Tag Archives: Feminist

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.

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An Education

An Education (2010) is a coming-of-age film based upon a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barbour, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby.   A British schoolgirl, Jenny Mellor (played by Carey Mulligan) accepts a lift home from school from an older man, David Goldman, played by Peter Sarsgaard.  The year is 1961, and the girl feels hemmed in by middle-class rules.  She is afraid that the world is passing her by, until the charming man in the car offers her glamor and romance.   She accepts his offer, and receives an education:  to say much more would spoil any surprise the viewer might find in this film.  The film won 18 awards out of 48 nominations, including 3 Oscar nominations, and it was critically well-received.

Commentary

An Education‘s Jewish content and controversy begins with the fact that the David Goldman character is Jewish.  Anti-Semitism twice figures into the plot in an overt manner:  first, before David’s entrance, Jenny’s father (played brilliantly by Alfred Molina) refers to Jenny’s non-Jewish suitor as a “Wandering Jew,” summoning up a figure from European anti-Semitic folklore.  Then, when Jenny is about to introduce David, who has told her that he is Jewish, she taunts her father to watch himself, since David is “a wandering Jew.”  Mr. Mellor blusters that he’s not an anti-Semite, it’s just a figure of speech, etc. etc. and is thereby silenced regarding whatever opinions he might have regarding David’s Jewishness.  The second overt anti-Semitic moment in the film comes when Jenny tells the school mistress (played by Emma Thompson) that she intends to marry David:

Headmistress: “He’s a Jew? You’re aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?”

Jenny: “And you’re aware, I suppose, that our Lord was Jewish?”

Headmistress: “I suppose he told you that. We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that’s absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.”

Jenny’s response? She prefers to spend his money and live glamorously than to do the boring work of study, and she insolently suggests the headmistress prepare better for the next time a girl wants to know why she should get an education.

The casual viewer might see the film and say, as many have, that David’s Jewishness is incidental to the film, or merely an opportunity to display the narrow-mindedness of the conventional middle-class British mindset of 1961.  Indeed, the screenwriter has said that the character is Jewish only because the real con man in the memoir was Jewish.  However, as the Lynn Barber observes in an interview about the process of making a her memoir into a film, a lot of other details were changed on the way from one medium to another, so it seems quite fair to ask:  why is this detail left in place?

This points us towards a question of a much deeper, more pervasive anti-Semitism in the film, an issue originally raised in an article in the Jewish Journal.  David fits many of the ugliest stereotypes purveyed by anti-Semites, indeed, precisely the attributes of the Wandering Jew cited in the beginning of the film.  He is an urban and urbane character, at home in the fashionable salons about town.  He makes his money by speculating on property values in middle-class white neighborhoods he deliberately devalues by importing black residents; he is an art speculator and a petty thief.   When challenged by Jenny about his thievery, he justifies his crimes by citing his lack of opportunity, “We’re not clever like you.”   He eventually emerges as having made a hobby out of the ruin of nice English girls.  In short, he is the personification of the parasitical Jew in Der Erwige Juden (The Eternal Jew, 1940).  In fact, “Der Erwige Juden” is the German name for the figure of The Wandering Jew.

I confess I did not see this on my first viewing of the film, but upon reflection, it is all there and it’s quite nasty, whatever the intent or non-intent of the filmmakers.  I was not certain of it until I stumbled across a review of the film by a prominent anti-Semite, who writes that the film is a parable about the seduction of young people’s minds and souls by evil Jews.  I’m not going to cite or link that particular item, because I prefer not to give such garbage additional press.  My point is that whatever the filmmakers did or did not intend, this film contains certain specific tropes regarding Jews that act as a magnet for a certain type of deranged person.

I wish they had left out the “Wandering Jew” business, and if it is not essential to the film that he’s Jewish, then why make a point of it?

The Anti Defamation League has gone on record saying that they don’t think harm was intended.  After reading interviews with the filmmakers and the memoirist, I tend to agree.  However, I think that the meme of the Wandering Jew is strong stuff that a filmmaker should use only in a very intentional manner, and that this film is fodder for haters.

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?

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?

Kissing Jessica Stein

kissing-jessica-stein-10000648Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) is a  romantic comedy about two women who, for different reasons, decide to try dating women instead of men.  Jessica Stein (played by Jennifer Westfeldt) is 28 and a nervous perfectionist, and she is feeling desperate about finding “the One.”   Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen) is a free spirit who decides to place a personals ad, and throws in a Rilke quotation on the advice of a gay male friend.  Jessica sees the quotation, and despite her unease at the idea of dating a woman, decides this is a possible soulmate. On this shaky beginning builds a relationship — and a film — that investigates the risk/reward ratios of love and life.

Tovah Feldshuh gives a standout performance as Jessica’s mother, a role which initially embodies the “Jewish mother” stereotype but gradually reveals a heart and soul that may make viewers wish for a mother like her.    Many of the characters in the film develop along similar lines:  we think we know them, and then we get to know them a little better.  In the case of the Jessica’s generation, they get to know themselves better.  It’s a fine screenplay, and in an interesting turn of art and life, it was written by the two women who play the leads, Westfeldt and Juergenson.

Kissing Jessica Stein won awards from major film festivals and was well-received by critics.

Commentary

So, you are wondering, why is this film on the “Jewish Film” list at all?  Jessica is a Jew.  Her family is a Jewish family, and the picture we get of them is much more real and warm than the caricature we usually see in American films.  We see this Jewish family in many of the places where families gather:  at High Holy Day services, at Shabbat dinner, at a family wedding.

The depiction of her mother is strikingly different from the stock character that is usually trotted out by filmmakers and comics:  one cannot help but notice that this film was written by women, not by men.   She is anxious for her daughter to marry, and is constantly setting up ambushes with men she thinks are eligible, but she is a wise woman who genuinely loves her daughter, and who knows a thing or two about love.

Jessica Stein is a Jew and Helen Cooper is not.  Once Jessica’s family becomes aware of Helen, they try very hard to be welcoming of this lesbian (!) non-Jew (!) and they make most of the usual missteps, on both counts.  Their goodwill is obvious, though, and the small scenes in which Helen tries to fit in and they try to make a place for her would make an interesting jumping-off spot for discussion.  While the interfaith angle is not a major focus of the film, everything in the film about it is quite good.

That said, Kissing Jessica Stein avoids a serious discussion that it could have had (but then, it wouldn’t be a comedy.)  Helen  is looking more for interesting sex than for love.  Jessica is looking for someone “perfect,” and the subject of love doesn’t seem to have occurred to her.  Neither woman is really looking for love, and when they stumble into it, they… stumble.  What truly went wrong here, and was it really only the most obvious thing?

Yentl

1yentlYentl (1983) is the film adaptation of the short story, “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer.  It is set in a Polish shtetl in 1907, where Rabbi Mendel, a widower, is secretly giving his daughter Yentl the sort of Talmudic education that only boys were allowed to have.  Yentl has a passion for Torah, and when her father dies, she disguises herself as a boy and travels to the yeshiva in the nearest town to study.  Barbra Streisand co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in Yentl; work on the film re-energized her own interest in Jewish study.

It is thus far the only major motion picture that focuses on a Jewish woman living a specifically Jewish life, and raises questions about the limitations of gender roles in traditional Jewish communal life.  Yentl is contrasted in the film with Hadass, (played by Amy Irving) who conforms to the social ideal for young women, and with the men who take their life in the yeshiva for granted.   Streisand made no secret of her own personal identification with Yentl.  Just as Yentl strove to succeed in the “man’s world” of the yeshiva, Streisand saw herself striving for success in the “man’s world” of the Hollywood film industry.

Commentary

Singer hated Streisand’s treatment of his short story.   He felt that it had been over-expanded into a star vehicle, with unsuitable music and a ridiculous ending.  Certainly that is one valid point of view on the film.

However, Streisand has perfectly conveyed the passion for Torah that is at the center of the scholar’s life, that fueled so much of the development of Jewish tradition and sacred literature.  She conveys the frustration that women have felt and still feel when they are excluded from access to the highest levels of study.  While many of Singer’s complaints are valid,  her command of the Jewish details of Yentl’s life is impressive.

Double Feature

Yentl makes an interesting companion to the other big Jewish musical, Fiddler on the Roof.  They are set in the same period, they begin in the same sort of place (a tiny shtetl in the Pale of Settlement) but they depict different classes in Jewish society.  Where Tevya and his daughters are peasants, Yentl is the rabbi’s daughter and Hadass is a city girl, daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant.  How are the women’s lives similar?  How are they different?  Do you notice any other interesting similarities or contrasts between the two films?