Category Archives: United States

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)  Sometimes it is only with the help of a great film critic that I can really see a film.  I have loved this film since the first time I saw it, sitting in a movie theater in the Loop in Chicago.  I was aware of loving the whiz-bang, thrill-a-minute ride.  I loved the characters, and I loved the fun of it.  But I could not say why it was a film I was happy to see again and again.  It’s just now, after reading Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review, that I realized this film had been singing to my Jewish soul.

Ebert was writing partly in answer to Pauline Kael’s characterization of the film as “impersonal,” inferior to Steven Spielberg’s work before and after.  He points out that this film is deeply personal for Spielberg, that it is a young Jewish boy’s fantasy of the revenge exacted from Nazis who seek to “steal the heritage of the Jews and use it for their own victory.”

OK, enough of me stealing from Roger Ebert.  Click the link to his review.  Read it.  He does a wonderful job of unpacking the reasons that this is a film with genuine Jewish content stuffed into every crevice of a crackerjack fun ride.

Commentary

Serious Holocaust education is important and vital if we are not to forget.  However, anyone who has actually sat through all 9 1/2 hours of Shoah will tell you that getting a Holocaust education is heart-breaking and soul-wrenching.  If, after you have done your serious study, you find that you need an antidote, something to lift the heart a bit, Raiders of the Lost Ark might be just the ticket.

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The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998) is a documentary telling the story of Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg.  Writer and director Aviva Kempner used interviews with Greenberg during the last year of his life, interviews with friends and family, as well as extensive archival footage and stills to tell the story.  She also used interviews with fans to great effect.

It’s a baseball story, of course, and there is plenty for a fan to enjoy.  Greenberg was a genuine star, a Hall of Famer who in 1938 came close to breaking Babe Ruth‘s home run record.  Greenberg is still the record holder for RBI’s (runs batted in) in a single season by a right-handed batter (1938).  Strictly as a sports biography, this is a rich and satisfying little film.

Commentary

Kempner delved into the wider significance of Greenberg’s career as the first American Jewish sports superstar.  Even though he was personally not a “religious” Jew, his Jewish identity was an important symbol for many fans, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  The film details the anti-Semitism he faced, and the adoration of many Jewish fans.  It goes into some detail over his famous decision in 1934 to stay away from a World Series game held on Yom Kippur, instead attending synagogue services.

This big, tall, handsome Jewish sports star played for the Tigers in the city of Detroit, home base for prominent American anti-Semites Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.  Greenberg began his career just as the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe became German policy. His presence and play flew in the face of anti-Semitic stereotypes.  Kempner used clips from other films like Gentleman’s Agreement to illustrate the atmosphere in America at the time.

Questions for discussion:

1.  Hank Greenberg believed he had responsibilities as a role model for young fans, and as a Jew in the public eye.  Do you think that a public figure has such  responsibilities?  Does every Jew in the public eye need to represent “the Jews”?  Why or why not?

2.  Many things about professional sports have changed since Greenberg’s day, and some things have not changed at all.  Ballplayers can become “free agents” and make much more money than they used to.  What other things are different about pro sports then and now?  What’s the same?

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is an engaging portrait of a gifted young woman who sacrificed everything for her people.  It’s hard to believe that this is the first documentary about her life. It’s almost harder to believe that Hollywood hasn’t made any kind of film about the life of Hannah Senesh, given its mixture of drama and pathos.

Senesh was a poet and diarist, a young Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930’s, only to return home to Hungary in 1944 as a Haganah volunteer to the British Royal Air Force. She and her small group parachuted into Europe, hoping to assist stranded British airmen and the Jews of Hungary. Their timing was terrible: days after they arrived at the Hungarian border, Germany occupied the country. Senesh was captured by Hungarian police and turned over to the Gestapo, who tortured and executed her in November of 1944.

In a twist that was certainly stranger than fiction, Hannah’s mother was imprisoned with her in Budapest for a time.  The Gestapo was determined to force Hannah to give them radio codes that would allow them to send misinformation to the partisans and to the British.  They arrested Mrs. Senesh and threatened to torture her to get her daughter to talk.  Amazingly, Mrs. Senesh managed to survive the war (nearly all of Hungarian Jewry was murdered) and she appears in the film.

Synagogue-goers in the U.S. may be familiar with Senesh’s poem, Eli, Eli [My God, My God] set to a melody by David Zahavi.

Filmmaker Roberta Grossman waves together photographs, interviews, archival footage and dramatic reenactments to tell Hannah’s story.  Scholars give just enough historical background for the viewer to understand exactly what this young woman was up against.

Commentary

The experience of Hungarian Jews was different from that of most of the Jews of Europe, in that as an ally to Germany, Hungary was not under the control of the Nazis until late in the war.  Suddenly, in 1944, all of Hungary’s Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps:  in the space of a few months, most of the community was destroyed.  Part of the power of this film is that it gives a very good picture of middle class Jewish Hungarian life before the war, as well as the darkest days of 1944.

It also conveys a particular kind of Zionist story, the story of a young Hungarian woman who immigrates to Palestine out of passion for the Jewish people and the Zionist project.  Had she not become a parachutist, Senesh would likely be a retired farmer in Israel, telling stories about her life on Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

This film is gentle enough for middle-schoolers to watch, but retains an emotional punch.  The mother-daughter relationship is presented with remarkably little sentimentality.  I got the sense of two strong Jewish women who, under extreme pressure, found they were stronger than they knew.

This is an excellent film for learning about Zionism and about the Holocaust. Large events in history are much more comprehensible when we view them through the lens of a particular life.  Hannah Senesh’s life is such a lens, and more.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

If you are too young for Medicare, chances are you have never heard of Gertrude Berg.  In Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009), director Aviva Kempner sets out to right that wrong.  In her day, before Lucy, before Oprah, she was Lucy and Oprah rolled together with a Tony award as a cherry on top.  She originated a hit radio show, wrote and acted in it all through the Great Depression, and after WWII, carried the show to TV for many more seasons of success.  She invented the TV sitcom as we know it today in the form of The Goldbergs, which ran on television from 1949 – 1955 after almost 20 years on radio.  She won the first Emmy for Actress in a TV Comedy, and later in her life, she won a Tony as an actress on Broadway.

And we have never heard of this woman?

Commentary

I had a good time watching this documentary, and I am happy that it is available on DVD and from Neflix.  However, it is a shame that Aviva Kempner did not dig deeper into her subject matter, because there’s another film underneath, a much more powerful and important film.

Some of the best parts of the film delve into the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Blacklist that ended the career of Mrs. Berg’s co-star, Philip Loeb.  I wish that Ms. Kempner had devoted  the same degree of attention and passion to the question that underlies the entire story:  why has Gertrude Berg been so nearly completely forgotten?  We remember many film stars, all the way back to the silent era, and the stars of many a forgettable TV comedy that lasts a season or two:  why not this Jewish woman who made such a mark in mid-century America?

I would also be interested in knowing more about the reactions to her program outside New York and Los Angeles.  In those days, anti-Semitism was rife in the United States, and yet this hit program was unabashedly Jewish.  The only hint of this was a comment by actor Ed Asner, who comments that the Goldbergs were “too Jewish” to feel comfortable for him, as a young Jewish boy growing up in the Midwest.  How did Christian viewers perceive the program, and how did it affect their view of Jews?

The film also gives short shrift to Mrs. Berg’s home life, and how life might have been for a married woman who was working such long hours in those days.  Her children were born in 1922 and 1926, and her radio show first aired in 1929.  How did she do it?  What was the real Berg family like?  Kempner assures us that her marriage to Berg was a love match, and little is said about the children, but I could not help but think that there was a much more interesting story somewhere under the glossy exterior.

So yes, it is a fascinating film, but it left me wanting more.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you remember The Goldbergs?  If so, what memories does it bring up for you?
  2. When you watch the clips of The Goldbergs in the film, how do you feel about the way those characters were portrayed?  Would you like to see re-runs?
  3. What do you know about the Hollywood Blacklist?  How many Jews were on it?
  4. I Love Lucy appeared on TV the year before the The Goldbergs was cancelled.  Do you have any theories about why Lucille Ball is remembered and Gertrude Berg is not?
  5. Can you imagine a re-make of The Goldbergs on TV today?  Who would you cast?  Where would it be set?

Related Material from around the Net

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?

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?