Tag Archives: Arab

You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) is a Judd ApatowAdam Sandler film:  as Roger Ebert so beautifully put it, “a mighty hymn of and to vulgarity.”  It is a slapstick romp about a crack Mossad operative whose secret wish is to “stop the killing” and become a hairdresser in New York.  Once there, he finds himself an outsider along with many Palestinians. They chase one another, in Keystone Cop fashion (but with more penis and hummus jokes) until the sets are destroyed and everyone is exhausted.  I think that about sums it up.

Commentary

I had to think a while about my comments on this film, because I hope that Sandler et al meant well.  There are many jokes making fun of Israelis, some of it pretty rough humor, and to give Sandler the benefit of the doubt, I hope that he thought that those jokes were in balance with the jokes at the expense of the Arab characters.  After all, the Zohan’s love interest is a Palestinian woman!

But there is no getting past the fact that while the film plays with Israeli stereotypes (tough guy, the accent, the attitude, the Sabra heart of sweetness) it trades on a nastier stereotype of Arabs and Palestinians:  the lust for Jewish blood and mindless hatred.  The humor about the Zohan springs from the tension between his tough-guy Mossad persona and his true hairdresser lover-boy identity.  The humor about the Arabs in this film does not come from any such tension:  the men are mostly Wile E. Coyote to Zohan’s RoadRunner, one-note idiots who repeatedly court disaster in hot comic pursuit of their quarry.  The more benign Palestinian male characters are merely dim.  This is racist stereotyping at its worst, because it is disguised as “all in good fun” while it sends the same old hateful messages.  Worse yet, it is aimed specifically at young men.

For those who are saying, “Whoa! Don’t you love Israel?” all I can say is, I dislike this film because I do love Israel.  I am a deeply committed Zionist.  I lived in Israel in 2002-3, during the Second Intifada.  I dislike this film because I think that racism like this hurts Israel, and damages the chances for peace, because it tells young American men that Palestinian men are subhuman.  I can point to Israeli films that take similar or even touchier subject matter and do so much better with it:  for example, watch The Band’s Visit.  It’s a wonderful, funny film that gets its comedy from the humanity of everyone in it.

For a contrast to a broad, sometimes vulgar comedy that tackles similar subject matter with much better results, take a look at The Infidel.  Everyone in that movie is a complicated human being, with complicated motives and dreams that lead them into a comical collision.  We all laugh together at the human condition:  much, much better.

As for the way women are pictured in this film, I will just say: feh.  I am very tired of Jewish filmmakers failing to work out their mommy issues — or going for the cheap laugh, which is worse — by dumping on women.  Sandler and Apatow, you can do better!

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Walk on Water

Walk on Water (2004) [Hebrew title: Lalehket al HaMayim] is an Israeli film by director Eytan Fox, set in the midst of the Second Intifada, in 2002.  A crack Mossad hitman, Eyal, (Lior Ashkenazi) returns from a successful hit against a Hamas operative to find that his wife has committed suicide.  His handler, Menachem (Gideon Shemer) believes that he is more upset than he claims to be, and gives him an “easier” assignment, hunting down an aging Nazi by pretending to be a tour guide for his young grandson, Axel (Knut Berger).  Supposedly the old man is dead, but Menachem has come to believe that he was smuggled away from justice after the war, and he is still alive.

Eyal becomes more involved than he intends with the young man and with his sister, Pia, who has been living for years on a kibbutz in the Israeli countryside.  Before all is said and done, the film wrangles with the aftermath of the Holocaust, its connections to current events in Israel, Israeli-Palestinian relations, terrorism, and homophobia.  It is a tall order, and a complicated film. To Fox’s credit, it is mostly successful in its attempt to tackle such challenging material:  it was nominated not only for nine awards in 2004 by the Israeli Film Academy, winning three, but also nominated in 2006 for the much-coveted Cesar Award (France) for Best Foreign Film.

Commentary

Much has been written about the connections between the trauma of the Holocaust and the present-day responses of Israelis to security threats.  This film focuses on these tensions within one man, who has a fierce love of his own country and yet who is growing sick of killing.   It is also a testament to the power of relationship to transform lives.

The film also does an excellent job of capturing the feeling in Israel during the Second Intifada.  It was a very strange mixture of normal life going forward, regularly punctuated by horrific bombings.

Questions for Discussion

1.  Why does Menachem send Eyal after the old Nazi?

2.  What do you think of the ethics of Eyal pretending to be a tour guide to get close to Pia and Axel to find out about their grandfather?

3.  Should the Nazi have had a trial, or is it just simply to assassinate him? Should Eyal have followed orders?  What do you think about Axel’s action?

4.  In the opening of the film, Eyal kills without a second thought, after smiling at the child of the man he is about to kill.  In Berlin, he twice has the opportunity to kill and does not.  What happened to change him?

5.  What did you think about Eyal’s attitude and behavior in the incident of the coat?  Why did he behave as he did?  Was he wrong or right?  Why?

6.  What changes Eyal’s attitude about Axel’s homosexuality?

7.  At the end of the film, is Eyal still working for Mossad?  Why do you think so, or why not?

Live and Become

L&BLive and Become (2005) [French title:  Va, vis et deviens] is a wrenching tale of exile and assimilation, both topics that resonate for Jews.  The twist, for Jewish viewers, is that the central character is an Ethiopian who at age 9 is pushed by his refugee Christian mother into a group of  Falashas, Ethiopian Jews who are rescued from Sudan by “Operation Moses.”  For the rest of the film, Schlomo (a name he is given by the Falasha woman who adopts him) has to hide his birth as a Christian while assimilating into a new Israeli Jewish identity.  The film follows his life until age 30. The film is not short (140 minutes) and is in Amharic, French, and Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Commentary

This film explores many topics, framed in the immigrant’s experience:  issues of identity, of racism, of perseverance, of family.  It is a valuable and moving film on many different levels.  What struck me, for our purposes here, is that it is the best window I’ve seen into the emotional process of becoming Jewish.

Schlomo’s conversion, if it is a conversion, is highly irregular:  he is adopted on impulse by a Jewish woman who has lost her son, just as she leaves a refugee camp with a group bound for Israel. Before she dies of TB, she hurriedly schools him in his new family’s history and warns him that he must keep the secret of his birth.

Schlomo (played by Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe, and Sirak M. Sabahat) does as he is told by his birth mother and his first adoptive mother:  he lies.  Out of the original lie, however, emerges something much more genuine:  Schlomo pursues a Jewish education, becomes knowledgable enough to best another young scholar in a competition, and becomes a patriotic Israeli.

So how might this connect to the American convert to Judaism?  There are echoes of the refugee experience for some new Jews:  there are losses (the old life, sometimes even the old family) there is prejudice to face (“you don’t look Jewish, you aren’t really one of us”),  and there is the struggle to assimilate into Jewish community, to learn not only the intellectual content but a million small things that every Jewish child (supposedly) knows: Chanukah songs and  jokes about matzah, for instance.  There are new foods to encounter:  gefilte fish and chopped liver, presented with pride by a Jewish cook, are an excruciating experience for some on the first taste.

Questions

There was no beit din, no brit milah, no mikveh:  but if Schlomo is not a Jew, what is he?  The Falasha rabbi with whom he forms a bond (played by Yitzhak Elgar) says that he had misgivings about the first adoption when it took place, but their conversation implies that he has come to see Schlomo as legitimately Jewish.  With his mention of the adoption and naming of Schlomo by Hana, whom he knew to be one of his Jews, he suggests that Schlomo perhaps did not need the intention to convert that would normally be asked of an adult.  Once he was living in Israel, if he pursued a proper conversion, he’d have been deported to the camp in Sudan (and presumably that would have been a death sentence for a child whose mother had disappeared.)  So is he Jewish?  And if not, what should happen?

The film also raises questions about the tension between Torah and the realities of a modern State.  How shall we reconcile the rules of the Law of Return with the commandment to love the stranger [Deuteronomy 10:19]?

The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob

MadrabbijacobengThe Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973) is a classic French comedy directed by Gérard Oury starring Louis de Funès as Victor Pivert, a wealthy French industrialist who believes that everyone who is not white, Christian, and native-born French should go back where they came from — and if they were born in France, they should simply go away, out of his sight.

His life, however, is on a collision course with education.   On the way to his daughter’s wedding, he discovers that his trusted chauffeur Salomon is (oh horrors!) a Jew.  He stumbles into the hideout of a gang of murderers hired by an Arab government to kill a revolutionary, Mohamed Slimane, played by Claude Giraud.  He himself is kidnapped by Slimane, and after a madcap chase in the Orly airport, winds up disguised as Rabbi Jacob, a beloved rabbi from New York who has come to visit family in France, who just happens to be the uncle of the chauffeur, Salomon.

Thus begins the reeducation of Victor Pivert, and the mad adventures of “Rabbi Jacob.”   This film gleefully tackles the serious topics of racism and multiculturalism, holding out a vision of what might be possible if we were all forced to “get over it.”

Commentary

The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob is a timeless comedy that has only improved with age.    The humor is suitable for children, and still funny for adults. It is a great film for adults and children to share, because something in the film will be accessible and entertaining to nearly everyone, even those who don’t like or can’t read subtitles.

The message in the film is treated with a light hand, but there is a moment near the end of the film that approaches profundity.  Salomon and Slimane, the Jew and the Arab politician, acknowledge their kinship and shake hands.   Then everyone dashes off to be silly again.

The Jewish material in the film is authentic, especially the scenes in the synagogue.

Questions

Some viewers may wonder, after watching, why I tagged this picture as a film to watch for  “Jewish values.”  Watch the Jews in the film:  what Jewish values do their actions express?  How serious is Salomon about Shabbat, about hospitality, about loving and protecting “the stranger”?  Why is Rabbi Jacob so beloved?

Exodus

exodusExodus (1960) is adapted from the blockbuster novel by Leon Uris. It is set in Cyprus and Palestine during the British Mandate period of 1947-48.  First it follows  the misadventures of a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe whom the British imprison in Cyprus rather than allow them entry to Palestine, then it follows characters on that boat and their friends and lovers through the events leading up to Independence in 1948.

The movie was produced and directed by Otto Preminger, and it starred Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, and Sal Mineo.   One notable aspect of the movie is that it was filmed entirely on location in Cyprus and in Israel.  Paul Newman makes an odd-looking Israeli, but every scrap of the scenery is authentic.  Given that the real star of Exodus is the land itself, Eretz Israel, that is especially appropriate.

Other notable facts:  Otto Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo to adapt the screenplay from the novel, despite the fact that he was one of the people on the Hollywood blacklist.  This marked one of the first times a major director “broke” the blacklist.

Exodus won the Oscar for Best Music, and Sal Mineo received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Commentary

Exodus is another film that runs deep in the Jewish-American psyche; I have listed it as a must-see.  It is an excellent way to experience the narrative of the foundation of the State of Israel as many American and Israeli Zionists understand it.

It reflects a time when many Israelis were thoroughgoing socialists, when the “black hat” orthodox of Eastern Europe were believed to be dying out, when tourism in the area was unthinkable, when no one at all was talking about “Greater Israel.”    Europe was interested in getting rid of the few Jews who had survived the Holocaust, and because no one else wanted them either, they were living in DP (displaced persons) camps.  There were three groups of Jews in Palestine at this point, the “Old Yishuv” Jews who had been in the land all along (and who do not figure into this film at all),  the Sabras (Jews born in Israel, whose parents or grandparents had settled there from Europe) and the new immigrants, mostly survivors of the Holocaust, who managed to get into the country despite the British blockade.

The film was a huge undertaking, one of the most elaborate of its time, and it is impressive but flawed.   Uris’s novel is simply too massive for a film adaptation; both plot and characters are truncated to make them fit.  As history, it has obvious flaws (starting with the fact that nearly all the characters are fictional, and the fictional characters crowd out the historical ones.)  Why, then, is it a must-see?  It is because if you want to understand why so many Jews feel passionate about the need for Israel, this film is a good place to begin.  It is also a must-see because it is a way to see the Land itself.

Many of the events in the film really happened:  there was a ship Exodus.  The King David Hotel was indeed bombed by the Irgun.  There was a prison break from the fortress of Acre.  And of course, there was a War of Independence immediately after partition in 1948.

Just don’t be in a hurry:  Exodus is one LONG film, 212 minutes.  Make yourself and a friend some popcorn, and settle in for a long evening, because after it is done, you’ll want to talk.

Double Feature

Watch Exodus before or after watching Gentleman’s Agreement.  They are set in exactly the same time period, one in Europe and the Middle East, the other in the United States.    Keep in mind as you watch that the attitudes in Gentleman’s Agreement were the attitudes of the U.S. State Department as it participated in the U.N. discussions so critical to events in Exodus.

The Band’s Visit

postervisitIn The Band’s Visit (2007) the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel for a concert at a cultural center in Petach Tikva.  No one is there to meet them; the arrangements they expect have not been made.  A pronunciation mistake when asking for the bus lands them in the obscure town of Beit Hatikva. Stranded there, they seek assistance from a coffee shop owner, who finds them lodging for the night. The film follows the individual band members’ attempts to be good guests, as they interact with Israelis who have their own troubles.  It is a quiet little film that engages with issues of hope and despair, youth and aging, love and loneliness.

The dialogue in the film is largely in English, since that is the language the band members and the Israelis have in common.  There is also some dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew, with subtitles.

The Band’s Visit won 8 awards out of 13 nominations for Israeli Film Academy Awards, including Best Film of 2007.  It won three awards at Cannes, as well as many other international awards.  It was nominated as the Israeli entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, but was disqualified because so much of the dialogue is in English.

Commentary

Too often Americans, including American Jews, think of the Middle East in terms of stereotypes:  Chalutzim [Israeli pioneers] who are valiant and larger-than-life, Israeli soldiers, Arab terrorists, or Arab victims.  The Band’s Visit portrays a group of ordinary Israelis and ordinary Egyptian musicians, all of whom are wonderfully human.  This is a gentle film full  of insight into the human situation.

By the way, while Petach Tikva is a real place (and a very interesting one — check the wikipedia link!) the town of Beit HaTikva in the film is fictional.  Its name is ironic: it means “House of Hope.”

Other Voices

For a different Jewish take on this film, check out the review at chizfilm.net.