- Nathan Abrams, Professor of Film Studies, Bangor University
- Uri Cohen, Professor of Literature, Tel Aviv University
- Olga Gershenson, Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst
- Liora R. Halperin, Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies, University of Colorado Boulder
- Rachel Harris, Assistant Professor of Comparative and World Literature, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Gil Hochberg, Associate Professor of Comparative
- Hartley Lachter, Associate Professor of Religion Studies and Director, Berman Center for Jewish Studies, Lehigh University
- Lisa Lampert-Weissig, Professor of English Literature and Comparative Medieval Studies and Katzin Chair in Jewish Civilization, Literature Department, UC San Diego
- Jess Olson, Associate Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University
- Sasha Senderovich, Assistant Professor of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures and Jewish Studies, University of Colorado Boulder
In a previous questionnaire I recommended organizing a graduate seminar around the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998). Of course, I could simply rehash the answer I gave there for it is still relevant today. However, this would be far too easy. It would also be far too easy to suggest one alternative film here. It would be even easier to suggest a film that is explicitly Jewish in its plot and/or characters, whether The Jazz Singer (1927) or Schindler's List (1993). Instead, I want to argue for a new approach to Jewish Film Studies—one that makes scholars and students work harder. Rather than pick yet another obviously Jewish film, why not select one in which the Jewishness is not explicit but in which it inheres beneath the surface of the text? Maybe such a film has a Jewish director or screenwriter or creative personnel or identifiably Jewish actors and actresses, which make a Jewish reading possible. Maybe none of these exist but it is still possible to read the film in a Jewish fashion. Let us reach back into Jewish history and use the tools of playfulness, intertextuality, inter-referentiality, and midrash to elicit a Jewish meaning, which may strike us as apparent in the first place. I have been applying such an approach productively to the films of Stanley Kubrick and each of his films, particularly those from Paths of Glory (1957) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999). My particular concern at the moment is his Lolita (1962), which, in its adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, and casting of Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers, tackles such issues as the Holocaust, postwar American anti-Semitism, the Jewish American Mother, and Hollywood's history of stereotyping. Perhaps, then, my answer to the question is: Kubrick's Lolita.
A Serious Man
The best reply I can think of is trite: The Coen brothers, and forced to choose—A Serious Man (2009). The film offers a bleak and compassionate examination of Jewish existence and the protagonist is an academic. Professor Larry Gupman is on the cusp of tenure, when a Job-like sequence of events drives him to moral turpitude. He has a lot of tsures, and is simultaneously bribed and extorted by his family and surroundings, Jews and Goyim alike. One underlying sense appears when the Japanese father of a failed student seeking to bribe him sternly pleads: Please, accept the mystery (and the money).
The questions in the film are many as are the layers of suffering, reference, and allegory. Seeking answers, Gupnik, trying to be a serious man, turns to the rabbis in order of seniority. He meets a clueless junior rabbi (Wollowitz of The Big Bang Theory) in May or June 1967—the calendar on the wall shows both. The 1960s for the Jews it seems to say, are six days, when the old kind of Judaism died, moved from faith to platitudes. He then meets the senior rabbi, who replies to the search for reasons kindheartedly: "Well, we can't know everything"—and Gupnik retorts: "It sounds like you don't know anything". When finally the elderly rabbi appears, he is a vision out of Kafka, his wisdom summed in the adage: "be a good boy."
The film, like Jewish Studies, offers more questions than answers. Not a morality play, it is a play, declaredly one just like the meises of old. The film ends with tenure being granted (less joy than expected) as the hesitant Gupnik changes the grade, effectively accepting the bribe. As the pencil traces the new grade, a very disturbing call arrives from the doctor, a tornado approaches, and the film ends facing God's wrath from behind the adolescent's head, sound merging with his earphone: "Better find somebody to love." Well, as the rabbi says—"can't hurt, but won't save you from what's coming."
Film is a time machine—a window into a different world. This is why I want to talk here about the film that opens windows into a whole lot of worlds— The Dybbuk (1937). It tells a tragic love-cum-exorcism story, complete with beautiful lovers, wise tzaddiks, kabbalistic magic, and mysterious rituals. With its haunting score and folkloristic choreography, The Dybbuk is a window into the Yiddish cinema, with its own genres, styles, and stars.
Another window opens to its literary source, a famous play by S. An-ski, based on his ethnographic expedition to the Pale of Settlement. Already then, in 1911–14, he noted a sense of culture being lost— and impetus to preserve it. This is our chance to talk about Jewish secularization and revolutionary movement (An-ski's trajectory)—with study and activism gradually supplanting the living, breathing tradition.
And then there are the iconic productions of the play—most notably by Habima, a Moscow theater of Hebrew language enthusiasts that would ultimately run away from Stalin's Russia and become a national Israeli institution, with tethers to Zionist ideology and history.
Another window is to the historical moment of the filmmaking. The Dybbuk was made on the brink of destruction of eastern European Jewry, in Yiddish, which was then still a language spoken by millions. (An-ski wrote in Russian; Habima staged in Hebrew). The Dybbuk gives us a chance to consider transnational Jewish culture—shot in Poland by international talent, the film was circulated anywhere Yiddish was spoken. What happened to the crew and the actors after the war? We can talk about death, survival, emigration, and triumphs and failures that come with it.
I can go on and on about this film and the ways to talk about it: gender relations, Hasidism, shtetl life, ritual, and practice. . . . One thing is inescapable: watching the film after the Holocaust, its meaning grows sinister—the entire culture captured on film is a Dybbuk haunting us.
A Film Unfinished
What is historical truth and how can documentary sources deceive us? For years after World War II, museums, chronicling the horrors of the Holocaust, displayed a series of documentary images from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. These stills, depicting Jewish suffering, seemed the truest visual evidence of Nazi horrors and the wartime Jewish experience. But, A Film Unfinished shows, these images were taken from a Nazi propaganda film, Das Ghetto, intended to harness a very different "truth"—Jewish cruelty, depravity, and lack of mutual concern—by meticulously staging scenes, since overlooked, of supposed Jewish excess and wealthier residents ignoring their dying brethren. Yael Hersonski, building on research undertaken at the Yad Vashem Film Archive and drawing on a combination of diaries, letters, and German archival documents, as well as two late-discovered reels of outtakes, pieces together both the mechanisms of deceit and the historical experience of both Jews and Nazis who experienced the process of filmmaking. Some of those sources had a stunning lineage of their own: they had been hidden in a set of milk canisters dubbed the Oneg Shabbos Archive, a desperate and prescient attempt at documentation by those who knew they would not survive the war. A Film Unfinished is a film about the Holocaust, the Nazi regime, and the manipulation of the Warsaw Ghetto as a symbol. But I find that it is also a stunning and pedagogically rich introduction to the craft and challenges of writing Jewish history: the process of sifting through multiple types of documentation from a variety of sources and the work of understanding the ideologically laden and sometimes intentionally deceptive ways in which some of those sources were constructed in the first place.
Crossing Delancey offers a view into the changing world of modern Jewry, providing a powerful heroine who, along with her friends, highlights both the incredible opportunities available to contemporary women and the price that such freedom affords. Her aging grandmother remains linked to a Jewish traditional world of the New York Lower East Side, even as waves of new immigration have displaced the Jewish dominance of the area. Her parents have fled to Florida, where they live in an idyllic retirement world, suggesting the affluence of middle-class suburban expansion that started to occur for Jews during the 1950s, while Isabelle Grossman is making her own contemporary life in a world where her close childhood friends are still Jewish but her work colleagues orbit in other worlds, offering her a glimpse into societies that generations of earlier Jews from her social class would never have seen or imagined.
Made in 1988, the film's questions remain relevant for young Jewish women today. What is the balance between a traditional Jewish domestic family life and our work lives; can women raise Jewish children alone; to what extent can Jewish women own their sexuality, and is the pickle merchant really what he seems? In a world of JDate, speed dating, surrogacy, Birthright, and alternative prayer services some questions remain the same: can a Jewish woman have it all?
A Serious Man
The film captures the drama of "American Jews becoming white," and it does so with just the right amount of nostalgia and the kind of self-deprecating humor that Jews (pardon the essentialism) appreciate so much. The Coens manage to bring back to life the haunting memory of the shtetls and Yiddish, which for some American Jews is of course still a very much living reality; and to do so with cynicism, but also with love and true affection. The film lends itself perfectly to class discussions about modernity and the promise of the "new world" in relation to modern Jewish history. Though humorous, the film serves as a great platform through which to discuss some very serious tensions between the history of Jews as Other and the present Judeo-Christian reality created as a master narrative in the United States after World War II. It also touches upon tensions between the idea of a Jewish messianic time and the reality of the present (Christian?) world we inhabit as American modernized citizens.
While several critics have accused the Coen brothers of producing a self- loathing film full of anti-Semitic caricatured representations of Jews, I would argue on the contrary that the film demonstrates just the right amount of self-criticism, which is necessary to assure the humanist impact of what Hannah Arendt calls "the Jew as Pariah."
So many high quality films relevant to the field of Jewish Studies have been produced that it's hard to pick just one. However, I have also noticed that excellent films are not always the most effective teaching tools. Students often need more background in order to be able to appreciate a particularly ambitious and nuanced film dealing with a subject of relevance to Jewish Studies. This is probably why one of the films that I have had the most success with for the purposes of teaching undergraduates is by no means my favorite. But, when used carefully, I have found Giddi Dar's Ushpizin to be a helpful teaching tool for survey courses on Judaism.
Set in a religious Jerusalem neighborhood, this at-times humorous film follows a series of unlikely events that happen to a married couple, Moshe and Mali, over the holiday of Sukkot as they attempt to reconcile their newly adopted religious identity as Bratslav Hasidim with their struggle to conceive a child. The lighthearted but earnest plot line of the film provides countless points of reference for discussing traditional Jewish religious practice. The film also provides many, albeit filtered, allusions to the tensions between secular and religious Jews in Israel.
The obvious problem with using a film like this is that it depicts one particular kind of Judaism, set in a specific time and place, as the authentic model. The vast diversity of Jewish life across time and space is not visible in this film. But, these limitations are in fact the reason why the film can work so well as a teaching tool. It gives the students a place to start. Jonathan Z. Smith argues that effective college teaching often entails what he calls "the necessary lie," or "disciplinary lying," where students are given a stable starting point for study, which is subsequently destabilized. Ushpizin works well as an initial frame of reference, which can then be problematized from a variety of directions. The students are able to recognize how much they have learned by comparing their first impressions of the film with their more informed perspective at the end of the semester.
Le Grand Rôle
The Yiddish reading of Shylock's "Hath Not a Jew Eyes?" speech is among the most memorable scenes in Le Grand Rôle (2004). The performance lands actor Maurice (Stéphane Freiss) the role of a lifetime. When the role is then given to a Hollywood star, Maurice takes on another even greater part, hiding his loss from his wife, Perla (Bérénice Bejo), who is dying of cancer. Le Grand Rôle is a tearjerker, but also an exploration of Jewish-Christian relations in Europe. Maurice's audition follows a speech by an elderly Holocaust survivor (Clément Harari). In the spirit of "all the world's a stage," the old man asserts that everyone plays roles, even that of survivor. And, perhaps, he suggests, survivors can write Shylock better than Shakespeare.
I teach early English literature and I am eager to encourage students to think not only about how Jews have been represented in works like Merchant, but how Jews have responded and continue to respond to this tradition. Some of the most engaging new research on medieval and early modern Jewish-Christian relations addresses interaction between cultures, studying not just "the Jew that Shakespeare drew," but how Jews played a role in shaping early European cultures. Maurice can play his "great role" because he is supported by a loyal group of friends, who, like him, navigate life in Paris as Jews. The film opens in a restaurant, where a powerful director pokes fun at Maurice's Jewish identity, provoking a spirited response from Perla. The film closes with a widowed Maurice on his way to another restaurant meal, this time buoyed by his Jewish friends. He stares at a poster for the film he almost starred in, remarking that he has dubbed Shylock's Yiddish lines instead. Jewish life in France seems more precarious now than when Le Grand Rôle premiered a decade ago; the question of the survival of Jewish voices in Europe is more relevant than ever.
Secrets of a Soul
Many films relate directly to my work in Jewish Studies, but I would like to point to one a bit less obvious: G. W. Pabst's 1926 film Secrets of a Soul (Geheimnesse einer Seele), the first serious cinematic representation of the psychoanalytic process. From the fertile cultural scene of Weimar Germany, psychoanalysis, like film, burst into the public consciousness, and captivated arbiters of popular culture around the world. One of these, Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, even approached Sigmund Freud himself, offering him $100,000 to consult on a psychoanalytically themed film. Freud turned down the offer ("We do not want to give our consent to anything insipid"), but two in his "inner circle," Karl Abraham and Hans Sachs, proved more willing, and with screenwriter Hans Neumann they helped create a minor masterpiece. 
The film opens on a domestic scene, in which a middle-aged professor, Martin Fellman (Werner Krauss, of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame) is startled by a scream and accidentally cuts his wife. That evening, he has a frightful dream, portrayed in a fantastic surrealist cinematic sequence, the brainchild of Hungarian Jewish artist Ernö Metzner. After the dream, Fellman develops an acute neurosis: he cannot touch knives and is irrationally afraid of returning home to his wife. He is discovered in his sickened state by a kindly stranger, who turns out to be none other than Dr. Orth, an expert in a "new method for treatment of such illness," psychoanalysis. "There is no reason to despair!" the doctor declares. For the rest of the film, we follow, in abridged form, the ups and downs of 1920s therapeutic process, portrayed once again in Metzner's brilliant surrealism, until at last Dr. Orth effects his cure through a triumphant interpretation of Fellman's first, troubling dream.
Like psychoanalysis, Secrets of a Soul is not "Jewish." But also like psychoanalysis, it has an organic connection to the particular world of pre-World War II central Europe, one impacted so deeply by the varied expressions of cultural and intellectual contributions of its Jewish community. To me this makes the film, in addition to its beauty, a powerful spotlight on an important moment in Jewish German cultural history.
(1) Eli Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (2004), 145–146. I am indebted to Professor Zaretsky for the factual content (including quotations) of this paragraph.
Seekers of Happiness
Towards the end of Seekers of Happiness, which is set in Birobidzhan—a territory designated for Jewish colonization in the Soviet Far East—Natan, a collective farm chairman, detects a footprint of a shoe he proclaims to be "foreign." On the trail to capture a man accused of beating another Jewish settler, Natan inadvertently hints at the metacontext of the film. Namely, the film aims to showcase a family of Jewish migrants, who had left the shtetl for Palestine but then moved to the Soviet Union. The film's main goal is to sniff out a "foreign" element resistant to the ideology that settling Jews on the land would help cure the degenerate economic condition typical of the newly defunct Pale of Settlement.
This film about Birobidzhan, though once dismissed as mere propaganda, can, in fact, teach us a lot. How to detect the codes of an ideological work of art, for example, is itself an important interpretative skill. Like many Socialist Realist works, Seekers of Happiness skillfully performs its ideology through a rather conventional plot: Natan is in love with Basya, who is married to Pinya Kopman, the film's "foreign" villain who is resistant to Soviet innovation. Natan is frequently depicted in proximity to a portrait of Stalin—and so, ridding Basya of Pinya allows for Stalin to enter the familial structure by proxy.
But the film is, at the same time, a terrific exhibit of how an intended ideological message shows its cracks when odd details of the work are examined. For example, on the train to Birobidzhan, Pinya and his family meet and are greeted by a strange man playing "Israel's Lament on the Banks of the Amur River." The name of the song evokes the words of Psalm 137, thus presenting the river demarcating one of the borders of the Birobidzhan region as a replacement for "the rivers of Babylon." Birobidzhan here is the newest exilic topos in a long chain of Jewish displacement—rather than the "Red Zion" it was supposed to be.
Readings such as this one ask us to reconcile the film's intended ideology with details that chip away at the same message from the inside in order to produce a complex cultural artifact of the Soviet Jewish experience.