Tag Archives: Interfaith

The Big Lebowski

Biglebowskiposter The Big Lebowski (1998) is a film about which feelings run high: viewers tend to love it or hate it. It’s a shaggy-dog tale from Joel and Ethan Coen, who also wrote and produced A Serious Man, also on this list.

These essays are not meant to be reviews, instead a rabbi’s commentary on the Jewish content of a film. The Big Lebowski has significant Jewish content: it is the only film I can remember which explores the Jewish identity of a Jew by Choice in any depth.

Walter Sobchak, played by John Goodman, is foil and friend to The Dude [Jeff Bridges.] He is insistent that he is a real Jew, and he is both serious and knowledgable about Judaism. He is adamant that he does not “roll on Shabbos,” unless it is a matter of life and death. He quotes Maimonides to make a point, referring to him as the Rambam, as might a person who had studied with rabbis. He also quotes Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

“But you aren’t Jewish anymore!” says the Dude, exasperated. Walter is insulted by that suggestion, explaining that just because he and his ex-wife split up, he’s still a Jew, and he’ll be a Jew forever. Walter is passionate about much in life, and he is passionately Jewish.

That may seem like a relatively small slice of Jewish content, but consider how few images there are of adult converts to Judaism in film. The only other film I can think of at this writing that even mentions conversion is the dreadful Keeping the Faith (2000), which suggests it as a clever way to paper over differences.

Walter Sobchak is flawed and foul-mouthed, but he is an earnest and observant Jew. When he is asked to play in a bowling tournament on Saturday, he’s vehement: “I do not roll on Shabbos,”  and he goes into great detail explaining the mitzvah, littering his explanation with profanity.  It is that very juxtaposition of the holy and the vulgar that creates comic friction in the character of Walter. He’s a mess, but he’s a devout mess:

If my readers have any questions about the suitability of this film for children, that clip should have taken care of it. It’s vulgar, profane, tacky, and obscene in bits. It’s also very funny.

Questions for Discussion

1. The Big Lebowski has a cult following, with an assortment of drinking games. Here’s a game to play with a glass of Kedem Concord Grape Juice or the kosher wine of your choice: Raise a L’chaim every time Walter mentions his Jewishness or defends its legitimacy.

2. Notice one of Walter’s Jewish habits: he quotes sources by name to illustrate his points, not only about Judaism but about nearly everything. See if you can count the number of times he cites a source. This is what’s known as speaking b’shem ro, in the name of someone. It’s very good form to cite your sources by name, a form of respect, and a way to avoid stealing credit for someone else’s words.

3. What Jewish values does Walter live out in the course of this film? What Jewish values could he perhaps work on in the future?

4. What stereotypes about Jews by Choice can you identify, not just in the film, but in your experience?  Which of those stereotypes does Walter fit? Which does he not fit? Are any of the stereotypes contradictory?

Enemies, A Love Story

Enemies, A Love Story (1989) is based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel of the same name.  It tells the tale of four Holocaust survivors whose stories are intertwined by ties of passion, guilt, and love.  Herman Broder (Ron Silver) was hidden in a barn in Poland by his Gentile house servant, Yadwiga (Margaret Sophie Stein) whom he married out of guilt and gratitude when the two immigrated to the United States.  Since that time, he has acquired a mistress, a Russian Jewish survivor named Masha (Lena Olin), who wants him to marry her, too.   Then his first wife, Tamara (Anjelica Huston) the woman he believed died in a concentration camp in Europe, turns up in New York too, alive if not well, still mourning their two children who did not survive.

The story is structured as a farce, but it is a dark and melancholic comedy.  Herman writhes among the complications of his multiple lives.  He is a man devoid of hope:  he ricochets from woman to woman, trying to placate one while he is cheating on another.   He is faithless, and at the same time, horrified by the faithlessness of others. He is a man who is never fully alive, living bits of his life with different women.  Even his occupation – ghost writer for a fashionable rabbi – leaves him without any identity of his own.  Herman is a ghost.

We often say, glibly, that after a trauma a person is “never the same.”  Singer suggests to us that even after a horrible trauma, people do not really change all that much:  they may be fractured versions of their old selves, but all of their old flaws and quirks remain like ghosts.  Within a few minutes of meeting Herman again, Tamara (his first wife) recognizes that he married Yadwiga out of guilt and that he must also have a mistress somewhere.  Later in the film, she sits him down and says, “In America, they have a thing called a manager. That is what you need. I will be your manager, because you are incapable of making your decisions for yourself.”  He agrees – and in hindsight, the way that arrangement works out is predictable, too.

Paul Mazursky directed the film, and co-wrote the screenplay. (He also appearing in a cameo as Masha’s estranged husband. )  Enemies, A Love Story was nominated for three Academy Awards:  Huston and Olin were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Roger L. Simon and Mazursky were nominated for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Commentary

As with all of Singer’s stories, this is not a story about Judaism, but the characters are Jewish and it is set deep within Jewish history and tradition.   At one point, when Herman is attempting to return to Jewish observance, he sits and studies Talmud on Shemini Atzeret and fumes, “What good is the Talmud if there is nothing in there to tell you how to deal with three wives?”

He apparently had not looked at Tractate Ketubot, which has quite a bit of material on how to conduct polygamous marriages.  However, the Talmud  assumes that one is doing so in good faith, which is Herman’s problem.  Polygamy is described in Biblical narrative, although the only happy marriages mentioned in the Bible are monogamous.  In the Middle Ages, about the year 1000, Rabbi Gershom of Germany issued a takkanah [decree] forbidding polygamous marriage among European Jews, and that decree has had the force of law ever since.

But the multiple marriages are not Herman’s core problem; they are only a symptom of the problem.  Herman’s problem was correctly diagnosed by Tamara:  he cannot make a decision for himself, and as a result he is incapable of keeping a commitment.  His problem is faithlessness.  Just as he dabbles and struggles through the film with his commitment to Jewish observance, confusing his Polish wife who eventually converts to Judaism, he dabbles and struggles with his commitments to the women in his life.

Yadwiga is involved in a process of commitment in the film:  she becomes a Jew.  The progression of her engagement with Judaism is delicately portrayed.  Living with Norman for years, she has become fairly knowledgeable about household mitzvot [commandments]: she is appalled when he turns on an electric lamp on Shabbat.  In her upset, she swears at him using the names of Christian saints!  She struggles to learn the words of blessings.  Yet we have the sense, by the end of the film, that this has been a successful process of commitment:  she seems happy and relaxed as a Jewish mother.

By the end of the film, Herman has disappeared altogether; he remains only as handwriting on an envelope.  All that are left are the two women, Tamara and Yadwiga, who have formed an alliance reminiscent of Naomi and Ruth.  They are linked by a bond of love and commitment, and Yadwiga’s child soothes Tamara’s bitter soul.

Double Feature

Paul Mazursky also directed Next Stop Greenwich Village, about Jews in New York in a different era.  The other Hollywood film adaptation of an I.B. Singer story is Barbra Streisand’s Yentl.

Questions

1.  If Norman Broder came to you for advice before Tamara’s reappearance, how would you advise him?  Stay in his loveless marriage to Yadwiga?  Cut off the relationship with Masha?  Or end the marriage to Yadwiga and marry Masha?  What does he owe Yadwiga?  What does he owe Masha?

2.  If Norman Broder came to you for advice after Tamara’s reappearance, how would you advise him?  What does he owe Tamara?

3.  Norman and Yadwiga start out as an interfaith relationship.  Yadwiga converts to Judaism.  Tamara and other Jewish characters speak of Yadwiga as a shiksa [filth] early on in the film.  At the end of the film, how would you describe Tamara and Yadwiga’s relationship?  Can you imagine and describe the changes that must have taken place in Tamara’s perception of Yadwiga, and how those changes might have taken place?

Divided We Fall

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

Monsieur Ibrahim

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

God is Great, I’m Not

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

The Way We Were

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.