The Book of Life is sealed on Yom Kippur, and if there was ever an example in recent history demonstrating the precarious status of Jewish lives, it was 50 years ago, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. It shattered the confidence of the Jewish state, tested its alliance with the United States, increased Cold War tensions, and it led to the resignation of Golda Meir, the country’s first woman leader.

As it is customary to watch movies relating to devastating times in Jewish history on Tish’ah B’Av, it was fitting to watch Israeli Film Director Guy Nattiv’s biopic Golda, starring Helen Mirren. The burden of leadership carried by Meir is matched by the heavy makeup worn by Mirren, who is unrecognizable but for her ability to play some of history’s leading women, such as Cleopatra, Queens Elizabeth I and II.

The Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal on the morning of October 6, 1973, was a surprise, but not entirely. Israeli intelligence was aware of military preparations, and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned Israel not to launch a preemptive strike. Meir appeared as an aging, chain-smoking, coffee-drinking, stoic veteran of politics, who was fighting a private battle against cancer. In the aftermath of the two-and-a-half-week war, she was blamed by many Israelis for the failure to strike first and the high death toll. She resigned in the following year, accepting responsibility for the cost of victory in this war.

“I was very anti-Golda, because I grew up on the notion that she is to blame, that she was the worst prime minister in the history of Israel,” Nattiv told The Jerusalem Post. “But the more I researched, the more I worked on this movie, I began to have a more balanced picture of who she was and what she brought to the table. It’s true that she had her faults, but not only her.”

He then noted that there are roads in Israel named for David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, but not for Golda Meir. Nattiv said that the movie does not seek to recast her in a positive light but to reveal the complexity of her life, relying on testimony from people who worked with her during that war. Meir shattered the myth of modern Israel being a break from the centuries-long diaspora identity.

Born in Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire, she was raised on her family’s memories of persecution by the Cossacks. At age eight, her family immigrated to America, settling in Milwaukee. She attended college to become a teacher, but her love of Zionism inspired her to make aliyah and rise through the ranks of Labor Zionism. She sat as an observer at the Evian Conference in 1938, when the western nations refused to ease their immigration quotas, dooming European Jews in the Holocaust. On the eve of Israeli independence, she secretly met with Jordan’s King Abdullah I in a failed effort to prevent war. She was one of two women whose signature appears on Israel’s Declaration of Independence. As the Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union, she inspired Jewish crowds in Moscow, to the dismay of Joseph Stalin.

All of these earlier events led to the decisive phone call between Meir and Kissinger, played by Liev Schreiber. “Let me tell you about the Russians, Henry. When I was a child in the Ukraine, at Christmas time my father would board up the windows of our house to protect us from Cossacks who would get drunk and attack Jews. My father would hide us in the cellar… My father’s face, Henry, I will never forget that look. All he wanted to do was protect his children. I am not that little girl hiding in the cellar.”

Meir’s fearless position concerning Russia resonates in our time as Western democracies offer their support to Ukraine, with risk of further escalation and rising costs. Another one-liner concerns Egypt’s refusal at the time to recognize Israel by name.

“We’ll send them water when they send our prisoners back and Sadat agrees to direct talks with Israel, not the ‘Zionist entity’ – Israel.”

This quote connects to last week’s events, when Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met informally in Italy with his Libyan counterpart Najla El Mangoush. When the meeting was publicized, Mangoush was dismissed from office and fled her country amid a backlash. “The firm Libyan position on the Palestinian issue is the official and popular rejection of normalization with the Zionist entity,” Libyan Presidential Council member Abdullah al-Lafi said in a statement.

Meir’s personal anecdotes and combative one-liners stand in contrast to Kissinger, whose policy of realpolitik precluded him from expressing sympathy for Israel in its hour of need. “I am first an American; second, I am Secretary of State; and third, I am a Jew,” his character said in the movie.

“You forget that in Israel we read from right to left,” Meir responded.

On Yom Kippur, our prayers can reverse the decree of death, offering an incoming year of blessings. Israel’s victory in the Yom Kippur War did not bring immediate peace and prosperity. It took nearly a decade to establish relations with Egypt, expand Jewish communities in the territories, knock out Iraq’s nuclear reactor, and develop its economic potential, as it absorbed a massive wave of olim from Golda Meir’s region of birth.

Guy Nattiv’s film is not the first to tell the story of Golda Meir. Mirren’s title role was done before by Anne Bancroft and Ingrid Bergman on screen, and Tovah Feldshuh on a Broadway stage. Considering its timing ahead of Yom Kippur on the golden anniversary of that eponymous war, this Golda is more relevant than ever.

 By Sergey Kadinsky