Tag Archives: Jewish Values

Casino Jack (and the United States of Money)

I’ve never written a post about two films at once before, but today I am writing about two films that cry out for that treatment.  Casino Jack (feature film, 2010) and Casino Jack and the United States of Money (documentary, 2010) cover much the same territory, and each of them is incomplete.  Together, however, they offer a disgusting but nevertheless fascinating trip into the world of Washington politics and the career of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Abramoff was a former College Republican who dabbled in screenwriting and movie production until he discovered the calling that would make him infamous:  he became a Washington lobbyist.  In 2004 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee began to investigate his dealings on behalf of several American Indian tribes and casinos, and a sordid tale involving gambling, tribes, offshore sweatshops, lots and lots of money, murder, the Mob, and figures close to the Bush White House unravelled before the horrified members of Congress, many of whom had benefitted from Abramoff’s largesse.

Convicted in 2008 of trading meals, pricey gifts, and travel in exchange for political favors, Jack Abramoff made yet another trade in exchange for a prison sentence of only four years:  he agreed to cooperate with a massive bribery investigation of lawmakers, their staff, and figures in the Bush Administration.  Ultimately 21 people either plead guilty or were convicted in the subsequent trials.

The documentary, written and produced by Alex Gibney, is a meticulous account of l’affaire Abramoff, including interviews with all the players in that drama.  It lacks only one essential thing for real understanding:  Abramoff himself refused to be interviewed. His motives, and his reflections after the fact remain a question.  We are left to wonder why a person who initially had high ideals and remarkable gifts of persuasion chose to invest his gifts in a con.

The feature film, made at the same time as the documentary, looks precisely at that question:  what possessed the man?  It was directed by George Hickenlooper  a filmmaker whose greatest credits were his documentaries (he won an Emmy in 1992 for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse about the making of Apocalypse Now.)  Casino Jack sometimes has the feel of a documentary, especially in scenes like the Senate hearing, in which Kevin Spacey‘s performance  as Abramoff is intercut with real footage of the Senate hearing and the real John McCain.  However, in that scene, the film seques into a dream sequence in which Abramoff confronts the members of the panel with their own misdeeds (in the real hearing, he plead the fifth again and again and again.)

The weakness of the feature is that it attempts to stuff the voluminous details of a complicated political episode into 108 minutes of entertainment film.  Critics didn’t like it, and neither did the public, so the film appeared at the box office and faded from view almost immediately.  That’s a shame, really, because the story itself is an important one.

Commentary

The feature film left me with the impression that Abramoff did what he did because he got caught up in the game of finding ways to persuade people to give him their money.  He may also have been looking for validation of his own worth in money and in the respect or fear of important men.  Spacey’s performance gave me an impression of a vain, silly man who was good at intimidating others and impressing himself, but who was at heart an empty shell.

Abramoff justified his actions with his philanthropy, and his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. His view of himself as a virtuous man completely blinded him to his despicable acts. An interview since his release from prison in 2010 suggests that perhaps he now understands that studying Torah does not make up for a failure to live Torah.

One key to his side into criminal behavior is mentioned in the documentary:  during his years with the College Republicans, there was a belief that since they were on the side of right, any behavior on its behalf was therefore right.  “Politics is war,” and the winners would write history.  Abramoff was rewarded as a young man for winning at all costs, and so it never occurred to him to ask uncomfortable questions later, when “winning” had become defined by his bank account.

Taken together, these films provide a deeply disturbing picture of Washington.  They are also a description of how a well-meaning, idealistic man could go so horribly wrong.


Munich

Munich (2005) is a fictionalized account of real events following the brutal murder of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.   Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized the assasination of 11 surviving men who had been involved in the murders, members of the Black September militant group.  Secret squads of  agents were assembled for the task.   The film, which producer/director Steven Spielberg describes as “historical fiction” simplifies the account considerably, telling the story of the assasinations mostly from the point of view of the leader of one of the squads, Avner, played by Eric Bana.  The film received good reviews and was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner & Eric Roth), Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn) and Best Original Score (Composed by John Williams).

The screenplay is based on the book,  Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by journalist George Jonas, which in turn was based on the story of Yuval Aviv, who claims to have been a Mossad agent.

The film begins as a conventional thriller but moves steadily into an examination of questions about justice, revenge, and the human costs of each.  Each of the men on the squad is changed by his experiences carrying out the orders.  Several of them eventually question the morality of the orders.  The film also includes several discussions Avner has concerning the nature of home and family:  with his fellows, with a young Palestinian leader about his own age, and with the father of the mysterious French informant who sells them the whereabouts of their quarry.

There were two sets of controversy surrounding the film’s content.  Some critics, including Zionist organizations and Leon Weiseltier of the New Republic, felt that the film erred in presenting terrorism and anti-terrorism as morally equivalent activities.  Other critics wrote that no such equivalency was made, rather that the film raises the issue of the toll that this sort of activity exacts on the individuals who carry it out and on the nation that sponsors it.

Other critics have argued that the film did not depict the events accurately enough, leaving out essential parts of the true story such as the Lillehammer Affair (in which an innocent man was assassinated in a case of mistaken identity.)  Israeli sources have suggested that the film’s depiction of the questioning and soul-searching of the agents is mere fiction and seriously misleading.

Note:  this film is extremely violent and not suitable for children or the sensitive.

Commentary

The film raises some of the complex questions that  bedevil the subject of a proper response to terrorism.  Tthe rabbis of old were very clear that the lex talonis (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) was not to be taken literally, and that justice is something that happens in a court, not by private revenge.   Civilized people seek justice under the law rather than revenge.  However, in 1972 the Israeli leaders believed that it was essential to retaliate for the murders of its athletes because the rest of the world seemed uninterested in pursuing justice in this case.  The Games continued, and in many parts of Europe, the Black Septemberists were portrayed as heroes, not as murderers.

I remember vividly watching the events of Munich unfold on our family TV when I was a teenager.  I recall being shocked that the Games simply continued after a mass murder, and that the Germans, indeed the world, seemed to feel that since many of the terrorists were dead, there was nothing for the police to do. I confess that I was glad later when I learned that the Israeli government decided to take action, although this film makes me wonder at the methods and the cost.   I believe it is important both to ask this sort of question and to remind myself, and my reader, that this film is a work of fiction.  The truth is I do not know how truthfully it depicts the decisions and actions of the real people.  It is useful for theoretical speculation, but it is not useful for passing judgment either on Golda Meir or, for that matter, on Yuval Aviv, the man upon whom the fictional character Avner is supposedly based.  For that, we need facts, not fiction.

At the end of the film, Avner says to Ephraim, his Mossad handler, “What did we accomplish?” pointing out that everyone they killed had been replaced by someone even more brutal.  Ephraim, played by Geoffrey Rush, gives a reply indicating that he thinks Avner’s question is naive. The question is left in the viewer’s lap:  is this necessary?  Is it right?  Is it really the best option?

One of the more interesting aspects of the film, to me, is the question raised by one of Avner’s team:  why didn’t they capture those guys, take them back to Israel, and put them on trial like Eichmann?  In Golda Meir’s speech early in the film there is a suggestion that the proper response to terror is more terror:  scare them so they won’t do this again.  Another reason given early in the film is that it is much easier to kill them than to kidnap them.

Has anyone ever come up with a truly effective response to terrorism, one that does not simply breed more terrorists?

Questions for Discussion

1.  Has a work of fiction ever shaped your understanding of a historical event?  Is it responsible for a filmmaker or novelist to “fictionalize” an account of a historical event?  Does the artist have any responsibility to let viewers  know which parts of the film or novel are fiction?  Does the viewer or reader have any responsibility to search out the facts?

2.  What do you think the Israeli government should have done in response to the murder of the Olympic team?  Why?

3.  What is the difference between justice and revenge?  Which term would you use to describe the events in this film?

The Prince of Egypt

The Prince of Egypt (1998) is an animated version of the Exodus story, slightly tilted to focus on the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh.  The film follows the story of Moses (Val Kilmer) as he is saved from murder by his mother (Ofra Haza) and sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and put into the Nile, to be found later by the Egyptian queen (Helen Mirren).  He is apparently adopted by the Pharaoh Seti I (Patrick Stewart) and raised as the younger brother of Ramses (Ralph Fiennes.)  When Moses discovers his true identity, he is shocked, gets into trouble, and flees Egypt for Midian, where he finds the family of Yitro (Danny Glover) and marries Yitro’s daughter, Zipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer).

There is a note in the first few frames that the film is based on the story in Exodus, with some changes in the story.  In the Biblical account, Moses is adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, and his childhood is left to midrash and imagination.  In this version, Moses is adopted by Pharaoh’s queen and raised as the brother of the next Pharaoh, raising the stakes on that relationship.

The film asks the viewer to consider the personal price Moses pays when he comes into conflict with the people who raised him and turns instead to the people from whom he came.  It also raises the profile of the women in the Moses story, especially the prophetess Miriam, his sister, and Zipporah, his wife.  It does this in ways that do not so much contradict the Biblical tale as they add to it in the spirit of midrash.  Miriam sees what her brother will be.  Zipporah is portrayed as a fierce and independent woman, which is congruent with the story later in the Biblical text in which she circumcised her own sons when Moses neglected to do so.

The animation is beautiful, and the writers wisely did not create the “cute” characters that plague too many animated films.  This is a serious film that happens to be made in animation.  The figures are beautifully drawn, and the computer-generated animation that powers miraculous events in this story does so in ways that convey the power and mystery of those events in the text.  The handling of the death of the firstborns of Egypt is gentle enough for children to see:  we see only the hand of a child who has dropped dead out of our sight, and then the body of the Pharaoh’s son.  The handling of the other plagues is similarly restrained.

The Prince of Egypt won an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song for “When You Believe.”  The enormous team who brought this film into being have given us a gift to enjoy every Passover, or every time a child asks, “Who was Moses, anyway?”

Commentary

In every generation, the haggadah admonishes us  to experience Yitziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) as if we had personally been present.  Before I saw The Prince of Egypt, I was skeptical about the power of an animated film to move me towards that experience.  This is an extraordinarily powerful film and would make an excellent addition to any household’s Passover activities.

That said, the script differs in some important ways from both the Biblical text and the text of the Haggadah.  It also differs from the tale as told in the oft-televised  The Ten Commandments (1956.)  Rabbi David Debow offers a template for a compare-and-contrast exercise for those inclined to parse it all out.  While there is no harm in learning stories from movies, just keep in mind that this film is a version of the story.  It fills in many of the gaps in the Exodus text, and it is worth remembering that this is not the only way (and certainly not the definitive way!) to tell the tale.

Moses is vivid in this film in a way he is not in most other depictions.  His character looms so large in religious tradition and the popular imagination  that he often seems distant or wooden.  The Prince of Egypt demands that we think about what it might have been like to be Moses.  What might it have been like to grow up a prince in Pharaoh’s court?  Was it hard to realize his true birth?  What had to happen for him to become the Moses who would go to Pharaoh and insist, “Let my people go”?  How could a man go from pampered princeling to a true leader?  What price did he pay?

The film also gives us a Miriam who is a true prophetess.  Some commentators have suggested that there are Miriam stories missing from the text; was she such a strong female figure that some redactor in the past snipped out parts of her story?  There is  a strong feminist angle to this version of the story, in which Miriam is a prophetess from early in her life (a depiction consistent with traditional midrash).  She is Moses’ protector and provocateur, insisting that he live up to the promise she saw in him.

Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) is initially played for comedy and his role in the story is much diminished.  It is one of the few faults I find in this film.  He does not speak for Moses, and is not his partner until the very end.

More than anything else, I was moved by the way in which the miracles of the burning bush, the plagues, and the Red Sea were portrayed.  The computer-generated animation achieved the wonders that deMille pointed to in his 1956 version without falling into cliche.  All through the film, in fact, there are echoes of deMille’s vision, and that of the directors of other Biblical epics, but here instead of costumes and pageantry, the animators approached true majesty.

Questions

The Biblical text tells us that God hardened the heart of Pharoah.  What hardens his heart in this film?  Why is he so unbending?

How is this Moses like the Moses of your imagination?  Is your Moses older? Younger? Angrier? Sadder? More idealistic?

What does this story mean to you?

Double Feature

The Prince of Egypt covers the same Biblical ground as The Ten Commandments. It has been said that Charlton Heston will forever be “Moses” in the eyes of many filmgoers, and certainly his Moses is different from this one.  Which Moses would you choose?  Why?

A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) is the most explicitly Jewish film thus far from Joel and Ethan Coen. It is a black comedy, blacker even than their previous film No Country for Old Men.  Its violence is purely emotional, but none the less harrowing for that.  It begins with a quotation from Rashi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  It then proceeds to a folk tale in Yiddish about a man named Velvel who is helped on the road by an acquaintance of his wife; he invites the man back to his home for a bowl of soup.  His wife, however, is convinced the man is a dybbuk, a body possessed by the soul of a dead person, and she stabs him/it with a fork.  The visitor stumbles out into the snow, and we are left with the question:  who was right, the man or his wife?  Was the visitor a righteous man or a demon? How can one know?

Fast forward to 1967, and another Jewish household.  Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulberg) wants to be a righteous Jew living a decent life.  He is married, he is a physics professor, he is near to receiving tenure at his university, he has two children, a girl and a boy.  The boy will be bar mitzvah soon.  But below the surface, almost nothing is right:  his son smokes pot incessantly, his daughter steals from his wallet, saving money for a nose job, his wife has decided to leave him for a widower friend.  Someone is sending anonymous hate mail about him to the tenure committee.  He is pursued by a wild assortment of large and small misfortunes, from fender benders to the Columbia Record Company to a  student who intends to bribe and/or blackmail him.  He is nervous about one scowling, gun toting neighbor, and attracted to another, a woman who has “trouble” written in her eyeliner.  His brother lives on the couch, constantly draining his “sebaceous cyst,” drawing complaints from the police about gambling and sodomy.

Like Job, he has comforters who do not comfort.  He seeks advice from friends, who offer platitudes.  He seeks out his rabbis: the youngest mouths senseless banalities, the middle-aged one offers a story without an ending, and the ancient, allegedly-wise one — no, I won’t spoil the surprise.  Advice comes from other sources too, including his son’s stereo:  the Jefferson Airplane repeats over and over again, “You gotta find somebody to love,” offering the answer that Archibald MacLeish suggested at the end of his play on Job, J.B..

Commentary

If indeed the Coen brothers intend to suggest Job to audiences, they do it without invoking any of the resolutions that Job-stories generally offer.  MacLeish suggested that love was the answer.  The tacked-on ending to the Biblical book insists that all will be restored to the righteous in the end.  This movie, though, ends on the bleakest of notes, with an ominous phone call and an approaching storm.  Disaster clearly lies ahead — and yet since the viewer is in 2009, and the story ends in 1967, the world didn’t come to an end.

One might be tempted to say, well, then, it’s all meaningless.  And that, too, is a possible answer.

For me, watching this film as a rabbi, this film was nearly unbearable to watch.  I was furious with the rabbis, furious with the wife, furious with the friends — but I have to ask myself, what would I say to Larry Gopnik if he walked into my office and demanded an answer?  The film was sharpened by coincidences:  this winter I have watched too many friends suffer through inexplicable troubles, things they did not bring upon themselves, misfortune upon misery, and the Coens are right:  all these events demand a cry of Why?

The quotation that opens the film, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” is Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13, from Parashat Shoftim, “You will be tamim with Adonai your God.” Tamim is a Hebrew adjective which can be translated “simple,”  “blameless,”  or “wholehearted.”  The son who “does not know how to ask” in the Haggadah is tam.  Noah is described in Genesis as an ish tam, a simple man (Genesis 6:9.)   Job is also described as tam v’yashar, a blameless and upright man (Job 1:8.) Larry Gopnik is a simple man in a different way:  he seeks answers in the elegant simplicity of mathematical equations.

Rashi suggests that understanding may be beside the point.  We are free to ask “why?” but there are no clear and easy answers.  What remains is the possibility of remaining a decent human being in the face of it all.  Another quotation from rabbinic literature comes to mind: “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.”  (Mishnah Avot, 2.5)

Another Rabbinic Point of View

For another rabbinic take on this film, read Rabbi Anne Brener’s billiant article on it in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

An Israeli take on the film

Ella Leibowitz’s article in Haaretz on A Serious Man offers yet another completely different view on this film.

Body and Soul

BodyandSoulBody and Soul (1947) is most famous as a boxing film: cinematographer James Wong Howe had been a Golden Gloves boxer himself, and filmed the fight scenes in the ring, on roller skates, creating film that would set the bar for boxing films for decades ahead, notably Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  It is the story of a young Jewish man, Charlie Davis (played by John Garfield) East Side son of a candy store operator, who has a talent for “nothing much but boxing.”  His father dies when a Mob bombing of the speakeasy next door destroys his shop. Charlie is a “wild” boy but a good one, and will not fight against his mother’s wishes until Mama (played by Anne Revere) is left without the means to support herself.  A pivotal moment:

Charlie: Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn. I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!
Mama: I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.
Charlie: You need MONEY to buy a gun!

Money becomes the be-all and end-all of Charlie’s life.  He is successful as a fighter, but to be in championship fights, he needs to cozy up to the men who run the big fights, and not incidentally fix the big fights.  He insists to his best friend (played by Joseph Pevney) that it doesn’t matter if “they” want to buy his arm — after all it’s Charlie’s arm to sell, if he wants to.  He makes lots of money, and he spends lots of money, and eventually he is told by the crooked promoter who “owns” him that he must throw a fight.

The film was a special project of actor John Garfield, who searched for years for the right screenplay for a boxing film.  The screenplay for Body and Soul, by Abraham Polonsky, was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Garfield’s acting.  The film won the 1947 Oscar for Best Editing.

Commentary

The dialogue in the film barely mentions the fact that Charlie Davis is a Jew:  certainly the name isn’t Jewish.  However, there are dozens of clues that make it clear that Polonsky was thinking of a Jewish boxer when he made the film (and production notes included as an extra in the Region 1 DVD release confirm) that originally Garfield was interested in making a biopic of a Jewish boxer who had drug problems, preventing the script from being greenlighted in that form.  Even though the biopic fell through, the screenplay of Body and Soul mentions that Charlie is Jewish, and his mother is determined and vocal about Jewish values of education, of not wasting, of modesty (against ostentation), and family.

Anna Davis (Mama) is adamant that Charlie is going to get an education.  She and her husband may have been small-time merchants, living on the East Side, but she has big dreams for her son, all of which have more to do with education than with wealth.  She is furious at the idea of him as a boxer.  This tension between the generations is a frequent theme in American Jewish film, from The Jazz Singer in 1927 to The Chosen in 1982, to Crossing Delancey in 1988.  How are the old Jewish values of the “old country” going to translate to New York of the 20’s or the 80’s?

Note, too, that the men making money on Charlie are white:  Charlie is a Jew, the champ he unseats is African American, and his opponent in the big fight at the end is a Texas hillbilly.  (Remember, in 1947, Jews were not yet considered “white” — see Gentleman’s Agreement, below.)

The moralistic plot (which may seem a bit heavy-handed for modern audiences) is a parable on the dangers and seductions of money, spun out with rabbinical details.  Three friends warn Charlie of the dangers of his path:  his fiance, his friend Shorty, and his trainer, Ben.  He is so mesmerized by the cash that he cannot hear any of them.  Other friends, “evil companions” straight out of midrash, encourage him to remain obsessed with making and spending “dough”.

In a post-Madoff age, this old film takes on a new edge:  if you wonder how Bernie Madoff could have done what he did, look at the gleam in Charlie Davis’s eyes.

Double Feature

John Garfield co-starred in another film in the same year, Gentleman’s Agreement, which deals much more overtly with Jewish issues.  Both Body and Soul and Gentleman’s Agreement had casts and crew who were decimated by the Hollywood Blacklist of the McCarthy Era; in some cases, this was the last American film they would make for 20 years or more.

Ushpizin

200px-UshpizinUshpizin (2004) is a holiday story of faith and human foibles.  The production of the film involved an unusual partnership of ultra-Orthodox and secular filmmakers, making it an Israeli cinematic milestone.  It is a story about an impoverished couple in the Breslov Haredi community  in Jerusalem, who do not have even the money to celebrate Sukkot:  no sukkah, no money for food, no money even to pay their rent.  They take to heart Rabbi Nachman‘s saying that difficulties are a test of faith, so when things become difficult, they pray.

Abruptly, their fortunes change:  an abandoned sukkah becomes available, money arrives unexpectedly in an envelope under the door, and the husband spends a large amount of the money on a beautiful etrog (citron) which is a requirement for the holiday.  The more beautiful etrogim, he believes, make the conception of a child more likely.  Then, when all seems perfect, the ushpizin, the visitors, arrive.

Commentary

This film offers a rare visit inside the ultra-Orthodox world of the Breslov Haredim.  Critics point out that it is also a very uncritical look at that community, but there is something to be said for seeing people first on their own terms.  The story is worthy of Rabbi Nachman himself, revolving around the Jewish value of hospitality and the power of prayer.

The main character in the film, Moshe, (played by Shuli Rand) is a ba’al teshuva, a former secular Jew who has made a commitment to strict observance.  When his old life comes to visit, he is both tempted by the memories and horrified by the reality. His wife, Mali, (played by Michal Bat Sheva Rand) is determined to pass the test of heaven.  One of the more subtle aspects of the film is its examination of the delicate balances in a marriage:  how the couple support one another, and how they can also be thrown off balance by one another.

Questions

How far need one go to observe the mitzvah of hospitality?

Moshe learns that he should have asked more questions about the sukkah, yet the source of the money under the door is never questioned.  How are the two different, or are they different?

Mali is furious when she finds out where the visitors are from, and that Moshe accepted them anyway, trusting them to be alone with her.  Were you worried for Mali?  Do you think the visitors were truly dangerous?

Does God send tests?  Why?

Shanghai Ghetto

shanghaiShanghai Ghetto (2002) is a documentary by Dana Jancklowitz-Mann and Amir Mann chronicling the stories of German Jews who were able to escape Nazi Germany in the 1930’s by taking advantage of a loophole in passport operations in Japanese-occupied China.  At that time, the Jews of Germany were offered a choice with a very short time span:  either find somewhere to immigrate immediately or go to “resettlement” camps.  Even those who realized the seriousness of the situation were stymied:  no country in the world was accepting Jewish immigrants.   Jewish immigration to British-ruled Palestine was blocked.  The United States and other Western nations were closed to Jewish immigration.  There was nowhere to go.

Nowhere, except for a place where the chaos of war had already made enough havoc for a loophole:  The port of Shanghai was the only city in the world in which neither a visa nor a passport was required for entry.  Imperial Japan occupied Shanghai, and for various reasons chose neither to enforce Japanese nor Chinese passport operations there.  As a result, it was an open port:  a safe haven for the Jews who were able to scrape together the bribes to leave Germany and the steamship passage to get to China.

Once in China, they faced a new life, living in the slums of Shanghai among the Chinese residents.  They were helped by the Jews of China (another interesting story, one not sufficiently told in this documentary) and by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish organization that served Jewish refugees all over the world (and continues to exist today, operating out of Israel.)  As the war wore on, their lives became more and more difficult, but they survived, unlike countless relatives and friends left behind in Germany.

This documentary tells their story, through vintage film, through the memories and voices of the refugees themselves, and through poignant film footage of the now elderly refugees visiting modern-day Shanghai.  It is a simple, rather artless documentary, but the human story it tells is profound.

Commentary

Today it is difficult to comprehend how completely the Jewish People were abandoned by the rest of the world during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Perhaps the greatest single contribution of this documentary is its testimony to what the world looked like without a homeland for the Jews.

The story told here is about the German Jews.  The film alludes to but says much less about the other Jewish communities in Shanghai.  The Baghdadi Jewish community had originated in Iraq (hence its name) resettling in India during the British Raj, and the few families in Shanghai were there doing business for British concerns.  There were also a Russian Jewish community which had moved to Shanghai after the pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The German Jews arrived in Shanghai just before the beginning of war in Europe.  After it began, other groups began to trickle into the Shanghai Ghetto.  A few Austrian and Czech Jewish families followed.  Then a small group of Polish Jews arrived, some of them the faculty from the Mir Yeshiva, the only one of the yeshivot of Europe to survive the war intact. In 1943, all the Jews of Shanghai, Baghdadi, Russian, German, Polish, and so on were crowded into a ghetto less than a mile square and kept there by order of the Japanese army.  There they remained until the end of the war.

In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, Hillel is quoted:  “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.”  I was struck, watching this film, how the Jews in this miserable situation managed to construct a society that worked despite the losses, the deprivations, the uncertainties, and starvation.  Our communities today, living in relative safety and prosperity, could stand to learn a thing or two from them.

Crossing Delancey

AFA 195259Crossing Delancey (1988) is a romantic comedy about a woman in her early 30’s whose Bubbe thinks she should be married already.  Amy Irving plays Izzy Grossman, who has a fancy job Uptown in Manhattan, and whom Bubbe’s matchmaker friend has matched with Sam Posner, a blue-collar fellow who sells pickles on the Lower East Side played by Peter Riegert.   The tension in the plot is between tradition and modernity, and there is never much doubt which will triumph.

One notable performance in the film is that of Reizl Bozyk, who plays Bubbe.  She was one of the stalwarts of Yiddish theater, first in Poland and then in New York, but this is her only performance in American film.

Commentary

Crossing Delancey is billed as a romantic comedy, but the most vivid relationship in the film is that between Izzy and her grandmother.  Izzy is a modern woman, circa 1988, but she also cares deeply for her Bubbe, visiting her regularly in the old neighborhood, and looking after her.  She is exasperated but respectful when Bubbe hires a matchmaker, agreeing to meet “the match” only to humor Bubbe.

Izzy’s relationships with her friends receive almost as much time as the romantic relationships in the film.  Izzy’s work world is fully assimilated into secular American life (in this case, that of the New York intelligentsia), but her family and friendships are deeply rooted in Jewish culture and society.  She and her friends alarm their mothers, straying far into the modern world of work and career, but the film suggests that at heart, Izzy’s heart is still on the Lower East Side.

This is one of the rare films that shows Jewish women and their relationships in a warm and realistic light.  All of the women in the film could have been written and played as stereotypes, but fortunately for us, the writer and the director chose otherwise.

Double Feature

Watch Kissing Jessica Stein for a version of a similar romantic comedy made thirteen years later.  Another mother is anxious for her daughter to “find someone,” but a lot changed in those thirteen years.  What the two films have in common is a warm depiction of Jewish grandmothers, mothers, and daughters who love one another deeply, and who are people you might wish you knew.

Amy Irving co-starred in another film about a Jewish woman made in the 1980’s, Yentl.  There she played Hadass, the conventional, traditional foil to Yentl’s choices about gender.

Questions

Roger Ebert argued in his review of this film that Izzy and Sam characters are so constrained by the conventions of American romantic comedy that they are barely more than “plot devices”:  stock characters given stock speeches.   Whether Izzy is a “real” character or a “plot device” what do you think of her choices and behavior?  Do you know anyone like Izzy, or is she a caricature?

The Ten Commandments

200px-10Command56The Ten Commandments (1956) was the last film that Cecil B. DeMille directed.  It is the most famous of the “Bible epic” genre, telling the story of Moses (played by Charlton Heston)  and the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt under Pharoah.

The film was actually a remake of a 1923 film, The Ten Commandments, also directed by Mr. Demille.  Both films feature the heroic style of acting favored in silent films.  The 1956 film was notable for its “cast of thousands,” for the location shots (parts of it were filmed in Egypt and the Sinai) and for its use of special effects, particularly the parting of the Red Sea.

The screenplay differs significantly from the account in Exodus, making use of various midrashic sources, the Qur’an, Josephus, and elsewhere. The film continues to be enormously popular, and has been parodied many times.

Commentary

“…and he looked just like Charlton Heston!” is the punchline of many a joke told by many a rabbi to liven up a sermon.  Despite the fact that the screenplay makes Hollywood chopped liver of the story in Exodus, this is another of the films that qualifies as a “must see,”  because it is a key part of popular Jewish culture.

Just be sure to actually READ Exodus sometime.  Also, take a look at the story of deliverance as told in the traditional Passover Haggadah.

Questions

If you were going to make a film about the deliverance from Egypt, would you use the screenplay of this movie, or the screenplay of  1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, or the story in the Haggadah, or the story as told in the biblical book of Exodus?  If you were going to use elements of each, which would you choose, and why?

Biloxi Blues

biloxi_bluesBiloxi Blues (1988) is the second play in Neil Simon‘s semi-autobiographical “Eugene” trilogy, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Matthew Broderick, who originated the role on Broadway.   Most of the story is set in the barracks of an army base in Biloxi, MS, in 1945, where 20 year old Eugene Jerome struggles with heat, mosquitoes, virginity, and an eccentric drill instructor (played by Christopher Walken) .  As one of only two Jews in the barracks, he has to cope with the anti-Semitism of the sergeant and the other recruits, and with the general sense that he has somehow landed on an alien planet a long, long way from Brooklyn.  His best friend is the other Jew, Arnold Epstein, played by Corey Parker.

Commentary

Biloxi Blues is first and foremost a young man’s coming-of-age story, and as such, it follows the conventions, and accomplishes that in fairly conventional ways.  One more interesting aspect of the film, though, is the way that two young actors, Broderick and Parker, portray the two Jews in the company.   Some of the roles are clear in the screenplay, but the choices made by the actors and the director pose us a fascinating question:  when one is a Jew, a new Army recruit deep in the bowels of the South, surrounded by mostly unfriendly anti-Semites, what is one to do about that fact?

Eugene experiments with various approaches:  he wisecracks for a while, until it is clear that it will win him no friends.  Gradually he attempts to blend in:  he doesn’t hide his Jewishness, but he wears it lightly, shrugging off slurs, and laughing with the other guys when he can.  He’s a lousy soldier, but he tries hard to fit in.

Arnold chooses another route:  he is not concerned with popularity.  He is in fact determined not to fit in, because he does not approve of most of what he sees around him.  At one key moment, when asked why he is so pointed about his Jewishness and his insistence on his own values, he says, “The Army has its logic.  I have mine.”  He is utterly uncompromising about his values, and it costs him dearly.

The two Jews drive one another to distraction:  from Eugene’s point of view, Arnold makes everything unnecessarily hard for himself.  He admires Arnold’s “constant and relentless pursuit of truth, logic, and reason,” but it interferes with his own efforts to keep his head down and get along.

From Arnold’s point of view, Eugene seems to stand for nothing at all.  Eugene’s real coming-of-age doesn’t happen among the usual trappings and conventions:  it isn’t his first sexual experience, or his first experience of love, it’s his discovery that there is something in his life worth dying for.  I won’t spoil the film by saying more.

Questions

How do you decide when to stand up for your beliefs, and when to duck the question?  Has anyone ever made an anti-Semitic joke when you were in earshot?  What did you say or do?  How about a racist joke, or a homophobic joke?  Where is the line (is there a line?) between “political correctness” and standing up for your values?
Double Feature

Biloxi Blues makes an interesting companion piece to Gentlemen’s Agreement.  They portray the same period, although Biloxi Blues does so with forty years’ hindsight.  Gentleman’s Agreement shows the workings of anti-Semitism in genteel New York society; Biloxi Blues shows it in the coarse melting-pot of an Army boot camp.  What are the differences, if any?