Tag Archives: Racism

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

You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) is a Judd ApatowAdam Sandler film:  as Roger Ebert so beautifully put it, “a mighty hymn of and to vulgarity.”  It is a slapstick romp about a crack Mossad operative whose secret wish is to “stop the killing” and become a hairdresser in New York.  Once there, he finds himself an outsider along with many Palestinians. They chase one another, in Keystone Cop fashion (but with more penis and hummus jokes) until the sets are destroyed and everyone is exhausted.  I think that about sums it up.

Commentary

I had to think a while about my comments on this film, because I hope that Sandler et al meant well.  There are many jokes making fun of Israelis, some of it pretty rough humor, and to give Sandler the benefit of the doubt, I hope that he thought that those jokes were in balance with the jokes at the expense of the Arab characters.  After all, the Zohan’s love interest is a Palestinian woman!

But there is no getting past the fact that while the film plays with Israeli stereotypes (tough guy, the accent, the attitude, the Sabra heart of sweetness) it trades on a nastier stereotype of Arabs and Palestinians:  the lust for Jewish blood and mindless hatred.  The humor about the Zohan springs from the tension between his tough-guy Mossad persona and his true hairdresser lover-boy identity.  The humor about the Arabs in this film does not come from any such tension:  the men are mostly Wile E. Coyote to Zohan’s RoadRunner, one-note idiots who repeatedly court disaster in hot comic pursuit of their quarry.  The more benign Palestinian male characters are merely dim.  This is racist stereotyping at its worst, because it is disguised as “all in good fun” while it sends the same old hateful messages.  Worse yet, it is aimed specifically at young men.

For those who are saying, “Whoa! Don’t you love Israel?” all I can say is, I dislike this film because I do love Israel.  I am a deeply committed Zionist.  I lived in Israel in 2002-3, during the Second Intifada.  I dislike this film because I think that racism like this hurts Israel, and damages the chances for peace, because it tells young American men that Palestinian men are subhuman.  I can point to Israeli films that take similar or even touchier subject matter and do so much better with it:  for example, watch The Band’s Visit.  It’s a wonderful, funny film that gets its comedy from the humanity of everyone in it.

For a contrast to a broad, sometimes vulgar comedy that tackles similar subject matter with much better results, take a look at The Infidel.  Everyone in that movie is a complicated human being, with complicated motives and dreams that lead them into a comical collision.  We all laugh together at the human condition:  much, much better.

As for the way women are pictured in this film, I will just say: feh.  I am very tired of Jewish filmmakers failing to work out their mommy issues — or going for the cheap laugh, which is worse — by dumping on women.  Sandler and Apatow, you can do better!

An Education

An Education (2010) is a coming-of-age film based upon a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barbour, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby.   A British schoolgirl, Jenny Mellor (played by Carey Mulligan) accepts a lift home from school from an older man, David Goldman, played by Peter Sarsgaard.  The year is 1961, and the girl feels hemmed in by middle-class rules.  She is afraid that the world is passing her by, until the charming man in the car offers her glamor and romance.   She accepts his offer, and receives an education:  to say much more would spoil any surprise the viewer might find in this film.  The film won 18 awards out of 48 nominations, including 3 Oscar nominations, and it was critically well-received.

Commentary

An Education‘s Jewish content and controversy begins with the fact that the David Goldman character is Jewish.  Anti-Semitism twice figures into the plot in an overt manner:  first, before David’s entrance, Jenny’s father (played brilliantly by Alfred Molina) refers to Jenny’s non-Jewish suitor as a “Wandering Jew,” summoning up a figure from European anti-Semitic folklore.  Then, when Jenny is about to introduce David, who has told her that he is Jewish, she taunts her father to watch himself, since David is “a wandering Jew.”  Mr. Mellor blusters that he’s not an anti-Semite, it’s just a figure of speech, etc. etc. and is thereby silenced regarding whatever opinions he might have regarding David’s Jewishness.  The second overt anti-Semitic moment in the film comes when Jenny tells the school mistress (played by Emma Thompson) that she intends to marry David:

Headmistress: “He’s a Jew? You’re aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?”

Jenny: “And you’re aware, I suppose, that our Lord was Jewish?”

Headmistress: “I suppose he told you that. We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that’s absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.”

Jenny’s response? She prefers to spend his money and live glamorously than to do the boring work of study, and she insolently suggests the headmistress prepare better for the next time a girl wants to know why she should get an education.

The casual viewer might see the film and say, as many have, that David’s Jewishness is incidental to the film, or merely an opportunity to display the narrow-mindedness of the conventional middle-class British mindset of 1961.  Indeed, the screenwriter has said that the character is Jewish only because the real con man in the memoir was Jewish.  However, as the Lynn Barber observes in an interview about the process of making a her memoir into a film, a lot of other details were changed on the way from one medium to another, so it seems quite fair to ask:  why is this detail left in place?

This points us towards a question of a much deeper, more pervasive anti-Semitism in the film, an issue originally raised in an article in the Jewish Journal.  David fits many of the ugliest stereotypes purveyed by anti-Semites, indeed, precisely the attributes of the Wandering Jew cited in the beginning of the film.  He is an urban and urbane character, at home in the fashionable salons about town.  He makes his money by speculating on property values in middle-class white neighborhoods he deliberately devalues by importing black residents; he is an art speculator and a petty thief.   When challenged by Jenny about his thievery, he justifies his crimes by citing his lack of opportunity, “We’re not clever like you.”   He eventually emerges as having made a hobby out of the ruin of nice English girls.  In short, he is the personification of the parasitical Jew in Der Erwige Juden (The Eternal Jew, 1940).  In fact, “Der Erwige Juden” is the German name for the figure of The Wandering Jew.

I confess I did not see this on my first viewing of the film, but upon reflection, it is all there and it’s quite nasty, whatever the intent or non-intent of the filmmakers.  I was not certain of it until I stumbled across a review of the film by a prominent anti-Semite, who writes that the film is a parable about the seduction of young people’s minds and souls by evil Jews.  I’m not going to cite or link that particular item, because I prefer not to give such garbage additional press.  My point is that whatever the filmmakers did or did not intend, this film contains certain specific tropes regarding Jews that act as a magnet for a certain type of deranged person.

I wish they had left out the “Wandering Jew” business, and if it is not essential to the film that he’s Jewish, then why make a point of it?

The Anti Defamation League has gone on record saying that they don’t think harm was intended.  After reading interviews with the filmmakers and the memoirist, I tend to agree.  However, I think that the meme of the Wandering Jew is strong stuff that a filmmaker should use only in a very intentional manner, and that this film is fodder for haters.

Divided We Fall

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.

Liberty Heights

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.

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]?

Life is Beautiful

life is beautiful(0)Life is Beautiful (1997) is not a Holocaust movie, even though half of the film is set in a concentration camp.  Roberto Benigni, who co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film is one of the great comics of Italian cinema.  He has made a fable about the salvific powers of love and laughter.  The movie won the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor, and Best Music in 1999, as well as over 50 other awards.

Commentary

Many critics described the film as brilliant, but there were also dissenting voices:  Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chonicle wrote that it is an “ambitious film” but that in the end, “it doesn’t work.”  Charles Taylor of Salon.com flatly writes that the film is “in offensively poor taste.”

I agree with Charles Taylor; I found it more and more difficult to watch this film in its second half, which is set in a concentration camp.  The idea that everything in the camp could be explained away as a “game” is beyond my suspension of disbelief.  The “humor” and “love” in the film are portrayed with no regard for the countless families ripped apart and destroyed by the Nazi machinery of death.  I do not find Life is Beautiful funny, and most definitely not “beautiful.”

One other thing:  I can imagine that someone out there might think that this film is “Holocaust lite” and therefore suitable for children.  Even if you accept the sophisticated view of the film prize awarders, and see this as great comic cinema, it is not a film for learning about the Holocaust:  the Holocaust is incidental to it.   Please don’t take a child to it.