By Judith Fleischer
Rem Bashari remembers growing up in a poor neighborhood in the city of Rishon Letzion, just south of Tel Aviv, and watching the dramatic changes in his community set into motion when Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977.
“Under his leadership, there was Project Renewal, renewing those neighborhoods that were disadvantaged,” said Bashari, whose family emigrated to Israel from Yemen in the 1930s and 1940s. “There was huge development in these neighborhoods — roads, communications, institutions.”
More than infrastructure, though, the changes initiated by Begin’s Project Renewal also awakened in Bashari one of the key passions of his life — music.
Today, the Denver CPA and investment advisor is also a performing and recording musician thanks to Project Renewal, which launched an after-school music program that Bashari attended as a boy.
“That’s when I first learned guitar,” said Bashari. “My exposure to music was in the time of Begin — because of Begin.”
Now Bashari is using his musical talent to honor Begin in an upcoming documentary about Begin’s life and his impact on Israel and the Jewish people.
Produced by Denver’s Hidden Light Institute, the film, “Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin,” will debut at the JCC’s Denver Jewish Film Festival, which starts on Feb. 8.
In it, Bashari sings the closing theme, “Tsion Tamati, Zion the Perfect One” — a song that sets to music the words of the poet Menachem Mendel Dolitsky as he promises never to abandon Israel.
It is a vow that was also a central theme in Menachem Begin’s life.
“Upheaval” is more than a biopic. It tackles the dynamics of leadership through the lens of Begin’s tumultuous life. Despite his achievements — including sealing a peace treaty with Egypt that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, welcoming to Israel Jews of many ethnicities and cultures, and being the first to tackle contentious issues, such as the sensitive dynamics of relations between Jews and Arabs, Sephardis and Ashkenazis, blacks and whites — Begin is often painted as one-dimensional.
Some dismiss him as a terrorist for actions he took to ensure the creation and survival of Israel and which, in some cases, cost many lives. The film does not shy away from those decisions and events. It recounts the flaws as well as the achievements of this complex leader.
Bashari remembers hearing his grandparents tell stories about British soldiers searching their Yemenite community to find Begin, who at one point had gone into hiding. The community, he said, were “strong supporters” of his efforts to establish a Jewish state.
“Begin was always a figure of admiration in my family,” said Bashari. “For me, hearing the stories from my grandparents from the time before Israel was formed added to my experience as a child.”
In telling the story of his life, the 87-minute documentary also chronicles the history of modern Israel, from the Holocaust to Begin’s death in 1992, touching on wars, peace, diplomacy and the internal politics of the young and often fractious Israeli state.
“Upheaval” is part of a larger effort by HLI to tell the story of Israel’s founding to young Jews, many of whom have barely a passing knowledge of the country, its accomplishments, and its continuing struggles to survive.
The sponsors hope young people will learn from Begin’s unapologetic pride in being a Jew and from his uncompromising stance when dignity and survival were at stake. The institute hopes they will be inspired to stand up to and fight the anti-Semitism that is today making a comeback in the US and Europe.
As part of this larger effort, the institute is creating a curriculum in five languages for high school and college students and plans to host an annual symposium examining Begin’s life and legacy, including the issues that occupied his years of leadership and remain relevant today.
The first symposium will take place in Jerusalem in May in partnership with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.
For Bashari, involvement in “Upheaval” came by way of his friend Rob Schwartz, who founded Hidden Hight Institute after being inspired by Yehuda Avner’s book The Prime Ministers. Schwartz read the book, said Bashari, after a Shabbat dinner at Bashari’s home where he met another guest who had written a doctoral thesis on Begin.
After reading the book, Schwartz fell in love with Begin and wanted to raise his profile on the world stage.
“I decided to make a documentary, to tell the story of a man small in stature but large against the canvas of Jewish and Israeli history,” said Schwartz.
When Schwartz asked Bashari to select and sing a closing song for the documentary, it was Begin’s choice of a final resting place that inspired Bashari’s musical selection.
Begin chose not to be buried on Mount Herzl where many Israeli presidents, prime ministers and Zionist leaders are interred, but rather on the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem and has been the site of a Jewish cemetery for more than 3,000 years.
The words of Dolitsky’s poem and the song, “Tsion Tamati,” express Begin’s love of Israel and its centrality in his life, which led to his choice of the Mount of Olives: “I will not forget you Zion, my perfect one. As long as I live, you are my longing and my hope.”
While Bashari is excited about a new venture — the upcoming release of an original album of Israeli and country songs that he recently recorded in Nashville — he said that his contribution to the making of “Upheaval” carries for him unique meaning: “Being able to participate in the movie and coming up with a song that summarized everything about Menachem Begin and his love for Israel and Jerusalem is a special gift.”
The Denver Jewish Film Festival will run Feb. 8-17. Information: jccdenver.org/film.
Copyright © 2021 by the Intermountain Jewish News