Tag Archives: Interfaith

The Heartbreak Kid

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

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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?

Keeping the Faith

ktfposterm“Have you heard the one about the priest and the rabbi…?” We’ve all heard those jokes. Keeping the Faith (2000) tells the story of a priest and a rabbi and the girl that both of them wanted. It was directed by Edward Norton, who also plays the priest.  Ben Stiller plays the rabbi, and Jenna Elfman, the girl.  The priest and the rabbi are both hip young clergy who play basketball together regularly, and when they fall for the same girl, romantic comedy ensues.

Commentary

I am going to level with you up front:  I included this film because it was popular and a lot of people saw it and continue to mention it.   I think it is a bad film, a destructive film, because it deals in nasty stereotypes and bad information all wrapped up in a feel-good ribbon.

I could forgive Keeping the Faith for being a less-than-perfect romantic comedy:  it’s predictable, over-long, and cutesy, but it tackles an interesting subject, interfaith relationships, both friendships and dating.  What I find unforgivable in this film makes a long, depressing list, especially since the film often appeals to people who haven’t spent much time lately around either priests or rabbis.  To wit:

1.  The stereotypes of Jewish women in this film are poisonous.  They are portrayed either as greedy, nagging mothers or as greedy, materialistic harpies.  One such woman I might find amusing in the right context, but a film that suggests that ALL born Jewish women are like that is a nasty bit of misogynist anti-Semitism.

2.  I don’t know any congregational clergy with the free time enjoyed and abused by the priest and the rabbi in this film.

3.  Jake (the rabbi) doesn’t see this woman as marriage material, but he has an affair with her, lying about it to everyone including his best friend.  Then, in an act of utter narcissism, he decides that his Yom Kippur sermon is the time to come clean about the fact that he’s been doing this. Ethics, anyone?

4.  I’ll refrain from criticizing the priest (he’s not my department) but he doesn’t come off much better.  Neither clergyman seems to believe in anything with much conviction.  They are cardboard cutouts, moving slowly through a really bad priest-and-rabbi joke.

5.  As Andrew O’Hehir puts it perfectly in his review in salon.com:  “The two religions are treated with a benign stupidity that is supposed to signal respect, as if they were adjacent departments in the spirituality mall that sold slightly different brands of the same product and made no serious demands on their adherents.”  It’s a witless, gutless approach to talking about interfaith issues: “There are no important differences.”

If you want to see a movie that goes much deeper into the territory of interfaith relationships, and is funnier to boot, try Annie Hall.  Woody Allen’s secular Jew and Diane Keaton’s nice lukewarm Methodist provide a much more interesting meditation on the attraction and the challenges of difference.


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?

Annie Hall

annie-hall1Annie Hall (1977)  was advertised in its trailer as “A Nervous Romance.”  It records the romance of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall, two characters based on the real lives and personalities of the actors who play them, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  Singer is a Jew from Brooklyn, Annie is a gentile from the Midwest, and while we know from the first frames of the film that this is a romance that will not last, it maintains interest by way of its intelligent characters.

Much has been written about why this movie is one of the great American films:  for a standard review by a critic who appreciates it, take a look at Roger Ebert’s 2002 essay on the film.

Questions

Looking at Annie Hall specifically as a Jewish film, it is interesting to watch for the interfaith tensions in Alvy and Annie’s relationship.  In an early scene with a friend, Alvy talks about his antennae for anti-Semitism:  he has a tendency to see it everywhere, and it frightens and worries him.  Annie states flatly during an early date, that her Grammy doesn’t like Jews, and we see him pause for a moment and digest this information; in the heat of this new relationship, he allows it to pass.  But the issue surfaces again when he meets the family at Easter lunch.

Annie has her own difficulties, as Alvy embarks on a campaign to improve her (ironically, to make her more like his Jewish ex-wives.)   This film, however, is from Alvy’s point of view:  we don’t know exactly how Annie feels about the differences between them, for instance when he flinches as she orders pastrami on white bread with mayo.  We see what she does, but except in a one scene (when they are first falling in love) we do not have the benefit of hearing her inner voice.

Do you think that Annie Hall offers an accurate picture of the challenges that a couple face when they meet across cultural differences?  If so, was the relationship really doomed, or could it have been salvaged?  How?

If it isn’t an accurate  picture of the challenges in an interfaith relationship, where does it go wrong?  How is it a false picture?

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 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.