After their increasingly successful collaboration on Shtisel, writer Ori Elon and writer/director Yehonatan Indursky developed another family drama with more explicit political dimensions. In the six-episode TV series Autonomies, the authors posit an Israel in the aftermath of a civil war.
That war began with a demonstration in which 13 yeshiva students were killed. Thirty years later, the ultra-orthodox have established the Haredi Autonomy, centered in Jerusalem. The secular State of Israel has its capital in Tel Aviv.
Their respective cultures are instantly identifiable. Two girls with bare and tattooed legs denote Tel Aviv. At the Autonomy’s border entry point Haredim solicit donations to charity. Clearly the modern thrives more than the old.
The central character is Yona Broide, an ostensibly orthodox Jew who uses his Burial Society job delivering corpses for burial as a front to smuggle forbidden materials into the Autonomy. He won’t put pork next to a corpse but sneaks in porn videos and forbidden books.
In this culture even children’s books are held back if not certified kosher. Broide is surprised that his client for the smuggled Freud and Thucydides is the Autonomy’s leader, the Rebbe from Kreinitz.
In asking the Rebbe to pray for him, Broide identifies himself as Yona ben Leah. That is, by his mother’s name not his father’s. His motivation remains enigmatic even when we much later — episode six — learn that his father — to whom he was very close — was killed in the Yeshiva demonstration that prompted the Autonomy’s war of independence.
Broide seems to grow out of the Lippe character in Shtisel, a man torn between the Orthodox restrictions and secular temptations of freedom. Despite — or because — he has a tight family life, with an orthodox wife Blumi and three small children, he slips into an affair with the blonde jazz musician Anna, whose partner Gabriel Broide returns to Jerusalem for an orthodox burial. In continually calling Anna Hannah, he perhaps stifles the obvious reminder of his wife’s name Blumi in Anna’s surname Blum.
Broide expresses non-religious philosophy. “There aren’t enough people for all the pain in the world,” he consoles Anna. He turns an adage to seductive purpose: “A Jew mustn’t hold back. We’re held back as it is.” And to the child he’s feeding: “Jews have to eat a lot so when the wolf comes he’ll have something to devour.”
The bulk of the first episode explains the opening — but later — scene, where Asher and Batia Luzzatto are informed there is a “stay of exit order” against their nine-year-old daughter Gonnie leaving the State of Israel. A nurse had confessed to having accidentally suffocated this couple’s newborn daughter, then switching her wristband with the daughter of Elka and Hilik Rein. The unexplained switch suggests how destructive an impulsive and emotional action can prove, on the individual as well as national level.
The news shakes both families. In parallel lawyer scenes both sides determine to “go to war” over the girl. The Autonomy legal scene is shot dark and sombre, the State one in gleaming whites. Gonnie’s functional parents are determined to keep her, despite their having decided to separate. The State lawyer insists they conceal completely this intention.
Against her husband’s reservations, Elke insists on recovering their lost daughter. Elke is passionately supported by her father, the Rebbe of Kreinitz, but for suspect motives. He turns the family tragedy into a national political issue, in order to reinforce his political standing. The Rebbe declares the Autonomy to be Noah’s Ark, the last refuge of true Judaism — i.e., his Judaism — against the impure State’s resolve to revoke his authority in the name of reuniting the Jewish people.
At a massive rally the Rebbe insists that the child must by Biblical authority be raised Orthodox.”Not one Jewish soul shall be wasted.” The Rebbe is an amplification of the religious authority that Shulem Shtisel wielded in the writers’ earlier anatomy of the folly of patriarchy. As the modern story echoes Solomon’s famous judgment, a title declares “The incident longed to happen.” It embodies the Biblical challenge to the contemporary ethos.
Like Shulem, the Rebbe pretends to divine authority: “We have no choice. It’s time to do God’s will. We must wage war to recover the child.” He pretends to diminish his personal engagement: “This is not my granddaughter but the granddaughter of the Jewish people…. We won’t let the Zionists steal our children.” In an echo of the Rebbe’s pretence to purity, his daughter’s married name is Rein (yiddish for ‘clean’).
When the Rebbe tries to persuade Broide to kidnap Gonnie for him, he pretends to an uncharacteristic humility. He does not have divine inspiration, he admits, but he presumes to the authority of knowing God’s will, what God wants of him as well as of others. “If this is what God wants you will do it.” As Broide leaves, the Rebbe looks away, out his window at the darkness. In later episodes he will go to criminal lengths to enforce what he personally proffers as God’s will.
Clearly the drama’s title goes beyond the political division to address the wider range of autonomy issues among the characters. Blumi, Anna, both sets of warring parents, the arrogant and destructive Rebbe and especially the conflicted Broide all wrestle with the constant battle between their urges and their restraints. Autonomy is their every impulse and affliction.
The episode ends on Broide lying in bed, contemplative, his peace assailed by Anna’s allure and the Rebbe’s demands. The closing song is “Winter came around one hour too soon. Now I am dancing alone in my room. Rise, rise, only for me.” Like Gonnie in the opening scene, Broide is unwittingly trapped in his own "stay of exit order," imposed by the Rebbe who uses God to enforce his own will.