Family Trumps Ideology

Set in Jerusalem in 1981, Joseph Cedar’s “Campfire” focuses on a young widow trying secure a place for herself and her two adolescent daughters in one of Israel’s nascent West Bank settlements. Those expecting an overtly political or ideological film, however, are in for something very different. More than anything, “Campfire” is a personal and affecting exploration of the inevitable tension between the need for security and belonging, and our desire to forge our own path.

When the film begins, Rachel Gerlick’s husband has been dead for a year—^the family has just completed the requisite mourning period— and, at least initially, his absence seems to have more practical than emotional implications for the family. As a single mother, Rachel is apparently not an ideal candidate for settlement life. Indeed, Cedar’s pioneers seem nothing like their ideologically driven, contemporary counterparts. While the men wear yarmulkes and the women long skirts, these settlers appear to be motivated primarily by the prospect of acquiring undervalued real estate on which to develop a middle-class suburb. To demonstrate her desire to fit in, Rachel allows the wife of the settlement organizer to set her up on dates with a shy and virginal middleaged bus driver and a worldly, pompous cantor.

While Rachel embarks on awkward forays into the world of dating, her two daughters are in the midst of their own sexual awakenings. Esti, openly contemptuous of her mother’s eagerness to conform, takes every opportunity to sneak off with her soldier boyfriend. Her younger sister, Tami, spends evenings dancing alone to rock music in the living room, pausing only to practice kissing herself in the mirror. When Tami is molested by a group of boys celebrating Lag B’Omer around a campfire, the innocence of her solitary explorations is shattered.

The molestation proves to be a transformative event for Rachel and her family, though not a destructive one. Cedar does not make Tami into a victim. Instead, the episode and its aftermath—during which the settlement organizer urges Rachel to let the incident pass— disabuse Rachel of her desire to be part of the settlement group, propelling her instead to grab the reins of her family again.

With the exception of the bus driver, with whom Rachel ultimately begins a tentative relationship, most men in this film arc buffoons or brutes, and all we learn about Rachel’s late husband is that she was never really in love with him. In the end, however, this superbly acted film is not about male arrogance or foolishness so much as female strength, and the ways in which even the sometimes strained bonds of family can trump ideology.

Hella Winston’s new book is Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (Beacon, 2005).