The Yom Kippur War comes to HBO Max

'Valley of Tears' tells the harrowing story of the 1973 surprise attack on Israel during the holiest day on the Jewish calendar

It has been 47 years since Syrian and Egyptian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel during the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But for many in Israel, the memory of the Yom Kippur War is still visceral and traumatic.  

Now that harrowing experience is being brought to life on screen in “Valley of Tears,” a new Israeli show that will premiere on Thursday on HBO Max. 

“The Yom Kippur War, is, arguably… the most profound trauma that Israel experienced since its inception,” Yaron Zilberman, who directed the miniseries and co-wrote it with Ron Leshem, Amit Cohen and Daniel Amsel, told Jewish Insider in an interview from Tel Aviv on Wednesday. “There was a moment there — more than a moment there — that the feeling was that Israel could have been eliminated… that trauma lingers until today.” 

The series is named after the crucial battle waged in the Golan Heights during the war; in Hebrew the show is called “Sha’at Neila,” after the traditional final prayer recited on Yom Kippur. The show premiered in Israel on the KAN public network last month, riveting viewers with its compelling and grim depiction of the war. 

The show stars Aviv Alush (“The Shack”) as a Northern Command officer; Lior Ashkenazi (“Foxtrot,” “Norman”) as a writer trying to track down his soldier son; Ofer Hayoun (“The Baker and the Beauty”) as a tank loader; Omer Perelman (“Shababnikim”) as a tank sergeant; and Joy Rieger (“The Other Story”) as a female officer who denies an order to evacuate with the other female soldiers. 

Rather than focus on generals or politicians, “Valley of Tears” spotlights the largely anonymous soldiers on the front lines of the war, who paid the highest price: some with their lives, others with physical wounds and many with lifelong emotional trauma.  

“What is a war story but a story about people?” said Zilberman. “It’s about four people sitting in a tank, they need to work together under extreme stress and under fear of death — and they’re all individuals with their own issues and their own stress.” 

Imri Biton as ‘Alush’ in ‘Valley of Tears.’ (Vered Adir/HBO Max)

While the majority of the cast was not alive during the Yom Kippur War, most are army veterans, and several served in IDF combat roles. The hyper-realistic battle scenes, Zilberman said, were at times overwhelming for some of the actors. 

“There were many, many times, several scenes, where the actor broke down in tears, and went through an emotional trauma, reliving trauma that they had in the army,” said Zilberman, who said that when it happened, the cast and crew would offer “them support and love and a way to open the wounds. Definitely there were scenes that caused this level of emotion.”

Imri Biton, a combat veteran of the Second Lebanon War who plays tank gunner Alush, told At magazine that his experience on set forced him to relive his own war traumas.  

“The filming — with the pressure inside the tank, three hours of firing, sweaty and dirty with the mess of war — brought me back to the 2006 Lebanon War and flooded me with a sense that I was really there,” he said. “It was very disturbing.” 

Zilberman was himself just 7 years old when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, but he can still vividly recall the events of the day. 

“I remember my stepfather — he was a pilot — and at 6 a.m. an Israeli military plane flew low above the neighborhood and made this ‘boom’ to call” the reservist pilots up for duty, he recalled. “We were supposed to go on safari, to Kenya, the day after Yom Kippur… and suddenly my stepfather went to the army and didn’t come home for six months.”   

“It was a really scary period,” Zilberman added. “I remember my mother with all her friends sitting, worried what would happen to their husbands at war,” as news would trickle in of those who were killed in action. “I felt that devastation. It was a very, very tough period. I remember it well.” 

Ashkenazi, the oldest member of the central cast, was not yet 5 years old when the war began. But he will never forget hearing the screams and cries of his neighbor when she found out her fiance was killed during the war. “I’ve never heard such screams in my life,” Ashkenazi told the Walla! news outlet. “That moment is deeply engraved in my memory.” 

Actors Lior Ashkenazi and Joy Rieger in ‘Valley of Tears.’ (Vered Adir/HBO Max)

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Leshem — the creator and producer of “Euphoria” and “Beaufort” — began working on “Valley of Tears” a decade ago, but faced a series of hurdles to getting it on the air. Zilberman came on board two years ago to help the show, which has been called the most expensive in Israeli history, move from paper to reality. Yediot Aharonot reported yesterday that the 10-episode series cost more than NIS 23 million to produce — just NIS 1.2 million of which went to the actors’ salaries. 

“We’re describing a war and we wanted to make it realistic and to place people inside a tank and inside the event,” Zilberman said. “It’s an expensive production that way.” It was both tricky and costly to get their hands on the Centurion tanks that the IDF used during the Yom Kippur War, which have long been removed from active service. And Israeli law barred the producers from purchasing such a tank from a foreign country. 

“It was a huge challenge,” he said. “The tank has to be the same color, the numbering, and all the elements within the interior of the tank” have to match what was used in 1973. “It was a huge undertaking,” he said, in addition to procuring and producing the accurate uniforms, guns and other items seen in each frame.  

One timely storyline includes several soldiers who are members of the Black Panthers group, a protest movement of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East who demonstrated against discrimination faced by Mizrahi Jews. “When we took a snapshot of Israel in 1973, the Black Panthers were the major issue in Israel,” Zilberman said. “For us it was natural to take that issue — which was alive and kicking at the time — and we wanted to reflect that in the show.”

Actor Aviv Alush as ‘Yoav’ in ‘Valley of Tears.’ (Vered Adir/HBO Max)

In what is a rare occurrence, the series will be airing in Israel and around the globe simultaneously; the fifth episode was released this week in Israel. Locally, Zilberman is thrilled that the show has been a catalyst for more open conversations about the Yom Kippur War. 

“Everyone is talking about the experiences of their parents or uncle, or whatever their experience with the war is,” he said, noting that a Facebook group to discuss the show already has more than 20,000 members — including those who pick on details like inaccurate slang for the time period or other minor anachronisms. “I have no problem with that — I encourage it actually,” he said. “People have different ways to talk about the subject matter, for some people that’s a way for them to look for their realities.” 

But Zilberman is hopeful, and optimistic, that the show will resonate as strongly with viewers around the world when it hits HBO’s streaming platform this week. 

“War happens everywhere, unfortunately, and we all deal with that, and I hope that they will be able to connect to that,” he said. “At the end of the day, the drama is the same. Eventually it is about family and about friendships and about love. The mourning of losing a son, or losing a friend, is universal.” 

Zilberman and Leshem most recently worked together on “Incitement,” the award-winning drama film released last year that tells the story of the days and weeks leading up to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The film worked to draw lessons from that time period to apply to the political climate today. 

And what should viewers take away from “Valley of Tears”?

“I hope it ignites in society a conversation about the experiences, because war brings trauma and trauma needs to be treated,” he said. “It’s important everywhere, all over the world, to talk about that aspect of war… the pain and the suffering of it. War involves a huge amount of pain for society, and a country should do everything it can to avoid it.” 

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