Most American Jews have an incomplete picture of what life is like in the Israeli army.
I learned about the Israel Defense Forces through my Israeli summer camp counselors who would dress in their uniforms and run us through pretend drills. At a young age, I knew that every Israeli citizen was required to join the army at age 18 and that I was glad I wouldn’t have to do that when I grew up.
By the time I turned 18 myself, I was well aware not every Israeli went into combat. On my Birthright Israel trip through Shorashim, I got to know the Israelis on my bus and began to understand how different any one person’s journey through the army could be.
What I never got a sense of, however, was what it is really like to be a soldier in Israel, and not just in the sense of the experience, but the mental and emotional experience of swearing an oath to defend the Jewish homeland. Beneath the Helmet provides that missing perspective.
A documentary following the 200 days of training for a new unit of combat soldiers aspiring to be paratroopers, Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front highlights the complexities of the young men and women in uniform simply by telling their full stories.
The film, which debuted in Chicago at the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema last fall and returns for two local screenings this month, features a number of soldiers but focuses mostly on Eden Adler, a first lieutenant in charge of a staff of commanders and sergeants training the fledgling soldiers.
What’s fascinating right away is how young Eden is to be entirely in charge of these soldiers, which we are reminded are just teenagers. Yet he’s not some stern, stereotypical military leader figure. While he demands a lot from his troops, his primary focus is to nurture them and to see them succeed. The familial nature and brotherhood of the entire structure of the unit is actually quite refreshing to see and humanizes the characters in a way people of all ages will understand. The adversity they face in this film is less so the training but rather accepting and owning their responsibility and the unknown that comes with serving one’s country.
Given that this movie is tailored specifically to people around the world who know very little about the IDF, it doesn’t take a lot of “conflict” or “action” to keep things interesting. Director Wayne Kopping and writers Baruch Goldberg and Rebecca Shore instead focus on finding moments that will help the audience relate and build empathy for the soldiers in the film. When the soldiers jump out of a plane for the first time, for example, it’s not a defining moment in the story, but you feel as if you experienced it with them.
Beneath the Helmet also captures a diverse set of characters and story lines. One soldier, Mekonen, is from an Ethiopian immigrant family that depended on him working to get by; another soldier, Oren, is from Switzerland and made the bold decision to move to Israel to serve in the army while he was at the age he felt he best could. Although Coral is a female commander training lone soldiers, a justifiable complaint that could be levied against the film is that the subjects are overwhelmingly male.
Some will undoubtedly suggest that Beneath the Helmet is a poorly disguised lone soldier recruitment piece. Although anyone who goes in thinking the army is big, scary and every man for himself will be proved wrong, the difficulty is not simply glossed over, and neither is the understanding of the ultimate risk that lies on the other side of finishing training.
There’s a hidden educational value in the film that should be more of the focus, namely the way it will provide non-Israelis with the perspective they need to have conversations with not only each other, but also with Israeli peers, about the realities of IDF and what it means to serve. Military service can be a daunting cultural gap between Israelis and people from other countries not required to serve. Beneath the Helmet definitely helps bridge that divide, making it a tool that can strengthen the bonds between Jews in Israel and Jews all over the world.
“Beneath the Helmet” screens at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 18, at Anshe Emet Synagogue, 3751 N. Broadway, with guests First Lt. Eden Adler and producer David Coleman. Suburban screenings will be held at 7:00 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., Monday, Feb. 23, at AMC Northbrook Court, 1525 Lake Cook Rd., Northbrook. Get more information or tickets.