TV series on quiet heroes captures Israel's mood

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Later, she would compare the sound to the viper-like hiss of a whip, just before it cracks. There wasn't even time to wonder what it was. One second Malka Abramson was in her living room, trying to air out choking fumes from a faulty gas heater. Then the hiss and eruption: angry balls of flame jumping like lightning, dancing up her housecoat, licking the ceiling, clawing their way to the rooms where her children and grandmother slept.

Mrs. Abramson braved the inferno twice to carry her kids out to neighbors in the street. When a soldier in the crowd refused to rescue her Nana, she plunged in a third time.

Abramson survived - barely - and now her story is part of a hit Israeli TV series. "Heroes, But Not by Choice," features ordinary people who have done extraordinary things in face of the unexpected.

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The program's success provides a barometer of the national mood, highlighting the kind of behavior Israelis expect of themselves at a time of great uncertainty. Israelis have always celebrated a certain kind of steely grit, a response to life in a country forged in violence that, a half-century later, still continues.

In its emphasis on civilian heroism - over the military equivalent - the show also reflects the profound economic and social changes Israel has undergone in the last few decades.

"This program shows that there's been a shift in the notion of valor," says Robert Wistrich, professor of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"The definition is much less collective, less about ideology or self-sacrifice for the state and more individual. It's part of a larger shift in a society that resembles the West more than it used to."

Unhappy the land that needs heroes, wrote the playwright Bertolt Brecht. He could have been thinking about Israel. While heroic myths are essential threads in every country's national fabric, Israel's stories aren't dusted off and brought out for special occasions. They are regularly burnished, told, and retold.

Core legends preceded Israel's existence and gave hope to Zionists aspiring to a state. The story of Masada in AD 70 and Bar Kokhba in AD 135 both outline Jewish battles against the Romans. Joseph Trumpeldor's 1920 defense of a small northern settlement against Bedouins had an enormous influence on the Zionist movement.

"You can't build a nation without heroism, especially a besieged state like Israel," says Joseph Heller, also a Hebrew University historian.

"Heroism is part and parcel of the country's basic national education system." He notes that some Israeli Army brigades take the oath to serve their country at Masada, the mountaintop fortress where militant Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman forces.

"Self-sacrifice is always central in these stories," says Professor Heller. "Militarism without myth is meaningless."

Newer legends joined the pantheon, including the daring 1976 raid by Israeli commandos to free hostages at Uganda's Entebbe Airport. Then in 1989, journalist Yarin Kimor contributed to the genre with the original TV series "Heroes, But Not By Choice," which was about the military.

"The concept was that the story starts when it's seemingly over," says Mr. Kimor, a large, engaging man. "It's about how people find the inner strength to fight a seemingly hopeless battle."

The series garnered 95 percent ratings - some 3 million viewers - and won a prize for best program of the year. Israel was a simpler place then. Television was relatively new and there was only one state-owned channel. The country was a poor place that for decades had been absorbing huge numbers of immigrants with nothing to their name.

"It was an austere, even Spartan society," says Professor Wistrich. For many decades, its socialistic roots made it one of the world's most egalitarian countries.

By 2003, when Kimor's new version of "Heroes" hit the airwaves, Israel had changed.

Exposure to TV and the advent of cable helped create a more Westernized, materialistic culture. According to a December 2002 parliamentary report, an economic boom and bust helped open an income gap between rich and poor that, among developed countries, is second only to the US gap.

Now, economic reforms threaten to put a nail in the coffin of Israel's traditional welfare state, fundamentally changing the country's character. The war in Iraq only compounded anxieties caused by Israel's ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

"Maybe Israelis are seeking heroes," says Kimor, whose series is garnering 17 percent ratings - a good showing, when the competition includes shows like "Friends."

After his first series, Kimor kept collecting stories of bravery and found he was drawn less to tales of military derring-do than those of "quiet heroism, heroism without sparkles. There is so much greater strength in people than they know.

"The stars of our reality are always the same, the head of the army, politicians," he continues. "But maybe the greater stars are the unknown ones. A lot of what has happened in Israel since its founding is based on the strength of unwilling heroes."

He may be striking a chord because there's a greater skepticism about what heroism is. Indeed, conscientious objectors who refuse to follow military orders have become an issue in the conflict with the Palestinians.

"The older, more naive idea of patriotic self-sacrifice for the country - it's never going to be that again," says Wistrich, noting that the concept of heroism changed as warfare became more technological. "The camaraderie and ethos hasn't changed, but there's less scope for what was traditionally considered heroism."

Kimor's new subjects include a respected professor who, as a young man, was left for dead after a massive brain injury; a Jewish Ethiopian girl who walked to Israel alone; and Abramson.

Her story is less about her rescue of her family than of her fight to live afterward. No one anywhere is known to have survived severe burns on 85 percent of their body. Abramson, a thoughtful woman with hazel-green eyes, says she held on because no one told her she was expected to die.

"I used to think people on their death beds should be told," she says. "This changed my thinking."

Kimor lets his subjects tell their own stories with input from family and friends. Doctors help recount Abramson's 1981 ordeal. Kimor uses old photos to show her charred skin while his camera lingers on her damaged hands.

Occasionally, his voice is heard off-screen. Kimor's presence is unintrusive, but his questions are probing. Abramson's children admit they were ashamed of her appearance in the mask that kept her skin in place after she left the hospital.

Her husband tells Kimor she looked no different to him, saying, "her insides were still the same."

Throughout the series, Kimor deftly shows viewers the strength in his subjects, strength they might not even see in themselves.

Abramson's story was filmed during Hannukah, a holiday when candles are lit. In one scene, several candles flicker behind her on a table. There is a pause as the camera lingers on Abramson's face, its slightly rumpled skin, then Kimor asks if she can still see beauty in a flame.

She smiles and says yes.

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