Tag Archives: Jewish Identity

The Governess

The Governess (1998) is set in the 1830’s, and it tells the story of Rosina (Minnie Driver) the pampered daughter of a London Sephardic family whose father dies unexpectedly and leaves the family in debt.  Faced with the choices of the Austen ladies in a similar situation a century before (marriage, domestic work, or prostitution), she rejects marriage and tries her hand at being a governess.  For marketing purposes, she poses as a Christian lady and goes to work for an odd family living on the Isle of Skye.  Rosina has an affair with her Scottish Protestant employer (Tom Wilkinson), and predictably, it does not end happily.  She also collaborates with him on his experiments in the chemistry of early photography, and their collaboration, too, is problematic.  In the end, she goes her own way.

The movie opened to rapturous reviews from many critics, who hailed the beautiful photography in this film set in the early days of photography.  It won several British and European film awards.  The soundtrack is also notable, featuring both chazzanut by Maurice Martin and vocals by Ofra Haza.

Commentary

I was all prepared to enjoy this movie:  I have a weakness for costume dramas.  There were some things about The Governess that I did enjoy very much:  it portrays parts of Jewish life (in this case, Sephardic Jewish life) that are rarely depicted onscreen, and while not everything is authentic, a lot is quite well done.  On the other hand, the story is just plain stupid, an unwholesome fantasy.

The governess of the title is a young Jewish woman who appears to be well educated, but without much in the way of either scruples or common sense.  (However, the screenplay doesn’t make much sense either, so maybe that was inevitable.)  She masquerades as a Christian to take a job teaching children, and expects to support her mother and sister on the wages she receives.  Much is made of the need to keep her Jewishness a secret, but she apparently keeps a considerable number of keepsakes in her room that any nosy maid or child could find.

Despite the fact that her mother and sister are dependent on her wages, Rosina initiates an affair with her employer, pitches noisy fits when he eventually rejects her, and after doing what she can to make domestic life a living hell (presenting his wife with a naked photo of her husband, in the middle of a dinner party) she hops in a carriage to go back to London, carrying stolen camera lenses, and with their daughter in tow!  (The daughter then disappears from the film — what was that about?)

Leaving most of the ten commandments in ruins behind her (at least she didn’t kill anyone, I suppose) she lives happily ever after as a fashionable photographer in London.

It is indeed a very pretty film, with a very pretty soundtrack.  The chazzanut at various points, especially the opening credits, is marvelous.  Ofra Haza’s voice is beautiful (but why not employ any of several wonderful Sephardic singers?) The trouble is, this film hasn’t much going for it other than “pretty.”  As a feminist film, it fails miserably, because it does not begin to grapple with the real situation of women at the time:  they were far too vulnerable to pull the stunts Rosina does. It would have been much more plausible for her boss to kick her out the door empty-handed, to walk back to London or to die of cold and starvation.

What about the Jewish elements?  Beautiful chazzanut, yes.  And it is true that the Sephardic community of London from the time of the Commonwealth onwards has many stories worth telling, stories with lots of rich costumes and romantic intrigue.  I just wish this had been one of those, instead of being such an unbelievable yarn.

Jewish identity seems to mean a great deal to Rosina (we see her lighting a clandestine Shabbat candle, and attempting to make herself a little Passover seder, wrapping herself in her father’s tallit), but it does not seem to inform her behavior at all.

Double Feature

If you want to see a romantic story about a stubborn Jewish woman in a fictionalized past, go watch Yentl.  It is romantic and a bit silly in parts, but at least Streisand’s heroine knows what she wants.   It says something very, very bad about The Governess that Yentl’s plot is more plausible.

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Ushpizin

200px-UshpizinUshpizin (2004) is a holiday story of faith and human foibles.  The production of the film involved an unusual partnership of ultra-Orthodox and secular filmmakers, making it an Israeli cinematic milestone.  It is a story about an impoverished couple in the Breslov Haredi community  in Jerusalem, who do not have even the money to celebrate Sukkot:  no sukkah, no money for food, no money even to pay their rent.  They take to heart Rabbi Nachman‘s saying that difficulties are a test of faith, so when things become difficult, they pray.

Abruptly, their fortunes change:  an abandoned sukkah becomes available, money arrives unexpectedly in an envelope under the door, and the husband spends a large amount of the money on a beautiful etrog (citron) which is a requirement for the holiday.  The more beautiful etrogim, he believes, make the conception of a child more likely.  Then, when all seems perfect, the ushpizin, the visitors, arrive.

Commentary

This film offers a rare visit inside the ultra-Orthodox world of the Breslov Haredim.  Critics point out that it is also a very uncritical look at that community, but there is something to be said for seeing people first on their own terms.  The story is worthy of Rabbi Nachman himself, revolving around the Jewish value of hospitality and the power of prayer.

The main character in the film, Moshe, (played by Shuli Rand) is a ba’al teshuva, a former secular Jew who has made a commitment to strict observance.  When his old life comes to visit, he is both tempted by the memories and horrified by the reality. His wife, Mali, (played by Michal Bat Sheva Rand) is determined to pass the test of heaven.  One of the more subtle aspects of the film is its examination of the delicate balances in a marriage:  how the couple support one another, and how they can also be thrown off balance by one another.

Questions

How far need one go to observe the mitzvah of hospitality?

Moshe learns that he should have asked more questions about the sukkah, yet the source of the money under the door is never questioned.  How are the two different, or are they different?

Mali is furious when she finds out where the visitors are from, and that Moshe accepted them anyway, trusting them to be alone with her.  Were you worried for Mali?  Do you think the visitors were truly dangerous?

Does God send tests?  Why?

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.

Everything is Illuminated

EisIEverything is Illuminated (2005) is a superb film that “begins in goofiness and ends in silence and memory”  (Roger Ebert).  It begins with broad comedy, but zigzags steadily towards a wrenching drama about the connectedness of all humanity and the inescapability of the past.  It’s the tale of a man (Elijah Wood) who goes in search of his grandfather’s escape from the Holocaust, and the story of the people who help him find the story, who are mysteriously entangled in the same story.  All of these people are odd, and they regard each other with astonishment.

Everything is Illuminated is based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer (who has a cameo in the film — watch for the man with the leaf blower) and adapted for the screen by Liev Schreiber.  Schreiber also directed the film.   It won awards at a number of film festivals in Europe and South America, but some reviewers felt it did not have the scope of the novel.

The film includes some wonderful performances, particularly that of Eugene Hutz, a Romani (gypsy) musician and actor.  His band, Gogol Bordello, performs several pieces on the soundtrack of the film.  Elijah Wood, a name much more familiar to filmgoers, performs a remarkable act of tzimtzum [contraction]  in taking both a literal and a figurative backseat to the colorful character played by Hutz.

Besides the obvious Holocaust theme, the movie also takes a sharp look at Jewish identity:  what does it meant to be a Jew?

Commentary

Most Holocaust films focus on the tragedy in the 1940’s, without looking at the many tragedies that stem from those initial events.  This is a film that takes a hard look at the way that every person touched by the Holocaust is effected by it, even if he or she is born years later.  It asks questions about survival:  what does it mean, “to survive”?  Can a person live through something and not survive it?  Can a person die but somehow remain?

Two figures in the film are “collectors.”  The film does not explain why they collect things:  that is left for the viewer to consider.  What do each of them collect?  Why do you think they collect them?  Do you think they will continue to collect things, after the events in the film?

I was struck by the subtle reference to the Wizard of Oz at the end of the film.  Jonathan returns to the states, but as he moves through the modern airport, he recognizes faces that he saw in the Ukraine.  What does this mean?  Unlike Dorothy, he was not dreaming.  How are these people connected to the people he saw overseas?  How is he connected to each of them?

Jewish culture puts a high value on Zikkaron, Remembrance.  Who is remembering what in this film?  What is the value of remembrance?

Double Feature

The screenwriter and director of this film, Liev Schreiber, is an actor in another film on this list, Defiance.  Both are films about events connected with the Holocaust, but they deal with it quite differently.

Other Reviews

For a slightly different take on the film, check out this blog post.

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]?