The Challenge of Dancing to the Israeli Beat

“A Borrowed Identity,” based on the semi-autobiographical novel “Dancing Arabs,” is a poignant and perceptive look at life from the Arab-Israeli perspective.

After the US premiere of “Borrowed Identity” at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival, three of the principal players took the stage to discuss the provocative and poignant Israeli film, which has since played to acclaim across the world. The coming of age story centers on a gifted Palestinian-Israeli teenager who is given the chance to go to a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem, where his struggle for acceptance has immense personal consequences.

Noted Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree,” “The Human Resources Manager”) was joined by his novice Palestinian star, Tawfeek Barhom, and the film’s writer, Sayed Kashua. “A Borrowed Identity” is based on Kashua’s 2002 semi-autobiographical novel, “Dancing Arabs.”

borrowed identity
An illicit romance forces an Arab Israeli teen to make a painful decision

The film was a collaborative effort from beginning to end, they explained. How better could an Israeli director depict the delicate tensions of the highly personal novel than by working closely with its creator? Kashua wrote the script and worked with the first-time actor playing his younger self. Riklis is among many Israeli directors today collaborating with Arab film artists to convey the complicated situation in the Middle East from two perspectives. For example, last year’s film festival included “Bethlehem,” co-written by an Israeli and a Palestinian.

Tawfeek Barhom plays a young version of Sayed Kashua

Kashua is no stranger to being a stranger in a strange land. An Arab Israeli born in Tira, he has achieved celebrity for his books and humorous columns in Ha’aretz and other Israeli publications. In 2007, he rose to prominence with the debut of his hit TV Israeli show, “Arab Labor.” The sitcom focuses on Amjad, an upwardly mobile Arab-Israeli journalist, and his struggles with his family and work. Much of the comedy stems from Amjad’s conflicted relationship with his Arab identity and his clumsy, embarrassing attempts to integrate into Israeli society. This theme of divided cultural allegiance plays out with even greater depth, but no less subtle humor, in “A Borrowed Identity.”

The Telluride appearance by Kashua marked a bittersweet moment in Kashua’s life. Despite his great success as a journalist, best-selling author, and sitcom writer, Kashua had just reached a difficult decision. Tired and somewhat defeated by “dancing” to the Israeli beat for many years, Kashua had accepted an offer to teach at the University of Illinois, where he now lives with his wife and three children.

Sayed Kashua

 The Program in Jewish Studies at CU has invited Kashua to speak about living in Israel with a dual identity – speaking and writing in the language of the majority while identifying with the Arab Palestinian minority. “The Foreign Mother Tongue: Writing between Arabic and Hebrew in Israel/Palestine,” takes place Wednesday, September 30th, 7:00 pm at Old Main Theater. (RSVP to

 In anticipation of his campus appearance, the Boulder Jewish Film Festival is hosting a screening of “A Borrowed Identity” at the Boedecker Theater at the Dairy Center on Tuesday, September 29 at 7:00 pm. The film will be introduced by Professor Liora Halperin, who facilitated Kashua’s visit. There will be a talkback after the film, which plays at the Boe throughout the week.



“Under Riklis’s direction, the film’s first act lulls the audience into a sense of familiarity, before plunging into a darker reality. The effect is shattering.” – Washington Post

“an engaging coming-of-age story, a thoughtful call for dialogue and peace, and a never heavy-handed depiction of everyday indignities.” – San Francisco Examiner

“Emerges as one of the most engaging and polished of recent Israeli films, and as such is well worth the attention of anyone interested in the cultures and issues it limns.” –

“Riklis is a director of enormous grace and handles the various character dynamics with sensitivity.” – Newsday

“Unusually delicate, sometimes funny, often dramatic, and ultimately profound. – San Francisco Chronicle

“A fine blend of the universal – teen love, rebellion, tragedy – and riveting specificity, while also working as sharp social critique.” – Detroit News

“This is a soft-seeming film about a hard-edged, difficult subject, an Israeli film that offers a picture from life’s other side.” – LA Times

“Traditional coming-of-age films like A Borrowed Identity don’t often come from Israel, which is one of the film’s points.” – The Village Voice


About Kathryn Bernheimer

Kathryn has spent her professional life writing about, teaching, and presenting the arts. Founding Director of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, Kathryn was Director of Menorah and ACE at the Boulder JCC from 2003 through August, 2019. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time."

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