Film Review | Vigilantes for the Lord

“God’s Neighbors” opens quietly, with 22-year-old Avi in his dining room, singing psalms before the Friday night meal. Minutes later he’s out in the street beating up a group of Russian yobos who are drinking vodka and blasting techno from their car radio, disturbing the Sabbath peace in his gritty, working-class neighborhood of Bat Yam, a seaside town just south of Tel Aviv.

This action-packed yet surprisingly tender 2012 Israeli film had a better Hebrew title, HaMashgichim, or “The [Kosher] Supervisors” — like the rabbis whose business it is to maintain the kashrut of Jewish food, so Avi and his two buddies patrol their streets to rid them of unclean influences. That includes Russians who drink, women who dress immodestly, Jews who pedal porno films and Arabs who have the temerity not to be Jews.

“God’s Neighbors”

Shot on location in Bat Yam in just 15 days, director Meni Yaesh’s first full-length feature shows us an Israel often glimpsed, sometimes disparaged, but one which few of Israel’s political or culture elite have actually encountered. And, as is not often the case with Israeli films, it offers little judgment about the protagonists’ world of fierce camaraderie punctuated by drugs, trance music, Breslover Hassidism and street violence.

This isn’t a gentle film. When the protagonist and his friends aren’t cracking baseball bats against other guys’ spines, they’re spouting bigotry, racism and sexism as they down shots of whiskey.

But at the same time, Avi, at least, is trying to reconcile his hormone-driven penchant for violence with the Torah studies he and his friends are engaged in, at the feet of a charismatic rabbi.

There’s only a hint of politics, when the boys are headed to Yaffo to look for Arabs to beat up and one of them waxes nostalgic about his army days in Hebron when, he says, he and his pal could thrash Arabs with impunity. But even that is presented as partial explanation for the boys’ violence rather than political positioning by the director.

What saves this film from itself is the honesty of its director and young actors. They strike few false notes, with the exception of a somewhat maudlin final scene. Even Avi’s spiritual struggle as he tries to reconcile his newfound faith with his attraction to the wild-spirited Miri doesn’t come across as far-fetched. He’s really trying to understand a pretty mean world, and while his words may sound brutal or pat, you can see the heart beating underneath.

“God’s Neighbors”
screens at 7 p.m. March 9 at the CinéArts in Pleasant Hill. In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles. (Not rated, 102 minutes)

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].