It’s tough out there for an Israeli film at the Oscars. When an Israeli film gets nominated for best foreign language film it’s almost always because the movie references the Holocaust and/or the Israeli-Arab Conflict. But while a Holocaust theme is a guaranteed win in most categories, not so when it comes to Israeli films. And a film that seems very sympathetic to Arabs is unlikely to garner a win from the typically conservative Academy voters.
This year, though, the Israeli nominee is neither a careful look at the history of the Jewish people, or a tense war film. Instead, it’s Footnote, a film that casts its gaze on the small and insular world of academic Talmud scholars. Eliezer Shkolnik is a Talmud professor at Hebrew University whose diligent work has never been recognized by his peers. His son, Uriel Shkolnik, also a Talmud professor, is an up-and-coming star in the field, collecting awards and distinction with ease. When Eliezer is awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, father and son have to try to keep their smugness/jealousy in check and generally behave like respectable adults. This turns out to be remarkably difficult for both of them. Also, there’s a surprise twist, and a fun scene involving a fencing uniform.
The movie is remarkably successful: its depictions of life in the academy are spot-on, and I found the set design to be particularly effective at capturing the jumbled papers and library aesthetic of your typical university professor. It also uses voice-overs and some effects that are nicely reminiscent of the meta-story effects in Stranger Than Fiction.
But what’s most enjoyable about it is its narrow focus. At no point does it pan out to view this family drama in the wider scope of the Israeli-Arab conflict, or look back at the tragedies of Israeli history. Instead it looks deeply and critically at the ivory tower, and the way that petty grudges and jealousy drive a lot of the goings-on in any university department. And it looks too at the relationship between fathers and sons, beyond Oedipus and into adult professional competition. But where it cleverly highlights (and footnotes) the academic politics, when it comes to family drama, the film loses some of its strength and sharpness. Uriel’s relationship with his son is a focal point of the last portion of the movie, but the scene in which they finally fight falls flat (perhaps due to the lackluster performance of Daniel Markovich, who plays Josh Shkolnik). And both Dr. Shkolniks are married to formidable women who get barely any screen time (the film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test).
Despite not quite being able to pull off the father-son drama it attempts, the film is extraordinary and entertaining. In the climax of the movie the audience watches as the elder Shkolnik takes apart a text, finding its references in other places, and looking up words and phrases in his library. It’s difficult to make rifling through books seem interesting, even exciting, but writer/director Joseph Cedar pulls it off with remarkable aplomb.
Sadly, Footnote doesn’t have a chance of pulling off a Best Foreign Film win—A Separation seems guaranteed a win with all the accolades it has pulled in from far and wide. I can only hope that Footnote will get the cheers it deserves when it comes out on March 9, and won’t be destined to be only a footnote.
Tonight, OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, is airing the second part in its “Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn” special. Oprah visits Crown Heights, and after last night’s episode where she toured a Chabad family’s home, tonight she sits down with a quartet of Hasidic women for an in-depth interview about sex, children, spirituality, and good wigs.
Over at Tablet Rachel Shukert has a great commentary on the episode that aired last night (though she didn’t mention my favorite moment: when Oprah noticeably stopped listening to her hostess because she was distracted by the hostess’s wig). But Shukert’s view is that in tonight’s episode, Oprah is able to get over herself enough to deliver a powerful and meaningful interview. And to a degree it’s true—tonight’s episode is much better than last night’s, and has quite a bit more substance to it. But what the episodes really reveal is how intoxicating Hasidic life and culture can be to an outsider, but also how ill-prepared it is for any deviations from the norm.
Oprah’s questions are understandably pitched in ways that won’t ruffle too many feathers. “Are women valued in [Hasidic] relationships?” she asked last night. I can’t imagine she expected the couple she was talking to say, “No, but we make excellent apologetics.” And tonight, after getting the lowdown on the mikvah, and Hasidic sex rules, she starts trying to push a bit more, albeit rather gently. She asks the women what happens if a woman doesn’t want to get married and have a family. The hostess has a (presumably now-mortified) niece who is 22 and somehow not looking to get married. The other women think this is odd, and one says, “I personally don’t even know people who don’t have that as their dream.”
The major bombshell happens when Oprah asks, “What happens when one of your children is different…and by different I mean GAY.” (She speaks in all caps, I’m not making that up.) The women are initially speechless, and eventually settle on repeating, “What you’re saying is very extreme.” They can go so far as saying that there’s a strong connection between a mother and her children, but there’s no discussion of how that would manifest itself if one of your kids is GAY.
And noticeably, Oprah doesn’t ask what happens when a kid grows up and doesn’t want to be Hasidic anymore. Perhaps Oprah, like a newbie at Ohr Somayach, can’t imagine ever wanting to leave such a magical world. It’s a conspicuous absence, though, when a much-hyped new memoir comes out on Tuesday, telling the story of a woman who chose to leave the Satmar community. Surely Oprah, who spends so much time in shock that none of these women know who she is, can understand how someone might want to live in a home with a TV and a regularly scheduled date with the Oprah Show.
Oprah’s chat with Hasidic women is compelling, it’s good TV, but while it does give a glimpse into Hasidic life for the viewers, it stops short of asking questions that would force the women to take even a short glimpse out of their world in Brooklyn.
Earlier this week, the AVI CHAI Foundation together with the Steinhardt Foundation posed a question to the Jewish community: What would make day schools more attractive to non-Orthodox parents? This has been a key topic in the Jewish world of late, as seen with articles like this one in Sh’ma from MyJewishLearning contributers Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick. As part of this dialogue, the following post from Amy Meltzer explores why she has made the choice to send her kids to Jewish day school.
A few years ago I began writing a Jewish parenting blog called Homeshuling. The blog title is a play on the word “homeschooling” Just as some families choose to educate their children at home because the local schools don’t meet their needs, we choose to celebrate Judaism (mostly) at home because the local synagogues don’t meet our family’s needs.
I’ve written about the many ways we’ve created a rich Jewish home life: baking challah for our Shabbat table each week, painting murals on the walls of our sukkah, preparing handmade Purim baskets and filling them with my great-grandmother’s famous hamantaschen, and even hosting a backyard Lag B’Omer campfire complete with bows, arrows and kosher marshmallows.
But the dirty little secret of our success as homeshulers is that although we don’t step foot in our local shul that often (and before you start hurling stones comments at me, yes, we are members, and yes, I’ve served on several committees to try to improve our offerings for young families), another Jewish institution is at the heart of our family’s Jewish life. We are a Jewish day school family.
Ours is hardly the typical profile for a day school family. First and foremost, my husband is an atheist who was raised Catholic. Second of all, we live across the street–literally a stone’s throw–from an excellent public elementary school. Third, as two teacher-parents, one of whom left the workforce for five years to be home with our young children, well, let’s just say we are the 99%. Paying tuition does not come easily to us.
And yet, the choice to send our daughters to the Lander-Grinspoon Academy was an easy one. If we weren’t going to make the synagogue the center of our Jewish life (and as an intermarried family with young children, that would have been a tough sell–the services are mostly in Hebrew, they’re long, and admittedly, I don’t like shul enough to make a convincing sales pitch week after week), then how would we and our children become part of a Jewish community?
Our Jewish day school is so much more than the place our kids go to school. It’s where we’ve found our Jewish community. It’s where we’ve met the families who sit at our Shabbat table and eat our challah, who’ve added their artwork to our sukkah mural, who exchange Purim baskets with us, and who’ve added wood to the fires at our Lag B’Omer picnics. We come together for simchas–when our children receive their first siddur and when they read Torah for the first time–and holiday celebrations–the annual Hanukkah play, the superb Purim shpeil. We celebrate each other’s life cycle events, and mobilize as an army of cooks, cleaners, babysitters, and nit-combers when one of us falls ill.
Jewish day school has also put us on Jewish time. When the school is closed for every single Yom Tov–holidays many of us would probably not observe (um, Shemini Atzeret is what…?)–we come together for our own versions of holiday celebrations: picnics at the park, leisurely play dates, and yes, even sometimes shul.
Many people think Jewish day school is only for Orthodox or very observant families. From my perspective, it’s precisely because my family is decidedly non-Orthodox that a Jewish day school is such a great fit. My level of faith and observance is simply not strong enough to create a Jewish life for my kids that feels organic and seamless. School does that hard job for me.
When Zoe wanders though the house singing Adon Olam and Od Yavo Shalom; when Ella writes her very first book in writing workshop about loving Passover; when my children casually switch to Hebrew at the dinner table; when my kids urge me to give tzedakah to every panhandler on Main Street: these are the moments when our day school tuition dollars (reduced by a generous financial aid packet) aren’t just painless; they are a pleasure.
I’m not suggesting that Jewish day school is right for every non-Orthodox-intermarried-shul-disdaining-middle-income-fan-of-public-schools family. Not every Jewish day school is as welcoming to non-traditional families as ours, and not every day school is as flat-out wonderful (check out our video for just a hint of why we love it so much). But I am certain that it’s been the right choice for us.
Amy Meltzer is an educator, author and mother of two. She blogs at Homeshuling, where she writes about raising Jewish children while spending very little time in synagogue. She is the author of two children’s books, A Mezuzah on the Door and The Shabbat Princess.
Today is Tu Bishvat, the birthday of the trees. There are many ways to celebrate—you can plant a tree if you live in a temperate climate, you can hold a Tu Bishvat seder, you can do some awesome Tu Bishvat crafts with your kids, and of course, you can eat some delicious Tu Bishvat foods (I recommend this amazing banana cake studded with dates, figs, nuts, raisins, and chocolate).
Looking for some Tu Bishvat reading? Try these articles on Theodore Herzl’s tree, kabbalists, mystics and Tu Bishvat, a lesson in abundance, eco-judaism, or Tu Bishvat and the Transformation of Eating.
Just want to sit back and veg out to a Tu Bishvat video? Todd, God, and Al Gore have got you covered:
Tuesday night is Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees. To celebrate it, our great friend and supporter Edgar Bronfman wrote about road-tripping with his brother Charles. Just the idea of the two of them on a let’s-discover-America campaign is brilliant and otherworldly, like an Easy Rider of Robin Hood-type do-gooders instead of druggies, but his essay makes some great points for American conservation — and for insisting that conservation is both (a) spiritual and (b) have some pretty strong roots in the Jewish religious tradition.
In all seriousness, it’s a great story with a great message. Check it out in the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog — and, while you’re there, check out my post for their blog as well, if you want to) :
When I was about to turn 21, and my brother Charles was 19, we took a road trip across the United States. As young Canadians, we were eager for an adventure through the American West. We experienced the stunning vistas of Utah, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the great redwoods of Yosemite National Park in California. It was a formative experience for me, and solidified my love of this country which I have called home for nearly my entire adult life.
It’s no coincidence that my love of America blossomed as I witnessed its natural wonders and vast open spaces. There is a deep beauty to be enjoyed in the magnificence of nature which leaves us humbled, and aware of how all life is interconnected. There is nothing more authentically spiritual for me than witnessing nature in its glory and power—when it is beautiful, and even when we are imperiled by it.