Tag Archives: Assimilation

Cast a Giant Shadow

MickeyMarcusCast a Giant Shadow (1966) is a fictionalized account of the story of David “Mickey” Marcus, a Jewish colonel in the U.S. Army who fought in the Israeli War of Independence. Before his involvement with the nascent State of Israel, he served in WWII in Europe, and was part of the occupation government in Berlin after the war.  Among other duties, he was involved in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.  Marcus grew up in Brooklyn, received a nominal Jewish education, and attended West Point.

David Ben Gurion named him aluf [general] of the Israeli Defense Forces, the first person to hold that title since Biblical times.  Marcus’s advice and participation was critical to Israeli success in the war, and he is remembered with great fondness in Israel.  He is also the only soldier buried at West Point who died fighting under a foreign flag.

Marcus is played by Kirk Douglas, and his son, Michael Douglas, had his first film role as a jeep driver.  Yul Brynner (who looks eerily like Moshe Dayan), Topol, Angie Dickenson, and Frank Sinatra also appear in the film.  John Wayne plays an unnamed American general.

Commentary

Col. Mickey Marcus was one of the “Machal” fighters (the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz La’aretz, “volunteers from outside Israel”).  This film tells his story, and along with it, gives one of the best screen depictions of some of the most famous aspects of the Israeli War of Independence.

Aside from a schlocky romance with a beautiful Israeli that Hollywood could not resist adding, the screenplay  is  largely in keeping with the only English-language biography of Marcus, Cast a Giant Shadow by Ted Berkman.   The rest of the story is fairly reliable, and the film was shot on location in many of the places where battles in the War of Independence were fought.  I recognized Latrun, and a particularly bad spot on the road to Jerusalem, as well as the famous “Burma Road.”  (These are all places you can visit in Israel today.)

Many of the details are accurate.    There were indeed busloads of refugees, many of them survivors of the death camps in Europe, who were handed guns at Latrun and sent in to fight.  Women served in combat and were among the truckdrivers who made up the convoys that traveled under fire carrying food and water to the Jews of Jerusalem.  The Israelis were so short on munitions that they resorted to many ruses to make the Arab armies believe they had more firepower than they really did.   The “Burma Road” really was that perilous, and it was cut by hand in record time.  As far as is known, Marcus did eventually die as portrayed in the film.

I recommend this film to get a sense of what was going on in Israel immediately before and after the Declaration of Independence in 1948.  Just keep in mind that it’s fictionalized history:  if you are curious about particular details, then a little bit of research is required.

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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?

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]?

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?

The Jazz Singer

TheJazzSingerThe Jazz Singer (1927)tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor’s son who has inherited his father’s gift for song  but who feels driven to express that gift in the music hall rather than in the synagogue.  It recounts his rift with his father, his rise to secular fame as “Jack Robin,” and his struggle to be true to himself as well as to his family and tradition.

The movie is famous, also, for Al Jolson’s use of blackface.  Jolson was a Russian-born Jew who performed in blackface long before this role.  The short story (“The Day of Atonement”) and play upon which the film is based were written by Samson Raphaelson, who saw Jolson perform in blackface in 1917 and felt that he had seen such emotional intensity in performance only in the singing of cantors in synagogue.  The story, the play and the movie are based loosely on Jolson’s own life.

By the way, this film should not be confused with the 1953 remake with Danny Thomas, or the 1980 remake with Neil Diamond, also titled The Jazz Singer.   The 1953 remake is fairly harmless, but the 1980 film is just plain awful.

Commentary

The film marked a watershed in American film history:  it was the first feature length commercial film with synchronized dialogue:  the first of the “talkies.”  It deals with themes that are central to the Jewish experience in America:  the tension between the “religious Jew” and the “secular Jew” (often, as in this case, in a single Jew), tensions around the observance of family tradition, and issues of assimilation.  It acknowledges the debt that first-generation American Jews owed to their immigrant parents, and the tension between those two generations.

In many ways the film is like a drawing by M.C. Escher:  the symmetries overwhelm.  The Warner Brothers, born Wonskolaser in Poland, were Jews who immigrated to North America and became involved in film distribution and later production.  (Today Warner Bros. is a subsidiary of Time Warner, with headquarters in Burbank, CA.)  They are a sterling example of Jewish success in America,  where some new fields (like entertainment and the movies) offered an open door to Jews, shut out of more well established professions.  Their company pioneered the talkies by making this film, and by partnering with Western Electric to produce the technology that made it work.  The Jazz Singer is not only Al Jolson’s story, but the story of the Warner brothers themselves and their children:  the immigrant and first American-born generation.  The film also features a recital by Cantor Joseff Rosenblatt, an American-born cantor who some years later would dabble in acting.

This 1927 film is a “must see” on several grounds: as a close-up of the Askenazi immigrant experience, as a piece of history in its own right, and as a melding of two musical traditions, chazzanut [cantorial singing] and jazz, which have both been central to the American Jewish experience.