JERUSALEM – A Swedish movie on a Canadian flight to Israel reminded me that community and belonging are as essential to our survival as air, water and food.
How appropriate that this reminder happened on my way to Jerusalem, where I have felt a sense of community and belonging since my first trip in 2003.
The movie was “A Man Called Ove” (pronounced “OO’vuh”), based on the novel by Fredrik Backman that has become one of Sweden’s most popular literary exports since “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I enjoyed the book last year, but the film packed even more of an emotional wallop.
The central character is a 59-year-old curmudgeon at war with the world. He argues with grocery store clerks, berates his neighbours for violations of rules that only he obeys, punches a hospital clown whose tricks annoy him, and hasn’t spoken to his best friend in decades for a petty reason that is not revealed until later in the film.
I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that Ove, whose wife died six months earlier, keeps trying to commit suicide to join her. But, despite planning every detail and dressing for each attempt in his best suit – a bit tight around his flabby middle – he is constantly interrupted in his pursuits.
His chief interrupter is his new Iranian-born neighbour, an indefatigable, hugely pregnant mother of two daughters, married to an inept but affable man whom Ove has dismissed as “an idiot.”
While the family next door and a parade of memorable characters – many of whom are misfits in their own right – foil his attempts to reach the afterlife, we see flashbacks that help explain how a bright and happy child with a deeply ingrained moral code grew into a bitter man only his wife could truly love.
It sounds sappy, but both book and film are buoyant with delightful and unexpected humour, and vivid characterizations. And his journey to connecting and communing with others is neither pat nor perfect. It’s as prickly as our protagonist.
As I dried my tears and wiped off what was left of my mascara, the flight attendant came by and said, “But you were laughing only a few minutes ago!”
Indeed I was. What I have learned from my many trips to Israel, especially at this time of year, is that joy and sorrow are never too far apart, and that moments of joy are intensified by remembering the pain and sacrifices that created them.
By the time you read this, I will have stood in silent reflection for the sirens of Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron, attended a tribute to the late Elie Wiesel, listened to hours of music of mourning and commemoration of these holidays, and switched gears completely for the intense national celebrations of Yom Ha’Atzmaut.
I have written before about my first visit to Israel in May 2003, when our Jewish Federation of Ottawa mission of 70 people was the largest mission in the country.
We arrived at our hotel in Tel Aviv just in time for the 8 pm siren that signalled a moment of silence for Yom Hazikaron. Then we had a memorial service in a room filled with chairs, most of them empty except for names of those who had been killed in wars or acts of terror.
Walking along the beach the next afternoon, I saw a memorial service at Mike’s Place, a popular bar where three people had been killed and 50 injured in a suicide bombing only five days before our arrival.
A few hours later, the bar was open for business as the country moved from full mourning to full celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’Atzmaut.
Remembering those who have died to create and defend Israel, and those who were killed because they were citizens or friends of the Jewish state, makes the celebration of the miracle that is Israel so much more intense.
But it’s equally important that Israelis not observe these occasions in solitude, or even in small groups. They flock to city squares or cemeteries or the Kotel for memorial events, and then descend on communal green spaces a day later for the barbecue extravaganza known as the mangal.
We can all learn from what has become second nature to Israelis, but what it took our Swedish anti-hero Ove a lifetime to acknowledge.
We can find joy even after excruciating sorrow. And, if we open our hearts and our arms, we will find others to share both our burdens and our exultation.