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The Greatest Jewish Movie Ever Made - Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5773 (September 17, 2012)

My friends, this morning I am going to a place of amusement and comfort for many of you to make a very serious – deadly serious – point about who we are and how we can survive here in the dark diaspora of the 21st century.

And it is a dark diaspora. We Jews never thought – never experienced in our long and tortured history and never for a moment thought that there would be a jurisdiction like modern America, that would dispense with traditional anti-Semitism. Oh yes, I know, there are still anti-Semites in the United States – of course.

But this is not a serious challenge to our achievement here. This is an annoyance, a pimple, a brush fire, a basic and simple tactical challenge. Otherwise, we Jews are being hugged to death on these shores. Hugged and loved to death.

And so I call it, advisedly, a dark diaspora.

And my point of departure this morning is a place of amusement and entertainment – but where a very serious psychological reality can be portrayed, understood and absorbed.

I want to talk this morning about movies. And I want to suggest to you my nominee for the greatest Jewish movie ever made.

Not the greatest movie ever made by Jews, mind you. That might be Sergei M. Eisenstein’s 1925 Russian masterpiece Battleship Potemkin, whose famous scenes have been ripped off so many times you would swear you have already seen it were you to watch it for the first time.

And not necessarily the greatest movie ABOUT somebody who was or is a Jew . . . which I suppose would be The Ten Commandments, hands down. Not even necessarily the greatest movie in which Jews or Judaism is portrayed, which would include such classics as Hester Street, or Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, or Streisand’s Funny Girl, The Way We Were, or Yentl; Norman Jewison’s excellent adaptation of the compromised Fiddler on the Roof, or one of my all-time favorites, Crossing Delancy starring Amy Irving.

And I do not necessarily mean to focus on movies about Jewish problems, like Gregory Peck’s depiction of post-War social anti-Semitism which nevertheless NEVER MENTIONS A WORD about the Holocaust in Elia Kazan’s 1947 classic, Gentlemen’s Agreement.

Look – from as early as 1918, when Lazar Meir moved to California and changed his name to Louis B. Mayer, the Jewish contribution to cinema has been broad and deep, with Jewish directors, writers, producers, and actors helping to invent the nascent art form and create some of its most memorable milestones.

Some stories of robots or ghosts or spies had as much of a Jewish heart as movies focused on more solemn, obvious subject matters. Also, while many of my possible selections come from Hollywood, others don’t. From neo-realist Italy to postmodern Israel, I did my best to look at filmmaking across nations and across time. In making my choice, I hope to teach and convince you of my priority.

There are so many worthy possibilities and others that are popular but clearly unworthy.

One such is Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List from 1993. It deserves mention for two reasons, one which I will recount later. But making this movie inspired Spielberg to invest serious resources into an oral history project at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem that is truly of historic significance. So the movie, which brought the truth of The Shoah to millions but was otherwise a gross exercise in misinformation and distortion, was important and – we might say “worth it.” Far finer Holocaust films were the 1942 classic that . . . yes . . . I would classify as a Holocaust film, Casablanca; Roman Polanski’s The Pianist from 2002, Inglorious Basterds from 2009, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog from 1955, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity from 1969, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini’s from 1970, a great Italian achievement; Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah; and the best Holocaust movie yet made, The Reader, directed in 2008 by Stephen Daldry and starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

Impressive for other reasons than its dopey plot and garish look was 1954’s White Christmas. The title song was first introduced in a different film, the charming 1942 musical Holiday Inn. But it is this 1954 remake that has stuck around. It’s a tinsel-swathed vision of Christmas at the affluent height of the Eisenhower era, with Bing Crosby presiding beneficently over the proceedings in a retina-scalding bright red Santa suit. The centerpiece, of course, is a Russian-Jewish immigrant cantor’s son hymn to the sacred-secular All-American festival; Irving Berlin’s timeless title song.

Speaking of Berlin, there is his greatest movie score, set for director Mark Sandrich and for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, produced in Depression-heavy 1935 and giving everyone an escapist visit to . . . well, heaven, dancing cheek to cheek.

Other possibilities would have to include 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer and the cult classic from 1987, Dirty Dancing – whose clear Catskill-located Jewish girl wanders out-of-bounds theme completely escaped our UJC Confirmation students whom I have asked about it. 1983’s The Big Chill with the obsessive Jewish stereotype Jeff Goldblum deserves some honorable mention, of course, as does Spielberg’s 1983 animated masterpiece An American Tail.

There was Richard Benjamin’s 1982 little gem called My Favorite Year, starring Peter O’Toole and the forgotten Mark Linn-Baker about the early days of television. Linn-Baker had this wonderful line: “Jews know two things: suffering and where to find great Chinese food.” Of course I could dwell on some wicked classics from The Marx Brothers or Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis, like Duck Soup, or A Night at the Opera, or The Bellboy, Brooks’ The Producers or Young Frankenstein – his most disciplined achievement; or Allen’s Sleeper, Annie Hall, Bananas, Manhattan, Zelig, and at this point perhaps one or two others.

Speaking of sleepers . . . there was Joel Coen’s 1991 film noire Barton Fink and Meryl Streep’s stunning performance in Sophie’s Choice; and Bob Fosse’s 1978 masterpiece Cabaret. And any list of Jewish movies has to include some reference to Edward Goldenberg (his real last name) Robinson, so I’ll throw in Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity, where Robinson actually plays a good guy. Another Honorable Mention must of course go to the iconic 1960 achievement of Otto Preminger, based upon the Leon Uris novel depicting the birth of Israel as America’s 51st state, Exodus.

That was not at all as offensive as was the grafting of the Holocaust as background static for the kitsch-bliss of Robert Wise’s 1965 The Sound of Music. Not offensive at all (even though the movie culminates in a Christ-meeting scene) and close to the top would have to be William Wyler’s 1959 blockbuster Ben Hur, with its use of an Israeli actress for the first time in a major motion picture, and its themes of assimilation, persecution, peoplehood, and pride – as relevant today as they were back when spats were settled with violent horse races.

We are getting closer still to the best, I think, when we recall the great Ninochka from the greatest year for Hollywood ever, 1939, directed by Ernest Lubitsch and written by Billy Wilder – where three Russians are seen as bumbling character actors from the Yiddish stage who are duped, as the leftist Jews realized they were by the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. Lubitsch’s great anti-Nazi 1942 spoof, To Be or Not To Be, starring Jack Benny, would have to be up there too. Another close contender would be Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men, about a jury of unnamed characters all, one of whom (George Voskoviec, Juror No. 11) was actually a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia and whose speech perfectly articulates the power of a real system of justice and decency.

Ethan and Joel Coen’s great and recent movie A Serious Man with its prelude in Yiddish and the funniest Bar Mitzvah scene ever committed to film is close to a runner up. It is an essay on Jewish religiosity and why Judaism makes no claim to overcome the randomness and illogic of reality.

My runner-up? It has to be Billy Wilder’s great achievement. Wilder lost his entire family in Auschwitz and himself escaped Hitler’s Europe just in time. He was never really accepted in Hollywood. Producers and directors didn’t trust him and he finally mounted a candid and brutal movie about the one industry we Jews created with out own hands: Hollywood. The movie is Sunset Boulevard. Indeed, if there’s any message in Sunset Boulevard it’s that life is tough, aspirations are doomed, people are mean, and there’s absolutely no reason not to go through the whole ordeal laughing every step of the way. Could there be a more perfect summary of Jewish history?

But the greatest . . . the best . . . the most instructive . . . the most [in my humble opinion] surprisingly and deeply Jewish achievement in motion picture history is the Stephen Spielberg fantasy which he insisted made it emotionally (not financially) – emotionally possible for him to produce Schindler’s List.

The movie, from 1982, is E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial – and bear with me as I explain and defend my selection.

E.T. was and is a great motion picture.

It’s an action-adventure, a love story, a buddy movie, a family drama, and a screwball farce, complete with madcap cross-dressing scene. It’s the quintessential ’80s popcorn movie, but it takes in the moods, and the motifs, of other cinematic golden ages. There’s a hint of 1970s paranoid political thrillers—those sinister government agents hunting down the extra-terrestrial, with their roaring off-road-vehicles and flashlights and surveillance equipment. There is midcentury Hollywood Americana, Frank Capra’s idyllic middle-American small towns now relocated to suburban California, where kids tool around subdivisions on BMX bikes.

E.T. holds echoes of Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz, and Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a movie that includes some of most shameless product placement you’ll ever see – like E.T. gobbling up Reese’s Pieces – yet it feels and is as timeless and transcendent as a classic German fairytale.

Many critics have detected religious overtones in E.T.—Christian religious overtones. The character of E.T. has been likened to Jesus, citing his third act death-and-rebirth, and few could look at the original E.T. movie poster and miss the allusion to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.”

But squint closer and the film’s Jewishness comes into focus. Spielberg himself called E.T. “a minority story.” It makes the same point but so much better than the Mary Shelley masterpiece novel, Frankenstein, which was all about being different, being rejected, being odd, being an alien.

The saga of the spaceman marooned on planet Earth follows the classic, folkloric outline of the foundling myth.

But there is another, archetypally Jewish story here, a minority story, indeed it is an immigrant’s tale.

E.T., you see, is the ultimate greenhorn – an anxious, bewildered creature, adrift in a strange land. Like generations of newcomers before him, E.T. learns to speak a few halting, oddly accented English words, including the phrase that migrated from Melissa Mathison’s script straight into pop-culture lore. My grandparents sang Yiddish songs and desperately sought out landsmenschaften, locals from their old home community. E.T.simply said “E.T. phone home!”

But there is more here than Jewish exilic longing. There is Jewish existential dread. In the opening sequence, E.T. is collecting botanical samples in a redwood grove when Jeeps lurch into view and black-silhouetted agents sweep through the forest. For the rest of the movie, E.T. is a refugee, hiding out in a bedroom closet, stalked by a ruthless enemy.

The film’s most harrowing scenes find the alien stretched on a slab by military scientists. All that stands between E.T. and doom is Elliott, the brave little boy who spirits the creature to safety in his bicycle’s handlebar basket.

Nearly 30 years after E.T. arrived in theaters, what impresses is how small the movie feels. The heart of the film is an intimate little family drama, three kids and recently divorced mother, muddling through their middle-class lives.

E.T. begins and ends with a spaceship, but it is no Star Wars. It is messily, gloriously earth-centered and grounded. Spielberg is a technically masterful filmmaker, and in E.T. he’s a virtuoso. His is pure movie magic. Spielberg is shamelessly sentimental, as his critics have often pointed out, but in E.T. he is sentimental in the right proportions—and about the right things: love, friendship, tolerance, the siren-call of home and family, the difficult passage from innocence to experience. He’s wise enough to know that, occasionally, unguarded enchantment is what’s required—the strains of a full symphony orchestra swelling to a crescendo as a boy peddles his bicycle up, up, right off the ground, toward an improbably bright and gigantic full moon. It’s a very Jewish lesson, the intersection of alienation and hope, which Spielberg has taught us again and again, never more powerfully than in E.T.

Alienation and hope.

Alienation is our state, our role, our uniform, our essence here in America. If we abandon alienation, we abandon Jewish identity and whiff . . . the candle of 4000 years is extinguished.

Hope is our essence. It gives intensity and meaning to our humor, to our religion, to our resolve in the face of unspeakable abuse, torture, mass murder and hatred; if alienation is what we are and must be, hope is what we believe if we believe anything at all. The Israeli national anthem is HaTikvah, The Hope. Our God – yes, our God is Hope.

E.T. is all about alienation and hope and so are we.

When the Torah’s Rebecca, our Mother Rivka, the most brilliant of our biblical ancestors, is bidden farewell by her brother Lavan – soon to be identified as a confirmed and classic enemy of the Jewish people – she prepares to leave with Eliezer, the servant of Father Abraham. The Torah says that “they” blessed her upon her departure – but it is unclear who “they” is.

Is it Lavan and his sons; or is it a blessing of welcome from Eliezer and his retinue?

It is not clear. I think it is Eliezer, who knows the comfort and security Rebecca is leaving, and the eternal alienation to which she is beckoned and to which she and the generations who will follow her – you and I here today – will forever know. “Our sister,” they say – and I am paraphrasing Genesis 24:60 – “have lots of children and always be a paragon of virtue and wisdom. And may your children and your grandchildren and their children inherit the gate – score triumph after victory after triumph after victory – inherit the gate of those who will – be thou assured and know – hate and despise you, and try to end your continuity. Go forth in abject hope; and be an alien forever.”

That is our charge and our mission and our essence and our mantle. We are Israel, Rebecca’s child. We want to go home: home to the eternal and mythic and now restored Land of Israel, home to Jerusalem, home to the Temple, home to the Aron Kodesh, home to the Garden. We are Israel. We are destined to be alienated. Destined. It is our destiny. We will never be comfortable. We will never die. And we will never surrender. We are not home; but we will always have hope. Always. That is what and that is who we are.

L’shana tova tikateivu u’t’chamteinu!

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