April 19th, 70 years ago, the Jews in the ghetto rose up against the Nazis. The day before Pesach, the day they were to be deported to certain death, they rose up and fought for as long as they could. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was ended on May 16th. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, in part because it’s the season, as it were, for remembrance and anniversaries.
I appreciate the extent of knowledge we’ve gained about the Shoah, but revisiting the past with no return to the future makes me uneasy. It ignores history since then, it makes us seem like a people who no longer live and breathe. So today, I wanted to highlight some Kickstarters that are telling the stories of Poland’s Jews, neither ignoring the Shoah nor focusing solely upon it.
In Broken Branches, animator Ayala Sharot tells the story of her grandmother, Michal Rechter. Rechter was sent from Poland to Israel by herself, on the eve of WWII. She never saw her family again. In a mix of line drawing animation, animated scenes, animation adapted photographs and oil paint-glass animations, she tells the story of her grandmother in 25 minutes. Sharot’s work that we see in the trailer is talented and well-suited to how she’s framed the story being told. The project has squeaked into being funded, but still has a few weeks to go.
In Adam Zucker’s documentary The Return, the documentarian takes his skills to Poland. Jewish life is still reviving, defining itself, exploring an identity that stretches into the past, but the future as well. In his project’s description it says “The film tells the very human story of acknowledging the past without being beholden to it.” The women the documentary focuses on are all negotiating identity, in a Jewish community devastated by a war from before they were born. The Return has a few weeks to go as well, but still has more than $25,000 to go. What footage is in the trailer looks like it was shot with a keen eye, and I look forward to seeing where the project goes.
For almost two decades, my relationship with the Western Wall, or Kotel as it’s known in Hebrew, has been deeply fraught. Having been raised in a religious Zionist family, I was taught as a child to revere “these stones that have the hearts of men” as sacred. But one year, when I was 15 years old, I had an experience at the Wall that changed all that.
It was the holiday of Shavuot and the custom in my hometown of Jerusalem, was for people to stay up all night studying Torah and then walk to the Kotel to pray at dawn. Having participated in an early prayer, I was on my way out of the plaza when I spotted a few dozen non-Orthodox men and women gathered in the parking lot. Before they were able to get very far into their egalitarian service, the group was surrounded by a jeering mob of ultra-Orthodox thugs who yelled insults and threw garbage and dirty diapers at them. I remember standing with the non-Orthodox group in solidarity until the police arrived and forced us to leave.
Today, I am no longer a religious Zionist. For the past four years I’ve been working on a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has upended the way I think about Israel, Zionism, and my own Jewish identity. Indeed, I now know that the Western Wall plaza is actually the site of a disturbing crime. A mere two days after capturing the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli military approached the residents of the Moroccan quarter, which ended just meters from the Western Wall, and asked them to leave. When they refused, their houses were demolished and they were expelled. More than one hundred Palestinian families were made homeless that day and at least one woman was killed during the demolitions. They were not the first Palestinians to be treated by the State of Israel in this manner and they would not be the last.
In a way, the internal Jewish dispute over who gets to pray at the Kotel is analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The logical and just solution is for everyone to be able to share the space equally. But one group claims exclusive rights and uses the violence of the state as a vehicle to maintain its privilege there. The difficulties in achieving a just solution are not practical so much as they are psychological and emotional. Moreover, the problem is not the presence of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshippers in the same space. The problem is the inequitable orientation of the police toward the two groups.
I’m hopeful that the latest proposal by Natan Sharansky to solve the problem of non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel will work. After all, most Israelis do recognize that Jews of different stripes have an equal right to pray at the Western Wall. And what a small step it would be to go from that to seeing the other half of the population living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, along with their brothers and sisters in exile, as having an equal right to share the land. Perhaps it’s time to shift our focus from “the stones with hearts of men,” to “the men with hearts of stone.”
This is a guest post by Alexander Bodin Saphir, a filmmaker, playwright and current ‘author in residence’ at London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.
At last month’s Oscar ceremony both Israeli documentary nominated films — The Gatekeepers and 5 Broken Cameras — which are critical of current Israeli government policy, lost out to Searching for Sugarman. The fact that they lost is not particularly noteworthy (winning an Oscar is even more of a crap-shoot than getting onto the short list).
But what was noteworthy was the response of Limor Livnat, the then Minster for Sports and Culture who was more than happy that neither Israeli nominated film won the coveted Oscar. Admitting to Haaretz ‘that she did not even watch the Oscars award ceremony on Sunday and felt no anxiety about the announcement of the winner in the Best Documentary category. “I was anxious mainly because I wanted Lincoln to win best director,” Livnat said with a grin’.
When four Israeli organisations representing producers, directors, screenwriters and documentarians sent Livnat an open letter of protest she responded with incredulity, “I was shocked by your shock … I, who am opposed to censorship, call on all of you to [conduct] self-censorship. After all, Israel is a democracy to be proud of, but a democracy that is on the defensive, because lined up against 5 Broken Cameras are thousands of families that have been destroyed by Palestinian terror. You do nothing about that − you don’t make movies, you are living in a movie…” (Livnat’s favourite book, according to her Facebook page is George Orwell’s 1984. You can’t make this stuff up!)
And all of this is happening while the Israel Film Council instigate new funding parameters, which the Likud minister hopes will stop the production of Israeli films that “slander the state of Israel before the whole world.”
Forget for a second that Winston Churchill was adamant that “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” What is all the hubbub about?
Two sides of the same story?
It’s fascinating that these two films should be released and nominated the same year as although they are two very different kinds of films, they are dealing with similar issues, albeit from contrasting perspectives. More »
When Hava Nagila: The Movie played the Boston Jewish Film Festival last year, I rolled my eyes and opted out of what I assumed would be a twee, cloying tribute to the ubiquitous anthem to American Jewish vapidity.
But when, three weeks into my relocation to New York City, a friend asked me if I wanted to take his second ticket to see it at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I tried to stifle my skepticism in favor of a night out in my new home.
I was prepared for a nostalgic campfest, and while there was an element of that, the film was also surprisingly moving and educational. I even got a little teary-eyed during the segment with Harry Belafonte. I was surprised to learn the film was created by the team behind the excellent Hannah Szenes documentary, Blessed Is The Match. Director Roberta Grossman and producer Marta Kauffman said that after they completed their Szenes film, both women’s daughters asked them to work on a happier project – hence “Hava Nagila.” And while this is a happier film, it doesn’t shy away from a number of challenging questions about Jewish engagement, the Israel/Diaspora relationship, and the blooming and wilting of various strains of Jewish culture.
The movie begins a national roll-out this week. If it’s playing near you, check it out.
The following is a guest post by Efrem L. Epstein. Efrem is the founder of Elijah’s Journey, an organization focusing on the issues of suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.
For several months now I’ve joked about the potential lawsuit I could file against Matthew Quick, author of the novel “Silver Linings Playbook” from which the film nominated for eight 2013 Oscars is adapted. On first glance, Pat Peoples (renamed “Pat Solitano” in the film) could only be based on me. We’re both die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans, who took up dancing as a hobby, spent time living in Baltimore, wrestled with issues of life’s purpose and idealized love and battled the demons of depression and won (K’eyn Ayin Hara). In reality, I am hardly the only person in the world who can relate to Pat. Depression affects 350 Million globally and, in the U.S. alone, there are 1,000,000 suicide attempts annually. Many are surprised to learn that reported suicides outnumber homicides by more than a 2:1 ratio (and if one were to account for unreported/unconfirmed suicides the ratio would likely be closer to 3:1). In thanking David O. Russell after her SAG-AFTRA Best Female Actor win, Jennifer Lawrence proclaimed, “You made a movie for your son so that he wouldn’t feel alone, and so that he could feel understood. And I think I can speak on behalf of most of us and say that you helped more than your son. You’ve helped so many sons and daughters, husbands, wives, everybody.”
The positive lessons that can be learned from Silver Linings Playbook are so numerous that at times it feels like an entire social justice curriculum…and a good one at that! Not only does the movie enlighten us about tolerance and acceptance but it also offers some fresh and rich insight on how we as a society can move past many of our stubborn stigmas regarding depression, mental illness and emotional disorders (three cheers for Pat’s character being portrayed as both desirable and dateable even with his demons and flaws). And let’s not forget the lesson about how so many of our personal relationships (romantic, platonic and family) can be improved through more open and honest lines of communication. Silver Linings Playbook has also been a wonderful conversation-starter that has prompted many public figures to further share their own stories. I strongly recommend reading former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy’s piece from The Daily Beast.
But the movie is especially poignant in my eyes for offering up a “playbook” of sorts for handling life’s curves. Life is, and should be, full of dreams but the dark side of dreams is that they often get shattered! Six months before Pat Solitano appeared on movie screens, Vice President Joe Biden gave many of us in the suicide awareness/prevention movement our own “Jackie Robinson moment.” Recalling the tragic accident which claimed the lives of his daughter and first wife, he recounted, “”For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide…because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again.” As we watch Pat move on from his old dreams to build new ones, we realize a truth of life: Bad things do happen to us and sometimes REALLY bad things happen to us, but even amongst our most shattered dreams there is always a road back to happiness. “Folks, it can and will get better,” Biden told the audience later in his speech.
Cartoonist Nina Paley has been working on a (potential) feature film called Seder-Masochism, and earlier this week she released a first look, which is also its last scene. “This Land Is Mine” illustrates the battles over the patch of land that’s been known as Canaan, Israel, Palestine, etc. in a way that’s reminiscent of Chad Gadya without the animals. Check it out:
Following Earth Day it seemed appropriate to share that Academy-ward winning actor Russell Crowe will star in director Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan) feature film about the biblical boat builder, Noah. The film will be released spring 2014. Crowe’s depiction of Jewish detective Richie Roberts in American Gangster keeps coming to mind, how he was such an everyman. Now he’ll get to be an ish tzaddik tamim haya b’dorotav(A righteous man in his generation). Exciting. Hunky. Noah. I can’t wait for the musical. I wanna hear Crowe say, “I’m on a boat!”
“The news prompted the “Basic Instinct” writer to allege in a letter posted by the Wrap that Gibson, who was to produce and possibly direct the film, never wanted to make it because, as Eszterhas said of Gibson, “You hate Jews.”
In the 1920’s, Soviet filmmaker maverick Lev Kuleshov demonstrated how the juxtaposition of distinct, isolated filmed images can suggest psychologically-charged narratives: for example, a shot of a relatively ‘neutral’ gazing face followed by a shot of a bowl of soup leads viewers to understand that the person in the first shot is hungry. This all-important editing technique in cinema routinely forces us to forge narrative meaning and continuity by connecting isolated images and scenarios. It takes a particularly gifted filmmaker to transcend and even reverse such a tendency in the process of creating dramatic tension.
Such a filmmaker is Joseph Cedar, who most recently directed the dark comedy Footnote. At the very start of the film, the audience is required to interpret the context—in this case, the induction ceremony of the Israeli Academy of Arts and Sciences scene—based on the face which confronts us, and not vice versa. Via a tight medium close-up shot, we are introduced to Uriel and Eliezer Shkolnik, a son and father situated side by side amidst the assembled crowd. We later learn that have both spent their professional lives as academics. Uriel ultimately disappears from the frame (as we soon learn, from the off-screen dialogue, to ascend to the podium and accept the honour of his induction to this society), but the camera remains fixed on the singularly disturbed visage of his father. As we watch Eliezer’s almost haunted, blank expression, which suggests a deeply repressed quiet fury, we also listen to Uriel’s acceptance speech, in which he relates an anecdote from his early childhood involving his father. Read or heard in isolation, the speech would most likely appear benign–even gracious. However, as we absorb the tortured, humiliated look of defeat fixed on Eliezer’s face as the camera gradually positions him in the frame’s center throughout this long take, and as we listen to the polite collective laughter punctuating Uriel’s clever moments of public oratory, it is nearly impossible to not interpret the son’s words as anything but the severest cruelty. More »
I am something of a Jewish education crumudgeon. In many years in the trenches working with teens, I saw lots of failed attempts by well-meaning innovators to marry Torah content with 21st-century technology. But while Second Life classrooms have turned to ghost towns and the web is littered with class-project blogs that stopped after one post, G-dcast is going strong.
Perhaps the real strength of G-dcast is that it doesn’t try too hard, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. G-dcast works because the concept is simple: invite creative people to narrate a bit of Torah (or a bit about a Jewish holiday), illustrate their narration with animation, and release them for free on YouTube. (Once they got established, G-dcast added some smart extras like a DVD version and complementary curriculum for use in classrooms.) But really, the magic formula of short, entertaining, and free should be studied (like Torah!) by anyone else hoping to break into this field.
And speaking of breaking into the field, that’s where G-dcast’s latest innovation gets me all tight in the pants. They’ve announced plans for Studio G-dcast, a six-day intensive workshop this summer for emerging writers, poets, singer/songwriters and animators who are currently in college or graduate school. This has the potential to be the artistic beit midrash of the future today, where people who tell stories through words (& music) pair in chevruta with those who tell stories through pictures and motion to uncover meaning in our sacred texts. See why I’m getting all tight in the pants?
Application deadline is Friday, March 9, so get crackin’.
A few years ago, my roommate had a Miss America pageant watching party. The only way to get through such a thing, if you choose to indulge in it in the first place, is to attack it with an unparallelled level of snark, such as the world has never seen, which we did. That was the last time I saw a beauty pageant, until today.
“Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America” is a feature included in the Reel Abilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, a project dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities, founded by the UJA-Federation. Director of the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan, Isaac Zablocki, who also directs the festival, told me,”The film celebrates an inclusive society, which I believe is something very important to the Jewish community.”
Ms. Wheelchair America is a beauty pageant, seeking to provide an opportunity for women to educate and advocate for folks with disabilities. Women between the ages of 18 and 60 and who rely on wheelchairs as the their primary form of mobility are eligible. The documentary, directed by Alexis Ostrander, follows five women as they compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America.
The film is unflinching; early on, Amber Marcy (Ms. Wheelchair America Michigan 2009) tells the camera that she “took a dump in my pants” before her first meeting with the judges. She and Alyson Roth, Ms. Wheelchair America California, discuss how complicated it is to control their bowels and get into the handicap stalls when they need to. A central theme throughout involves confronting truths, as well as the stereotypes and misconceptions about disabled women. Michelle Colvard, Miss Wheelchair America 2009, said, “Either you’re a hero or you’re a victim.”
The line between hero and victim is indeed blurred as we learn more about the five contestants. Identities get more complex as the film goes on-Erika, the single mother with three children whose spinal injury is the result of an abusive boyfriend, is criticized by her mother and the father of one of her girls for making bad decisions. Alyson, an overachiever whose reaction to her injury has been to start loving Jesus a lot, spreads a rumor that Santina, another contestant, has been making pornography catering to those who fetishize disabled women.
It’s worth noting that all the winners of Ms. Wheelchair America listed on the website are white skinned women. While we’re told throughout that Ms. Wheelchair America is supposed to be an atypical pageant, there’s an evening gown competition, montages of the women putting on make up are featured, and the panel of judges seems to be largely middle aged, able bodied white dudes. The narrator of the film, Katey Sagal, reminds us that although the contest is about achievement, advocacy and education, the contestants still really want to win. The parents of the contestants say things like, “It doesn’t matter if you win, you’ve already won.”
“Defining Beauty” is a challenge, full and honest and complicated, which in my opinion, is the best kind. You can still catch it, with the rest of the films in the Reel Abilities Festival. Check them out here.
Hilarious and amazing. This might be one of the greatest things I’ve read in quite some time. Apparently, there are just under 3000 Jews in the Czech Republic; however, according to the most recent census data, those in the Czech Republic who voluntarily filled in their religion as “Jedi” numbered over 15,000.
I hate to have to ask this, but would a Jewish Jedi be a Jew-di? Terrible, I know — forgive me.
“77 Steps,” a documentary by Palestinian-Israeli filmmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana, is a selection at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. The subject of the film is Mara’ana herself, who moves from her Arab-Muslim village to Tel Aviv. She includes a conversation between herself and a landlord who agrees to show her an apartment until he realizes she’s Arab. “Sometimes,” she tells the audience, “I had to shorten my name.”
After securing an apartment, Ibtisam throws herself into living life in Tel Aviv. “I want to belong to this place,” she says. At a roof top party, she meets Jonathan, her Jewish-Canadian emigre neighbor who’s been in Israel for 6 years. The rest of the film documents their relationship amid MP Avigdor Lieberman’s calls for loyalty oaths from Israeli Arabs, conflict with families, and Ibitsam’s resignation from the Meretz party in the face of the Gaza war (which the party will not renounce).
It’s Jonathan’s grandfather’s visit from Canada to Kibbutz Ein Dor, which he left in 1948, that’s perhaps the turning point for the couple’s relationship. Jonathan’s grandfather regrets leaving the kibbutz, and feels that his grandson’s aliyah makes up for this. He says, “At the time, Israel represented the best of morality. “Not anymore?” Itbisam asks. “No,” he replies.
At the kibbutz, Itbisam questions a staff member if she ever tells people that the kibbutz was built on Arab land. The conversation deteriorates when the staff member says that she believes Arabs should go live in a Palestinian state, and that although it was an injustice that Arabs were displaced, the Holocaust was “a greater injustice.” Jonathan chastizes Itbisam for being “aggressive” in the exchange. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” she says. “I know how I feel.”
Following a series of conversations that illumine “the limits of our relationship,” Jonathan moves out of the apartment building that neighbors Itbisam’s. The end of the affair isn’t melodramatic or angry; instead, it seems like an evolution. For Itbisam, it’s part of what she came to Tel Aviv to do, to stretch beyond the limitations of her previous life in her family’s village and to become more of herself. She counted the steps of the house she grew up in every day she lived there, all 77 of them, until the day she left. Of Tel Aviv, she says, “I found a place where I can get some rest.”
After the film, a conversation and q/a with Itbisam herself and the executive director of the film festival, Isaac Zablocki, took place at the Speakeasy Cafe. Zablocki remarked that the importance of the film for a North American Jewish audience lies in the fact that in it, “Israel is not what the tourists see. It’s a different perspective.”
Ultimately, Itbisam believes that the end of her relationship with Jonathan was due to a difference in culture. “We loved each other for two years, “she said. “I don’t have shame about my story…I’m not asking people what they think about my work. I just work.” While one of her sisters has seen the film, but it has not been shown in Arab communities. “I”m dealing with taboos. It’s too early for Arabs and Palestinians to deal with this film.”
“The film is about finding identity,” said Itbisam. “I’m lucky that I have a lot of identities. I’m deep in all of them-female, Palestinian, Arab. It’s not hate or love, I have a lot of identities, I’m proud of all of them.”
Last night’s screening of “77 Steps” was co sponsored by the New Israel Fund. The Other Israel Film Festival is running in Manhattan through November 17th. Visit www.otherisrael.org/ for a list of films and to buy tickets.
In what seems like a development only possible on the satirical pages of the Onion, Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions has just unveiled plans to co-finance a new film about Judah Maccabee, with Joe Eszterhaus of Showgirls fame onboard as screenwriter. This is too good to be true. I mean, who better than Mel Gibson, the man who boldly asserted that Jews are responsible for all wars in the world, to capture the quintessential epic military struggle of Jewish national religious pride versus the lures of assimilation?
Well, time will only tell what choices Gibson will make, but if he sticks to my above plan, we’re going to have something even greater than The Passion of the Christ (2004). Or, as Reb Yudel puts it, “If Gibson’s Hanukkah film succeeds, can his Tisha b’Av blockbuster be far behind?”
Incidentally, I vividly recall dragging a date to a Sunday matinee screening of his last Jew epic in 2004. We paid for two tickets to see Dirty Dancing: Havana Nightsin the hopes that our tickets wouldn’t profit Gibson’s film, but later, a friend in the industry explained to me that films only benefit from concession stand money, not from actual ticket sales. Alas. The film itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy, aside from its curious subtitling choices. While Gibson promised to cut out any direct implication of the Jews in Jesus’ crucifixion, the English subtitling did not always match the Aramaic dialogue onscreen. (I attended a high school which forced us to learn Aramaic. Now on facebook, I smugly resent that under the languages option, there is an “Aramaic of Jesus” and not also an ‘Aramaic of Rabban Gamliel.”) We, along with busloads of young Christian children, some of whom were as young as four years old, proceeded to watch what amounted to two full hours of Jesus being beaten to a bloody pulp. ::Spoiler alert:: Jesus is killed.
L, my companion for the evening, wonders if we can say we actually saw Wallace Shawn, who appears to be sitting three rows ahead of us. It’s definitely him, right? We strain our ears for his trademark voice, but the din proves too much for us discern properly.
This is not really important, of course, a celebrity sighting at the screening of “This is My Land, Hebron,” at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. It is, however, a reminder to myself to be observant of the audience, which I have come in worried about. The theatre is full, and this is both joyous and disconcerting. Who are these people? Did someone make a phone to right wingers to come and start a ruckus? Is someone going to say something anti Semitic? Some people walk onto the stage and sit down. The audience applauds. I sweat.
The three people, introduced by the moderator, are Dotan Greenberg, a former solider/ activist withBreaking the Silence, and the directors, Giulia Amati and Stephen Nathanson. The moderator asks if anyone would like to say anything before the film starts. Greenberg says that serving in Hebron has changed his views and how he’s active in the society he lives in.
“This is My Land” is a documentary composed primarily of footage and interviews from Hebron, one of the first of which is of a home covered with a wire cage. The owner of the house, a Palestinian woman in hijab, tells the camera that the wire is necessary to keep the stones thrown by Jewish settlers from hitting the people who live there, but that they’ve adapted by throwing smaller stones. More »
Independent filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon has released Generation Gap, an interesting short film about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of his family, including his grandfather Wilhelm and father Julian. Watch the entire Generation Gap film below. Ungar-Sargon previously released the controversial feature-length documentary, Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision. His second feature-length documentary, A People Without a Land (more on it later), is post-production right now.
I got to watch my good friend Josh Freed’s feature film Five Weddings and a Felony a few weeks ago at its premiere in DOC-NYC, New York’s Documentary Film Festival. Here’s a trailer:
The film was great – thoughtful, funny (sometimes painfully so), introspective, maddening, and somehow sweet. I was going to write a summary but the director, Josh Freed, does it better on the film’s website. Before I get to that though, I highly recommend this film for anyone who wants to showcase young, Jewish artistic talent and are willing to deal with the controversial and real issues that face young Jews today. For information on how to show the film in your community, email fiveweddings (at) gmail dot com.
I began making the film that became Five Weddings & A Felony when I was 24 as a courtship strategy to win over a woman I felt unworthy of, with no idea what I was doing, hoping just the fact that I was doing it would impress her. It (the film) was abandoned several times as I fled relationships I was afraid to commit to, but I kept returning to it because the women in my life just seemed so screen-worthy to me, and I hoped the footage might illuminate the mystery of why such beautiful creatures would ever be attracted to me. It didn’t. It shall remain a mystery. But over the 4 years it took to finish it, the film came to represent for me my slow march toward adulthood – as if only a complete document of all my selfish behaviors and irrational fears would allow me to move beyond them.
Though the film is full of my own idiosyncrasies, it also reflects a trend among my generation (you may say I’m messed up, but I’m not the only one). Some researchers and psychologists want to codify a new life stage, between adolescence and adulthood, called “emerging adulthood,” because we twenty somethings are taking our sweet time getting to those milestones – financial independence, marriage, children – that our parents achieved at 23, 24, 25. Emerging adulthood is marked, according to a recent New York Times Magazines article, by “identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and… a sense of possibilities.” And there are so many possibilities: for those of us whose parents are liberals from the 60′s – they encourage us to explore, find ourselves, try different relationships. Premarital sex and cohabitation are so widely accepted we don’t feel much pressure to get married. Even though the economy collapsed and we fear we’ll never have job stability, we know that the world is changing faster than it ever has before, which means more potential for exciting achievements (or, devastating failures).
At its heart, Five Weddings is a journey into modern courtship, with the unique intimacy afforded by the tiny Flip camera. Any woman who has ever been in the unfortunate situation of being attracted to a man-child like me will relate to it, as will all the guys out there who have ever been afraid of the idea of marriage and children. I know there’s plenty of you out there.
Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix: 1. Plan an expensive get-away. 2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways. 3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then… 4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship— 5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped. 6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure. 7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor. 8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’ 9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness? 10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.
Summarized (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.
In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year. In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikingly emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others. Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.
In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others. This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement. In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency: ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’
Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other. And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based. All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter. All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.
Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein. In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.
It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothing ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes. EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst. In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.
One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased! Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.
Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but, like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort. Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.
According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question. Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning. This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable. While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion. If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker. But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.
Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community. As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others. Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.
Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??
Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man. Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.
As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”