July 15, 2018

Berlin vs. Jerusalem

The Cakemaker is an Israeli film ostensibly about a bisexual love triangle among a traveling Israeli businessman, his wife in Jerusalem, and a baker in Berlin. But it seemingly is much more of a spiritual metaphor contrasting modern Western secular individualism with traditional religious communities.

An Israeli husband and father seduces and launches an affair with a young man who is pastry chef at a Berlin cafe. When the businessman is killed in a car accident back in Israel, his German paramour goes to Jerusalem to investigate his life, gaining employment at the cafe of the unknowing widow and ingratiating himself into the family.

The stoic and mostly mute German baker is a lonely individualist without family, religious faith or interests beyond his work, which he practices with Aryan diligence. His cafe in Berlin is filled with delicious pastries but seemingly no people. Berlin itself looks contemporary, glassy, efficient and cold.

In contrast, Jerusalem is teeming with vitality, and the chatty and emotive widow’s cafe, while not as efficient, is full of people and personality. The German as a dishwasher there applies his ceaseless work ethic by immediately, without prompting, producing his specialty baked goods.

This Jerusalem cafe, recently opened by the grieving widow, has only just been approved as kosher by the rabbinate, as advertised on the window. So the owner and her protective brother, who’s both religious and practical, are horrified to discover the German gentile baking cookies in her kitchen, which could threaten her kosher status. Yet he continues to bake, enhancing the cafe’s popularity.

The German is inevitably drawn into the widow’s orbit and into the rich communal Jewish rhythms of Jerusalem, especially the rituals of Sabbath, on which the film focuses. Shabbat sirens announce impending sunset and the 24 hour withdrawal from modern life as families dine and pray together by candlelight at home. The German joins in Shabbat and seems at least partly bewitched by it, if unarticulated. At one point he also jogs through the verdant grounds of an old church in Jerusalem, perhaps recalling the Christian faith once present but now receded from his own culture. He and the Jewish widow, herself torn over religion, fall in love and begin an affair.

Mother of a young son, and looked after by her brother and mother-in-law among others, the widow, though herself non-religious, partakes of Jewish traditions and community. In his secular solitude the German is a stranger to this trans-generational web of spirituality and responsibility. The deceased Israeli businessman, companion to them both, had straddled both worlds, geographically, religiously and sexually.

Of course, calamity looms as the widow inevitably learns of the German’s intimate history with her late husband. The rabbinate cancels her cafe’s kosher status after learning of the German’s role in her kitchen. And her insistent brother orders the German out of Jerusalem and back to Germany. Yet the widow, distressed but still drawn to the German, travels to Berlin, perhaps to reconnect with the baker who’s returned to the ruthless production of his own cafe bakery. Will she cleave to her own Jewish communal traditions or succumb to the quest for self autonomy in Western secularism?

Her ancient Jerusalem, cradle of biblical faith, stands for tradition, authority, family, fertility, spirituality, nationhood, unpredictability and God. His modern Berlin, historic seat of rationalism and the Enlightenment, stands for individualism and detachment, cosmopolitanism, orderliness, sterility, self-empowerment and frequent loneliness, plus tempting sweet pastries. Which will she choose? It’s a choice also facing contemporary Western humanity.


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