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Nosh on a Sweet-and-Sour Saga

August 25, 2005
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Pickle … Jews?

More than that to drink in - pickle Arabs: That's the sweet and sour of it in "Pickles, Inc.," a winsomely wonderful documentary about a game group of poverty-level Israeli Arab women/widows with enough vim and vigor - and vinegar - to form their own firm in a feminist-unfriendly environment.

"Pickles, Inc." airs as part of PBS/Thirteen-WNET's "Wide Angle" series, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, at 9 p.m., on WHYY-TV12.

The dill of the women's dilemma is how to survive and raise their children on meager Social Security payments after their husbands die. When they decide to do what they know best - make pickles - this handful of cloistered women begins to play a hand in Israel's economy, opening a factory and stepping out of their shtetl-like shells to mix and meet Israelis, and make them their customers.

Would Martha Stewart consider this "a good thing"?

"Well," says "Pickles" director Dalit Kimor, "this is not a drama, so a happy ending isn't guaranteed. It's a documentary," so anything can happen.

And it does. What about the challenges the women face by a newfound kosher clientele? Is the product's plus - the pickles are handmade - also its liability when it comes to mass production? And why has that nice, friendly female neighbor suddenly turned into a caterwauling capitalist when she's named the company's CEO?

It's business as unusual at the Azka (Arabic for "good") Pickle Cooperative in beautiful downtown Galilee.

It All Takes Time
"Change does not occur within a day," says the film director of the obstacles facing the women, trying to overcome tradition, trading places as fulltime mothers for part-time entrepreneurs.

"Just the fact that they tried is very nice."

Prophets without honor? Well, no profits either.

"Working for two years without making money is very hard," acknowledges Kimor of Azka's ashcan of a bottom line.

You don't need Cool Hand Luke to tell you that what they had was a failure to communicate. "Most spoke mainly Arabic," which meant talking up their product to Israeli Jews was difficult and had a tongue-lashing effect on sales.

But, says the director, "their relations with their Jewish customers were very good."

Not that there weren't some culture shocks along the sand-dune fault lines.

Working with an all-female crew - "That is something I promised the [Azka] women I would do" so they wouldn't feel uncomfortable - didn't mean the Israeli Arabs were insulated from some live-wire discussions. "When they found out our sound woman - who was 28 - was living with a man - her boyfriend - and not married, they almost fainted," recalls Kimor.

Yet, says the director, in some ways, these women were better paragons of feminism in action than many women "who remain at home complaining about their husbands and not doing anything. Here these women are widows who took it upon themselves to open a business and move forward."

Not that some moves didn't result in backward steps, mired in backward thinking.

"Sometimes the problem was their thinking small," concedes Kimor. "They had a wonderful opportunity to sell to a kibbutz, but it just didn't happen."

They wanted to play in the major leagues, but the farm system was bankrupt - even as they farmed wonderful vegetables for pickling. While the women took business courses "from a Jewish-Arab economic development program, they didn't get financial support. They also didn't get the best advice."

Maybe what was needed more than anything was a mentor who could tell these apprentices what to do so their company wouldn't be fired.

Maybe, it is suggested to Kimor, they needed … Donald Trump.

"Now that," she says, "would have been great. Everybody around the world knows who Donald Trump is. He could have showed them how to do it!"

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