Tag Archives: Jewish Values

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?

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The Ten Commandments

200px-10Command56The Ten Commandments (1956) was the last film that Cecil B. DeMille directed.  It is the most famous of the “Bible epic” genre, telling the story of Moses (played by Charlton Heston)  and the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt under Pharoah.

The film was actually a remake of a 1923 film, The Ten Commandments, also directed by Mr. Demille.  Both films feature the heroic style of acting favored in silent films.  The 1956 film was notable for its “cast of thousands,” for the location shots (parts of it were filmed in Egypt and the Sinai) and for its use of special effects, particularly the parting of the Red Sea.

The screenplay differs significantly from the account in Exodus, making use of various midrashic sources, the Qur’an, Josephus, and elsewhere. The film continues to be enormously popular, and has been parodied many times.

Commentary

“…and he looked just like Charlton Heston!” is the punchline of many a joke told by many a rabbi to liven up a sermon.  Despite the fact that the screenplay makes Hollywood chopped liver of the story in Exodus, this is another of the films that qualifies as a “must see,”  because it is a key part of popular Jewish culture.

Just be sure to actually READ Exodus sometime.  Also, take a look at the story of deliverance as told in the traditional Passover Haggadah.

Questions

If you were going to make a film about the deliverance from Egypt, would you use the screenplay of this movie, or the screenplay of  1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, or the story in the Haggadah, or the story as told in the biblical book of Exodus?  If you were going to use elements of each, which would you choose, and why?

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 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?

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is one of Woody Allen‘s best films, a thriller in which, as the film critic Roger Ebert wrote, the suspense is not about what will happen to people, but what decisions they will make.  The film consists of two stories, which meet only at the end.  In the first, a drama, a successful opthalmologist played by Martin Landau lives a charmed life:  he has financial success, a beautiful family, a happy marriage, and the esteem of his community.   He chooses to have an affair with a flight attendant, (Anjelica Huston) and when he decides to break off the affair, she becomes furious, threatening every good thing in his life.  He seeks advice about what to do:  from a patient who is a rabbi, and from his brother, a ne’er-do-well with Mob connections.  Each offers him his best suggestion, but the doctor has to choose.    In a parallel story, a comedy, a documentary filmmaker accepts a job making a film about his brother-in-law, a successful Hollywood producer (Alan Alda), in order to raise money for a film he is making about a philosopher.  The filmmaker is in a failing marriage, and he becomes infatuated with the associate producer, played by Mia Farrow.  He chooses to try to initiate an affair with her.

All the decisions of all the characters are played out by the end of the film.  We are left to consider the nature of good and of evil, of faith and skepticism, of love and hate.

Commentary

(NOTE:  there are spoilers in the commentary and questions.  Stop here if you do not want to know what choices the men make.) If I were to interview Woody Allen myself, there is one question I would love to ask him:  Did he write Crimes and Misdemeanors with Psalm 94 consciously in mind?  The question in this film is precisely that of the Psalmist when he asks, in Psalms 94:3 “How long will the wicked, Adonai, how long will the wicked be jubilant?”  I might be inclined to say no, this is just the eternal cry against the unjustness of life, except for verse 7, which says: “They say, ‘Adonai does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.'”  Again and again in the movie, the murdering opthalmologist quotes his father, who said, “God sees everything.”  And yet, by the end of the film, despite that, nothing bad has happened to the murderer.  Apparently there there will be no divine retribution for the sin of killing an inconvenient lover.

Allen’s vision of the world is utterly bleak.  He sees the bad guys getting away with their crimes, and the better man getting nothing.  However, the better man isn’t without his own sins:  he is simply an ineffectual bad guy.  As for the man of faith, the only truly good man in the film, he goes blind.

Questions

This is a great Jewish film because it engages with serious Jewish questions:  why be righteous?  What is the meaning of law?  Who sees most clearly, the blind rabbi or the guy who insists on “seeing the world as it really is”?  Is faith valuable, or is it merely self-deception?  Does faith make us stronger, or weaker?  What is Woody Allen saying in answer to these questions?  Do you agree or disagree with him?

Many of the characters in the film have an immature approach to faith; they go to childhood memories for their ideas about God.   The two exceptions — adults with mature approaches to faith —  are the philosopher and the rabbi, neither of which is a fully drawn character.  One of them dies a suicide, the other loses his eyesight.   What effect does this have on the discussion of the questions in the film?

The Chosen

chosenThe Chosen (1981) is an excellent film adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel of the same name.  It is an account of two Jewish boys growing up in New York during WWII up to the founding of the State of Israel.  It stars Maximilian SchnellRod Steiger, Robby Benson, and Barry Miller.  It won awards at both the Montreal and Paris Film Festivals.

Commentary

The Chosen is a quiet little film that explores some key tensions in Jewish life in America.  It addresses the tension between the expressions of Judaism that seek absolute fidelity to the past and the expressions of Judaism that seek to remain Jewish while engaging with modernity.  It explores the tension between generations of a family, and the meanings that tension has for each generation.  The film is deeply rooted in time and place:  it was shot in Brooklyn, and it explores a particular moment in Jewish history.

I have seen comments to the effect that The Chosen is not a completely accurate picture of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) orthodoxy.  I find that it is a less sensational picture than many other more recent films have depicted.  The viewer might want to keep in mind that the film was made almost 30 years ago, and that both the communities shown in the film and the broader Jewish world have changed since then.   So don’t watch it and think it’s all there is to know about Haredi life.  On the other hand, the tensions portrayed are accurate and as vital today as they were then.

Unfortunately, at this writing, The Chosen is out of print in DVD, but it is available for rental from many sources.  A must-see!

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.