A Hebrew Lesson reveals difficult lives of immigrants

The involving Israeli documentary “A Hebrew Lesson” offers a valuable glimpse of an experience that most people can only imagine — the challenge of adapting to a foreign country.

Recognizing that the language barrier is the first frustration for most “olim hadashim,” filmmakers David Ofek and Ron Rotem use a daily ulpan class as an anchor and a hub. But for the five smart, resourceful non-Jewish adults they follow over the course of a few months, the lack of Hebrew fluency proves minor compared to other issues.

“A Hebrew Lesson” was shot in Tel Aviv, but it might as well be New York or Paris. Immigrants everywhere endure loneliness, culture shock and stress on their relationships, while the film’s insights into Israeli society are pretty limited.

In other words, the drama (and comedy) is human rather than political. That makes for compelling viewing, but not a work of earth-shaking importance.

“A Hebrew Lesson” airs Wednesday, May 14 on the Sundance Channel, capping a day of programming in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary. The lineup includes the documentary “5 Days,” shot during the 2005 withdrawal of settlers from Gaza, the Orthodox comedy “Ushpizin” and “Paper Dolls,” a documentary about transgender Filipino caregivers in Tel Aviv.

The “cast” of “A Hebrew Lesson” unexpectedly includes two Chinese women, the aspiring filmmaker Dong Dong and the older Chin, a cleaning woman who married her wealthy boss.

Self-confident 35-year-old German Annabel and 24-year-old Marisol, a vivacious Peruvian, immigrated to be with their Israeli lovers. Sasha, a lawyer in Russia who’s relegated to working in a restaurant kitchen in Tel Aviv while wrestling with his ex over their daughter, is the only male student in the film.

For Dong Dong, who’s shocked to learn of the exploitation of Chinese workers and sets about documenting their plight, Israel is a decidedly mixed bag. For Marisol, whose boyfriend cuts off contact after she gets pregnant and declares that abortion violates her beliefs, Israel is a mistake she’s eager to put behind her.

The classroom, meanwhile, provides both escape and melodrama. The goal of ulpan, as the folk-dancing lessons and occasional dance breaks illustrate, is not just to teach Hebrew but to initiate immigrants in Israeli culture and set them on the road to assimilation.

Some lessons are acutely jarring, however. When the students react to the difficulty of a particular assignment, their dedicated teacher has a meltdown over what she perceives as a lack of respect. The students, meanwhile, are offended by what they experience as Yoela’s rudeness, but which is in fact everyday, standard-issue Israeli brusqueness.

(Yoela has tsuris of her own, dealing with an ex who never paid child support. That digression adds to the film’s damning portrait of Israeli men as immature, selfish and irresponsible.)

As with any saga of immigrants, there are hints and foreshadowing that some of the subjects are not going to stick in their adopted country. The tension becomes palpable late in the film when Chin goes back to China to see her daughter and Sasha returns to Russia to visit friends. Will they use the return half of their tickets, or are the ties to their homeland too strong?

In a poignant illustration that life has gone on without him, Sasha drops in unannounced on the firm he founded and is greeted less than cordially. It wouldn’t be so painful if his new life in Israel was going swimmingly, but that’s how it is.

It goes without saying that “A Hebrew Lesson” has an open ending. Assimilation, after all, is a process.

“A Hebrew Lesson” airs 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 14 on the Sundance Channel.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.