Tag Archives: Jewish Identity

American Jerusalem

Levi Strauss & Co. offices before 1906

Levi Strauss & Co. offices before 1906

American Jerusalem (2013) tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.

Commentary: The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.

The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)

Questions for Discussion:

1. Where are your Jewish roots? Do you have any connection with the Jewish community in San Francisco?

2. What are the roots of your current Jewish community? Who settled there, and when? Where did they immigrate from?

3. What circumstances contributed to the Jewish community of San Francisco being different from other American Jewish communities?

4. From this film, in what ways do you see the San Francisco Jewish community as distinct from your own Jewish community?

5. What questions did this film bring up for you?

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 FoundSF.org

The Big Lebowski

Biglebowskiposter The Big Lebowski (1998) is a film about which feelings run high: viewers tend to love it or hate it. It’s a shaggy-dog tale from Joel and Ethan Coen, who also wrote and produced A Serious Man, also on this list.

These essays are not meant to be reviews, instead a rabbi’s commentary on the Jewish content of a film. The Big Lebowski has significant Jewish content: it is the only film I can remember which explores the Jewish identity of a Jew by Choice in any depth.

Walter Sobchak, played by John Goodman, is foil and friend to The Dude [Jeff Bridges.] He is insistent that he is a real Jew, and he is both serious and knowledgable about Judaism. He is adamant that he does not “roll on Shabbos,” unless it is a matter of life and death. He quotes Maimonides to make a point, referring to him as the Rambam, as might a person who had studied with rabbis. He also quotes Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

“But you aren’t Jewish anymore!” says the Dude, exasperated. Walter is insulted by that suggestion, explaining that just because he and his ex-wife split up, he’s still a Jew, and he’ll be a Jew forever. Walter is passionate about much in life, and he is passionately Jewish.

That may seem like a relatively small slice of Jewish content, but consider how few images there are of adult converts to Judaism in film. The only other film I can think of at this writing that even mentions conversion is the dreadful Keeping the Faith (2000), which suggests it as a clever way to paper over differences.

Walter Sobchak is flawed and foul-mouthed, but he is an earnest and observant Jew. When he is asked to play in a bowling tournament on Saturday, he’s vehement: “I do not roll on Shabbos,”  and he goes into great detail explaining the mitzvah, littering his explanation with profanity.  It is that very juxtaposition of the holy and the vulgar that creates comic friction in the character of Walter. He’s a mess, but he’s a devout mess:

If my readers have any questions about the suitability of this film for children, that clip should have taken care of it. It’s vulgar, profane, tacky, and obscene in bits. It’s also very funny.

Questions for Discussion

1. The Big Lebowski has a cult following, with an assortment of drinking games. Here’s a game to play with a glass of Kedem Concord Grape Juice or the kosher wine of your choice: Raise a L’chaim every time Walter mentions his Jewishness or defends its legitimacy.

2. Notice one of Walter’s Jewish habits: he quotes sources by name to illustrate his points, not only about Judaism but about nearly everything. See if you can count the number of times he cites a source. This is what’s known as speaking b’shem ro, in the name of someone. It’s very good form to cite your sources by name, a form of respect, and a way to avoid stealing credit for someone else’s words.

3. What Jewish values does Walter live out in the course of this film? What Jewish values could he perhaps work on in the future?

4. What stereotypes about Jews by Choice can you identify, not just in the film, but in your experience?  Which of those stereotypes does Walter fit? Which does he not fit? Are any of the stereotypes contradictory?

The Infidel

The Infidel (2010) is a British comedy about Mahmud, a moderate Muslim whose life is thrown into chaos by two discoveries:  first, that his son wants to marry the daughter of a radical Islamic imam, and second, that he may in fact be a Jew. Nothing about that sounds funny, but in the midst of a train wreck of religion, politics, and identity, The Infidel finds gentle humor by exploring the absurdity of all bigotry. In that, it reminds me of the classic French comedy, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973).

Mahmud is played by Omid Djalili, a British Iranian standup comedian and actor, who may be a familiar face to international audiences from his appearance in the 1999 James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. Mahmud is a hapless fellow who does not ask much:  he would like to sit on the couch watching football and music videos by his favorite singer from the 80’s, Gary Page. However, as the patriarch of the family, he must deal with his deceased mother’s home and take care of his family.

Before we are ten minutes into the film, Mahmud’s life becomes complicated.  His son reveals to him that (1) he has found the woman he wants to marry and (2) her father is a radical cleric who must approve the marriage, and who is visiting England now. As if that were not bad enough, Mahmud finds records in his mother’s house leading him to believe that his biological parents were Jews.

His sense of self and security blown to smithereens as surely as by any bomb, Mahmud sets out to explore his Jewish identity with the help of Lenny, an American Jewish cab driver, played by Richard Schiff. He is Naomi to Mahmud’s Ruth, trying to teach him what it is to be a Jew. Meanwhile Mahmud is also trying to hold together a pious Islamic facade for the visiting imam, out of exasperated love for his son.

To say more would spoil the fun.  As a NY Times critic  wrote, this is not caustic stuff.   I enjoyed it because like the best humor, it laughs at and with everyone it portrays.

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Commentary

There are very few films that attempt to mine comedy from the hard stone of Jewish – Muslim relations.  The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob is more about French anti-Semitism; there are Muslim characters but they are secondary.  You Don’t Mess with the Zohan attempts this material but loses its way with anti-Arab nastiness.  The Band’s Visit  is an Israeli film with comic elements but it is a more complex film with more complicated characters.  The Infidel goes for broad humor and a big laugh; the ending is ridiculous but satisfying.

Mahmud is a sympathetic character: he is a sincere if not exactly devout Muslim, and he genuinely loves his wife and family.  Lenny is a bit of a stereotype, a cranky mostly-secular American Jew, but Schiff plays him with a gruff grace at the right moments.  The accomplishment of this film is that it is firmly grounded in the humanity of these guys and the people around them.  We laugh and groan at both of them, and feel that we know them a bit better.  In this 21st century of bitterness and war, that is an accomplishment.

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Parents should be aware that  the film does not contain much in the way of sex or violence, but there is a lot of foul language.

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?

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?

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?