The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Not Quite 'The Karate Kid'

By Schuyler Velasco

  • Print
  • Share Share

There’s something familiar about “Kaddish for a Friend,” the coming of age/unlikely friendship tale screening at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Indeed, Berlin-born director Leo Kashin’s full-length debut reeks of “Karate Kid,” Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” and any number of movies from the “young fish out of water befriends a crusty old guy from a different culture” genre. But the film has so much spunk and earnestness that familiarity takes on a quality of warmth, rather than of staleness. To put it another way, it’s like watching a really well done adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy as a high school flick, only this time, “The Karate Kid” is the source text.

The film tells the story of Ali (Neil Belakhdar), a Muslim teenager whose family is newly arrived to Berlin from a Palestinian refugee camp. Despite being a sensitive, kind boy with excellent grades and a penchant for drawing, he soon falls in with a gang of Muslim teens from his housing project. You’ll recognize them from any number of films involving teenagers; they’re the type of group whose brazen, boneheaded cruelty defies both logic and the nice, non-insane protagonist’s association with them.

They convince Ali to help break in and destroy the flat of his upstairs neighbor Aleksander, an elderly Russian Jewish war veteran played by Ryszard Ronczewski. Ali alone gets caught, and, as penance, must spend his afternoons helping Aleksander repair the damage. His assistance is well timed: Alexander is also working to convince a pesky social worker that he doesn’t belong in a nursing home.

The two characters hate each other at first: Ali because he was brought up to mistrust Jews; Aleksander because Ali wrecked his home (and he isn’t too crazy about Muslims, either). But they soon begin to tolerate, and eventually to cherish, each other’s company. Ali paints Aleks’s walls a cheerful turquoise and replaces his destroyed photos with carefully rendered drawings; Aleks teaches Ali to fight.

It’s to the credit of the actors and the director that this recognizable premise doesn’t devolve into dull predictability. Kashin does well to ensure that the blossoming relationship between his two central characters feels completely natural. Both Aleks and Ali are infused with such warmth, nobility, and humor that it’s easy to see how they can’t help but like one another. Ronczewski in particular has a delightful character to unpack, and he makes the most of it. Aleks is simultaneously the saddest and funniest guy on the screen, rocking a killer pair of sunglasses and cracking snide jokes with his posse of fellow retirees at a veterans’ meetup.

Another strenghth of “Kaddish” is that it avoids a larger debate about Jewish-Muslim relations. Those cultural grievances are broached, and inform the enmity-turned-friendship, but the film never forgets that this is the story of two individuals. This central friendship outshines all others, including Ali’s fraught relationship with his volatile father. When Ali and Aleks are apart, you’ll be waiting for them to get back together.

Watch the trailer for ‘Kaddish for a Friend’:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Leo Kashin, Neil Belakhdar, Film, Kaddish for a Friend, Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Ryszard Ronczewski, Schuyler Velasco

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.