Examining the immigrant experience through the eyes of multiethnic students in a language immersion class in Tel Aviv, engrossing docu “The Hebrew Lesson” brings a fresh take on how non-natives cope with life in a new culture. Helmers David Ofek and Ron Rotem maximize the idea of the classroom as the first step toward a hoped-for melting pot, but they tend to avoid delicate issues such as the differences in experience for Jews and non-Jews in Israel. A prizewinner at Jerusalem fest, the pic, also available in five 30-minute episodes, is a natch for PBS pickup.
Divided into monthly chapters, the docu focuses on a small group led by teacher Yoela, herself an immigrant whose positive experience as a child inspired her to help smooth the way for others. Not without emotional baggage, Yoela exudes the kind of upbeat, encouraging warmth necessary for a welcoming adult classroom.
Five students are followed in class and in their daily lives. Chinese emigre Chin started life in Israel as a maid but then married the boss. Despite their different personalities, she befriends fellow countrywoman Dong Dong, a docu filmmaker with an Israeli husband who’s finding it difficult adjusting to the edginess of Israeli society.
Annabel moved from Germany for love, but the independent-minded woman is having a hard time dealing with life as an unemployed, dependent foreigner. Saddest of all is Sasha, a lawyer back in Russia who moved to Tel Aviv to be near the daughter his estranged ex won’t let him see.
Finally, there’s latecomer Marisol, a larger-than-life Jewish Latina from Peru who adores being filmed. Marisol certainly brings sparks to the classroom, though she’s not destined for life in Israel.
Helmers are blessed with subjects interesting enough to have docus on their own (though Marisol’s love of attention becomes wearisome), and despite the two-plus hours there’s little fat. That said, their avoidance of touchy issues about Israeli identity, institutionalized machismo and the right of return leave holes screaming to be filled. Anyone with a knowledge of the country can tell from the get-go that Annabel’s difficulty in understanding the Israeli conscription system will mean the end of both her relationship and her sojourn.
While helmers were presumably on a low budget (docu was shot on DigiBeta, though large-screen projection is trouble-free), they managed to accompany both Chin and Sasha on their holidays back home, increasing the poignancy for both. A follow-up could certainly be in the works.