Tag Archives: Jewish Values

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?

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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 INfamous 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. The blackface sequences are reprehensible, but too much a part of the film to be excised.

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 bland, 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.

Despite its problems, 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. For a group audience, especially an audience with young viewers, it is important to consider how to contextualize the blackface segments.

Driving Miss Daisy

200px-Driving_Miss_Daisy_Driving Miss Daisy (1989) is an Oscar winning movie based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by by Alfred Uhry.  It recounts a 25-year relationship between an elderly Jewish woman (Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy) and an elderly African-American man (Houk, played by Morgan Freeman) in Atlanta, GA.  Their story begins uneasily, as Miss Daisy’s son (played by Dan Aykroyd) decides she can no longer drive her own car, and hires Houk to drive her.   Gradually they negotiate a working relationship which over time becomes a friendship.  The film spans the years from 1948 until 1973, years of tremendous social change in America.

Wikipedia notes that this was the last PG-rated film to receive the Best Picture Oscar (at this writing, in 2009).

Commentary

Some readers may be surprised that I list this film as a “must see” when I didn’t give that designation to Schindler’s List.  I list it because this is a movie that nearly anyone can watch without having nightmares about it, and at the same time it portrays anti-Semitism and racial prejudice in both their overt and their more subtle forms.

At one key point in the film, a Alabama state trooper comments to his partner out of earshot of Daisy and Houk that she is an “old Jew woman” being driven by an “old n—r man.”  The menace in that scene, and in a later scene of the Temple bombing in Atlanta make it clear that Daisy and Houk have more in common than may have been apparent at the outset.  Complicating the matter, though, is the fact that Daisy is very much a product of her time:  her own racist and classist inclinations are a barrier between the two almost to the end of the film.  The greatness of this film lies in its focus on the humanity of Houk and Daisy as they navigate their times and make discoveries about one another, without a need to sugarcoat Daisy.

This film also serves as a reminder that while some American Jews did indeed support the civil rights movement at great risk to themselves and their communities, that history of risk does not obviate the need, then and now, for each individual to examine his or her own attitudes and behavior, and to make teshuvah (a profound change) if need be.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Driving Miss Daisy is that it deals with all these very serious issues with a light hand and a great deal of humor.    A must see!

The Frisco Kid

200px-Frisco_kid_ver2

The Frisco Kid (1979) tells the tale of Rabbi Avram Belinski,  played by Gene Wilder, who travels from Poland to San Francisco in 1850.  Along the way he is set upon by robbers, befriended by the Amish, set upon by wild animals, befriended by a bank robber, set upon by Indians, befriended by Indians, and so on.  The robber who befriends the rabbi is played by Harrison Ford (before his Indiana Jones days — in fact, Wilder claims in his autobiography that Ford was cast in the role partly because of his performance in this film.)   It is a classic buddy film:  a mismatched pair meet cute, make a journey, and are both changed by the experience.  It was directed by Robert Aldritch (Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard.)

Commentary

This is a very funny, very thoughtful movie about the challenges of living a Jewish life in a non-Jewish environment.  Rabbi Belinski appears to be an innocent at first, but there is much more to him:  he is insistent on his devotion to Torah and Jewish values, and his approach to both fortune and misfortune is informed by that devotion.

Bob Bloom of the Lafayette Courier & Post dismissed the film as “sterotypically offensive” in its depiction of Jews and Indians, but both the script and Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the rabbi go beyond the stereotypes (which are played for laughs, true) into the values behind the stereotypes.  “What would you trade for Torah?” the Indian chief asks the rabbi.  (The depiction of the Indians in this movie is another matter, I confess.  The Indians in this picture are not characters, but mere devices.)

Much of the humor in the film is “inside” Jewish humor — if you “get” the jokes,  rest assured, you are beginning to get a feel for cultural Judaism.

Question

Try watching the film for moments when the rabbi does something that surprises or annoys the other characters:  what Jewish value is expressed in his choice?