Author Archives: Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

About Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

Elliot B. Gertel is the rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago and media critic for The Jewish Post and Opinion of Indianapolis.

Defiance

The 2009 film Defiance, based on Nechama Tec’s book by the same title about four brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron Bielski, is a drama about Jewish resistance to the Nazis. The acting is excellent all-around. The compelling screenplay was written by producer Edward Zwick and Clayton Frohman. Eduardo Serra provided the breathtaking cinematography.

Plotdefiance

After their parents and neighbors are killed in attacks on Jewish homes in their rural Belorussian village, the brothers begin to strike back at the Nazis. The eldest brother, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), is diplomatic and idealistic. His younger brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber), is militant and bent on killing as many Nazis and Nazi collaborators as possible, no matter what the cost.” (Though not relevant to the plot, it would have been nice if the writers had explained the Yiddish name, “Zus” rather than leaving audiences to believe that the character was named after a Greek god.)

An important part of the story is much younger brother Asael’s quick maturation and development of leadership skills in face of the would-be destroyers of Jews and of the conflict between his older brothers. The youngest brother, Aron, is still a child.

The elder two brothers are certainly of one mind when it comes to avenging the vicious attack on their parents’ farm, instigated by a local police captain who was greedy for the bounty of $500.00 placed by the Nazis on every Jewish head. Tuvia himself kills the man and his two sons in front of that man’s wife, and then the brothers go after the German soldiers with whom this official sought to curry favor. They gather weapons and take to the woods, where they find other Jews in hiding and where many more Jews start seeking them.

Yet differences between the two eldest brothers are sharp, even violent. Zus wants to eliminate any collaborator or withholder of help, and to refuse entrée to their group of anyone but able-bodied fighters. Even the youngest brother declares at one point, “blood for blood.”

Keeping the Faith

Jews have seen many inaccurate and even demeaning movie depictions of themselves and their religion. In the following, the author examines one film that presents a particularly problematic image Jews and Jewish life. Reprinted with permission from Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television (University Press of America).

Keeping The Faith, a 2000 rabbi-priest buddy picture, boasts the stellar cast of Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, and Jenna Elfman, and Norton’s directorial debut. Writer Stuart Blumberg respects his clergy most when they are involved in a love triangle after a girl they both admired most in the eighth grade returns as a beautiful, high-powered corporate executive.

keeping the faith bannerIn an interview with Charlie Rose, Norton described the film as a takeoff on the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, such as The Philadelphia Story, but actually Blumberg’s script is a fin-de-siecle nod at The Jazz Singer, moving from the cantor to the rabbi, but with the same premise: Love conquers all. If one wants to follow the heart, one cannot be bound by the attitudes and faith of one’s fathers or mothers.

But another angle is added here: If one’s love is deep enough, then one’s faith will be reaffirmed.

Biblical Concerns

I couldn’t help thinking of the well-known passage in the Shema (a major morning and evening prayer), that the heart leads people to stray from the commandments (Numbers 15:39) and of Jeremjah’5 knowing caveat that “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). Keeping The Faith is not commentary on these themes as much as confirmation of the old biblical concerns. It is symptomatic rather than insightful.

The screenplay is crafty enough. The film, while not a work of fine artifice, has a certain effectiveness. While sitcomish in the writing, it offers a bit more finesse than the usual TV fare in the cutaway shots and editing (though at least one such transition uses Hebrew lettering for the Divine Name to accent some toilet humor).

Crossing Delancey

Despite many inaccurate and demeaning portrayals of Jews and Judaism on film, many movies present a more accurate and positive image. In the following article, the author examines one film he believes exemplifies a dignified portrayal of Judaism. Reprinted with permission from Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television (University Press of America).

Crossing Delancey (1988) is a pleasant, intelligent romantic comedy, cleverly and tightly written and winningly acted, which presents some very old Jewish–and by now, universal–values in a most refreshing, contemporary way, blending humor and pathos, wit and romance. It affirms the traditional values of marriage and companionship without being preachy, moralistic, or corny.

A Lovely Bubbie

The drama centers on Isabelle (“Izzie”) Grossman–a lovely performance by Amy Irving–who insists she is content with her job at a New York bookstore where she organizes literary soirees for outstanding writers and publishers who rely upon her. Izzie also enjoys visiting her “Bubbie” (an Anglicization of bubbeh, Yiddish for “Grandma”), a delightful performance and debut on the big screen for veteran Yiddish theater actress Raizl Bozyk, who refuses to believe that her 33-year-old granddaughter is happy as a “single.”

At one point Bubbie tells Izzie that she lives “alone in a room like a dog.” To no avail does Izzie explain that that “room” is an enviable rent-controlled apartment and that she is perfectly content with her friends and fulfilled in her work.

Bubbie summons a shadhan (matchmaker) in her Lower East Side neighborhood. Needless to say, Izzie is not pleased with Bubbie’s Fiddler On The Roof tactics, and is downright hostile when she meets Sam Posner, a pickle salesman, who turns out to be uncomfortably charming and sensitive and attractive to Izzie. The seeming contradictions in his personality–and the fact that he is so poised and is such a stable character despite those “contradictions”–rankle Izzie all the more: He always has his hands in pickle barrels, yet is well-read and well-educated; he plays handball but attends the morning minyan (prayer quorum).

Deconstructing Harry

In his 1999 film Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen plays a novelist who has written a book about family and friends and bared everything about his affair with his third wife’s sister. Harry abducts his nine-year-old son from school to take him on a ride with the prostitute-du-jour to his alma mater, which is honoring him. Allen mocks wryly the adulation of academics as well as the murderous scorn of those who have been betrayed.

His point is that the feelings of sycophants and friends and even family do not matter much in the scheme of things, anyway. What matters is whether the literary characters created are varied and real and interesting enough to comprise a worthy audience to the foibles and frustrations of the writer.

Harry & His Sins

Deconstructing Harry is the most imaginative and in many ways the most pathetic (that is, affecting) of Allen’s films. Though it drags at points, it generally flows quite artfully from the real-life sins of Harry to their glorification or rationalization in some of his short stories.

The short stories are Allen’s most clever flourishes ever, and are truly works of art. They contain within them all the stereotypes of Jews and wholesale mockery of Judaism that have been the stock in trade of Allen’s previous work. You get the same easy laughs at the expense of Jewish names (and even the name of the rescuer of Holocaust victims, Raoul Wallenberg). The stories show a brother- and sister-in-law engaging in quick sexual intercourse in front of a blind grandmother (in the tradition of Hannah And Her Sisters).

Yet, until the penultimate sequence–the one in, of all places, Hell–Allen manages to parody his own established formats with good humor.

Unprovoked Rants

What does not ring true here is Allen’s suggestion that his rantings about Jewish life have provocation. Thus, in a sequence in which Harry has been accused by a religious relative of denying the Holocaust, he responds:

“Not only do I not deny the Holocaust [but] I think records are made to be broken.” Needless to say (except perhaps to Woody Allen), no provocation could ever make such a line appropriate, and Allen himself seems to acknowledge that Harry’s religious relatives don’t deserve that kind of affrontery.

Jewish Movies

Reprinted with permission from Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television (University Press of America).

For more than a quarter of a century, a lot of movies and TV programs have been obsessed with Judaism. One can argue that many American Jews were infatuated first with film and then, simultaneously, with television. The movies, and then television, have imposed standards, aesthetics, values, and even vocabulary that American culture, including American Jewish culture, had to engage, whether in imitation, protest, or adaptation. Yet such engagement, for all of its occasional valor, has not been without distortion of Judaism, of Jewish teachings and observances.

The Goldbergs Become Molly

At first these seductive media mesmerized Jews. But Judaism was left alone. It was kept offstage, to the side, as a precious relic or heirloom. One thinks of the 1950 film, Molly, originally entitled The Goldbergs, and based on the famous television series of that name.

depictions of jews on screenGertrude Berg assumed her classic TV role as Molly Goldberg, beloved Jewish matriarch. Most of the film came across as a rather general nostalgia for European parents, not much different from the I Remember Mama genre. Toward the end one sees covered challah rolls and Shabbat candles, though the actual rituals are only suggested and not performed.

It was a bold statement in the 1950s just to show challahand Shabbat candles at a time when the name of the film had to be changed from The Goldbergs to Molly. For most of the Jewish audience, the immigrant experience and the close-knit family were still realities, and there was no need to translate or to fill in between the lines. Likewise, the presence of ritual objects in the homes of parents was still widely taken for granted. (By the 1970s, ritual objects in film and TV began to be more the domain of immigrant grandparents.) Just the image of a Sabbath table spoke volumes more than any dialogue.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, depiction of Jews and of Jewish practices became more aggressive, more pointed. There was a determined and concerted effort to stand up for Jewish identity and to throw Jewish practices back into the face of a film culture that had ignored them or shunted them aside. The irony was that the “film culture” consisted of many Jews who had been embarrassed about delving into their heritage, but now sanctioned, with a vengeance, an explosion of Jewish references, associa­tions, and even ambivalences.