Explaining Israeli-Palestinian relations, through a sitcom

By Cindy Mindell

The Israeli sitcom "Avoda Aravit"

The Israeli sitcom “Avoda Aravit”

WOODBRIDGE – Dr. Shiri Goren is a senior lector of modern Hebrew at Yale University. A scholar of Yiddish and of Israeli identity and culture, Goren worked as a journalist and senior editor of TV and radio news-magazines in her native Israel before earning graduate degrees at New York University.

The co-editor of Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture (Wayne State University Press, 2012), Goren is currently working on a second book, Creative Resistance: Literary Intervention in the Israeli Palestinian Conflict. As part of her research, she has turned her lens to the Israeli cultural phenomenon, “Arab Labor” (Hebrew: Avoda Aravit), the first-ever primetime Israeli TV series to present Palestinian characters speaking in Arabic.

Goren will talk about her research, “Rethinking Collective Memory in Israeli TV,” on Sunday, Oct. 19 at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge.

Premiering in 2007 on Israeli Channel 2, the sitcom recently concluded broadcast with its fourth and final season.

Known as “the Seinfeld of the Middle East,” the show centers around Amjad Alian (played by Norman Issa), a Palestinian journalist and Israeli citizen living in East Jerusalem who, above all, tries – and constantly fails – to lead a normal life. This search for normalcy and fitting in manifests itself in the most mundane situations, from sending his daughter to a Jewish day school – simply because it’s a much better school than the local Arab one – to buying a car that appears “Jewish” enough so that he won’t be stopped at military checkpoints, to moving his family to a Jewish neighborhood in West Jerusalem, where the water pressure – significantly better than in East Jerusalem – makes for wonderful showers.

Functioning within the two cultures and constantly crossing metaphorical borders turn each of these presumably daily matters into an endless attempt to define oneself against the majority culture.

The Hebrew title of the series, Avoda Aravit, embodies a slightly humoristic defiance against the Zionist establishment. Beyond the literal meaning, the concept of “Arab labor” includes in contemporary Israeli Hebrew the politically incorrect meaning of low-quality work. Similarly to the title, the dramatic comedy simultaneously reproduces stereotypes and subverts them.

Series creator and chief writer Sayed Kashua is a visible persona in contemporary Israeli culture, as a well-read regular weekly columnist in the Haaretz supplement, which also appears in the weekly Haaretz English edition. He is the best-selling author of three novels: Dancing Arabs, Let It Be Morning, and Second Person Singular.

“Arab Labor” received several Israeli Emmy Awards and enjoyed a 30 percent average rating per episode.

“With that, until very recently, Kashua’s work received very little scholarly notice; I was only able to find one scholarly article about the series, from 2011,” says Goren. “This seemed odd to me, as I view this series as groundbreaking on several fronts, so I set out to write and speak about it. I generally think that the series exposes a significant side of Israel that is otherwise less accessible to a Jewish-American audience. The comedy brings to the center fascinating dilemmas that can lead to fascinating and important conversations.”

“Rethinking Collective Memory in Israeli TV” with Dr. Shiri Goren, Yale University: Sunday, Oct. 19, 10 a.m., Congregation B’nai Jacob, 75 Rimmon Road, Woodbridge | Info: (203) 494-5337 /

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