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.”
It is one thing to know that peace-loving Palestinians exist, but quite another to join several hundreds [700, I have since learned] of Palestinians giving a standing ovation five minutes long to a film about non-violence. Last Wednesday night, I sat in an IMAX-sized theater in the West Bank Palestinian city of Ramallah for the grand opening of Budrus, a documentary about a village that successful relocated the security barrier off their lands through peaceful protest. I was overwhelmed, galvanized.
Budrus is a film that challenges everyone’s preconceptions — Jew, Arab, other — and aims to pry open space in reluctant hearts. Five years ago, the village of Budrus successfully averted the construction of the security barrier from cutting off a majority of their farming livelihood and through their cemetery. The film follows Ayed Morrar, Fatah activist turned community organizer, as he unites with local Hamas leadership, the town’s women led by his daughter, alongside Israeli activists. It heals doubts across multiple themes: the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, the place of women in Palestinian society, and the use of violence. A more inspiring combination couldn’t possibly be more remarkable to see, nor to witness its raccous support by the people of Ramallah. More »
Have you ever wanted to see how the newly-founded State of Israel looked in colour? Now you can.
During the first few decades of the State, Fred Monosson, a well-healed American Zionist, attempted to capture the everyday life in the newly minted State of Israel and the joie de vivre of the early pioneers on colour film stock. The footage (sampled in this video) also includes images from the ruins of post-war Europe.
The recent recovery of this rare footage—very nearly trashed after being discovered in the attic of the deceased Monosson’s Boston home—constitutes a story in its own right. Thanks to Israeli filmmakers Avishai Kfir and Itzik Rubin, the film and the story of its recovery has been immortalized in a fascinating documentary,אני הייתי שם בצבע, I Was There in Color, which premiered this April in the US.
As producer Itzik Rubin suggests in the video, it is always fascinating how our collective memory of a particular historic period is irrevocably coloured and shaped by the media with which we associate it. We tend to imagine certain periods in the past as eternally “black and white,” with the somber, formal quality of standard history textbook illustrations. Part of the shock and beauty of this footage is precisely the everydayness of the images it offers.
On the other hand, these images are not exactly random or everyday: we see some of the state’s most celebrated political and military figures gracing Monosson’s lens, and the crowd scenes he captures are exuberantly happy—all this during a period of great suffering and struggle.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this clip happens at about 11 minutes in, as current Israeli President Shimon Peres recalls a warmer, less materialistic Israel of a bygone era. Peres’ bittersweet comment about the old mentality, while it may also gloss on the social realities of the times, at least nods to what is not being said elsewhere here, namely, the shifting of attitudes and values in today’s Israel.
Does Monosson’s footage then filter early Israel through rose-coloured glasses?
Perhaps, but this is still some rather remarkable footage certainly worth watching.
“…makes you think all the world’s a sunny day”
(Hat tip to Dr. Grace Cohen Grossman, who brought this footage to my attention.)
Two upcoming movies I’m guessing the Jewish community will be discussing this summer: “Holy Rollers” (above), based on an apparently true story about Hasidic drug runners; and “The Infidel” (below), a wacky comedy about a British Muslim man who discovers his birth parents were Jewish.
My early reviews: the latter movie looks like a hash of the stupidest stereotypes of Muslims and Jews (tho I’ll admit that the final line in the trailer made me laugh out loud).
Re “Holy Rollers:” the peyos in “The Chosen” were more realistic…
Three Boston-area Jewish professionals-cum-independent-documentarians are working on an hour-long documentary about Birthright Israel… and they need YOUR HELP!
The project is called Mifgash: Encountering Jewish Identity in the 21st Century, and the filmmakers are about $800 away from their $10,000 goal. If you’ve ever wanted to see your name in the credits of a film, this could be your chance, for as little as $36. For a grand, you can become an Associate Producer. If you’re interested in chipping in, check out their page on Kickstarter.
From the trailer, the film seems like a Birthright lovefest, so I’m curious to see if the final project includes the voices of Birthright’s critics. Then again, the trailer also features at least one image of tefillin and no drunken hookups, so one wonders how much the film will really reflect the Birthright experience.
There is a lot to be said about the possibilities of Jewish film. We’ve heard about kollel guys turning the lens on themselves, Israeli filmmakers orchestrating the visual return of Jews to Poland, or Palestinian filmmakers depicting the society that excludes them.
Then there is Wallace Berman. Born on Shaolin Island in the Roaring 20s, his family made their way to California in 1930, just in time for the Depression. He was a member of many loosely organized bohemian camps. He’s often mentioned in the same catalogs as Artaud, Bukowski, and Burroughs – but like some tzadikim, he wasn’t exactly like any of them. Berman experimented with proto-xerography processes to create collages that upended conventions in postwar American art. The only film he made is called Aleph – and it brings together his interest in abstract visualizations and Jewish Mysticism.
Operating in JST, we still haven’t released our ‘best of’ series as we reflect upon the last decade. This is the first of several posts in which we will review various aspects of Jewish culture in the past ten years.
Let’s face it: if there’s one thing Jews do, it’s watch films (unless they’re ultra orthodox, in which case they absolutely don’t). If there’s another thing Jews do, it’s criticize. Allow me to indulge in both of these glorious activities. Right now.
We all have our favourite hidden ‘Jew’ moments in films. Whether it’s the chaotic hava naglia scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985); when we meet the Royal Tenenbaum’s pet bird Mordechai (2001); the Heveinu Shalom Aleichem scene in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995); the creepily touchy-feely prison counselor with a golden ‘chai’ dangling from his neck in the opening of the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona (1987), or, of course, the fact that the second instance of music in the first-ever feature-length ‘talkie’ is non other than Kol Nidrei (The Jazz Singer, dir. Alan Crosland, USA, 1927), film is a landfill of subtle references to all things Jewish.
Perhaps my favourite Jew film of all time, the 2009 Academy Award nominated film, A Serious Man, outdoes itself in this sense: instead of a few understated touches in the mise en scène, the film is wall-to-wall Jewish; my immediate reaction upon leaving the theater after having watched it for the first time was, “for whom was this film made??” The answer to this question seemed, curiously, quite obvious, when, after viewing this film several times with a variety of friends, it became clear that the multiple, cryptic Jewish references flew by my non-Jewish friends, leaving them rather flummoxed by their inability to access the critical subtext of this film. Usually however, what I am calling here a ‘Jew film’ reads more accessibly to its general audience. Whatever Jewish element is present in the film is noticeable enough to humour those privy to the joke but also sufficiently subtle to camouflage effortlessly within the rest of the film, thus not disorienting or confusing the general audience.
In our context here, a “Jew film” will be defined as one containing some prominent Jewish element, such as an obviously Jewish character, prominent mention of a Jewish holiday, or other Jewish cultural references. For the sake of this list, I have not listed every Israeli film that has been made over the past ten years. On the level of logistics that would be rather unwieldy; on the level of content, I do not believe that everything Israeli automatically translates into ‘Jewish.’
(I once had a highly awkward argument with Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua about this.) Disagree with me if you must, but I am correct.
Upon reviewing this semi-complete list, I find it rather unsettling that a sizeable chunk of these selections are Holocaust-themed films. That is to say, many of these films are transparent expressions of the Holocaust-as-Jewish-identity theme that has haunted international Jewry for the past 60-some years. One would hope that in the process of healing from the catastrophic events of the mid-20th century, “Jew Film”, while not abandoning the memory of past horrors, might equally embrace the more vibrant and varied—if sometimes confusing—aspects of 21st century Jewish culture and existence.
Finally, I’d like to thank the Academy*—er, sorry—a handful of good friends who helped me compile this list: Tamar Fox (of myjewishlearning.com), fellow teutophile Sonia Gollance, and former film collaborator Izzy Moskowits.
*(For any Jewish Chicagoans reading this, I am not referring to the high school I attended.)
Raysh’s top ten Jew films of the 21st century: Winner: A Serious Man / Waltz with Bashir (a tie)
Not in NYC? Host your own watching party & catch it on the Jewish Channel on Saturday nights. [Note: TJC is available on cable -- iO Optimum ch. 291, Time Warner ch. 528, RCN ch. 268, Verizon FiOS ch. 900, and Cox Cable ch. 1. For more information, visit tjctv.com.] Send some photos to editor-at-jewschool-dot-com & we’ll post them on the site. (Or just share them with us on facebook)
“What Makes a Hero?” is a rough cut of a promotional video I produced for UJC’s Jewish Community Heroes awards in 2009. It wasn’t used during the campaign, but I am happy to release this long form version of the video, which features interviews with about 25 people on the streets of New York City and Brooklyn. The video was recently presented at the Limmud NY 2010 Conference.