The Passion of the Christ” if you recall – he always calls him father, which is above the understanding. Also, when Rabbi Joseph is at the village in Ukraine he talks about it.
Y: True! So you get something that’s beyond your understanding, and you decide to live your entire life by that – that’s a crazy decision!
M: You know – Nietzsche said – “God is dead”! That’s that, it destroys your entire world.
Y: So, if there are people who believe, say, instead of God – in family – that fixes the world for them too: I have a family and I need to get money to raise the children, that fixes your world nicely. There are people who believe in money… I have order: anything costs money… Next year I’ll earn some and slowly I’m making progress… and that’s the discipline. That’s what that person believes in.
M: Yes, It’s scary – It’s scary to be without it! It’s comforting. You need courage or whatever to live without all those things.
Y: That’s right.
M: I was brought up without all those things… brought up without… and still has that feeling – the feeling of having no solid foundation, no basis.
Y: I’m not that good – I was raised having a solid foundation… a family that wanted the best for me. They are good people and I learned to love and respect them even if I don’t agree with them. And when i look at that – It’s amazing!
M: Yes it is amazing.
Y: You’re right – the scariest thing – is having no solid basis in life. The series slowly goes in that direction in the next few episodes… his world begins to crumble… until he’s – terrified. As his world slowly… crumbles down.
*Special thanks to Nadav Frankowitz and Eshy Lavi for generous help in editing text.