How Jewish Rit­ual Has Evolved in Cin­ema

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By David Zvi Kal­man

Ihad un­con­sciously trained my­self, as an ob­ser­vant Jew liv­ing among other ob­ser­vant Jews, to watch all tele­vi­sion at a re­move. McDon­ald’s ads didn’t af­fect me; the sand­wiches on screen barely reg­is­tered as food. I wore a yarmulke, but had no ex­pec­ta­tion that any­one on screen would do the same. I iden­ti­fied with char­ac­ters and plot­lines, but only to a point. My pri­mary self, my Jewish self, was left un­rep­re­sented. It was like look­ing into a mir­ror and see­ing only my cheeks re­flected back.

Yes, I knew all about Jews in Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion and cin­ema. Hol­ly­wood’s ori­gin story, the long-lost de­pic­tions of ghet­tos and golems in film’s first si­lent decades, pro-Semitic and anti-Semitic por­tray­als, down through the im­ages of whole­some Jewish fam­i­lies, of the Holo­caust, of sur­vivors, of sin­gle Jews, as­sim­i­lated Jews, the count­less oblig­a­tory eth­nic episodes of long-for­got­ten se­ries. Yes, but: My life was a se­ries, not a Very Spe­cial Hanukkah Episode; watch­ing oth­ers’ watch­ing me (or my side-curled, black-hat­ted coun­ter­parts) rarely made an im­pact.

Ev­ery once in a while, though, there would be break­through mo­ments when the Amer­i­can en­ter­tain­ment ma­chine reached out of a sec­u­lar safe space and into tra­di­tion. It was only in these fleet­ing mo­ments that I felt televi-

sion speak­ing to me, as though I were watch­ing base­ball on it and a home­run flew off the screen and into my lap.

My first ex­pe­ri­ence like this was an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” in the Passover Seder that con­cluded the episode. It wasn’t the Seder it­self that broke through, taste­ful though it was; it was the fi­nal beat of the fi­nal scene, when Jeremy Good­win (played by Joshua Malina) stands up, cup in hand, and sings the spe­cial Passover Kid­dush tune with the flu­ency of a day school at­tendee.

Bet­ter still: Malina doesn’t quite say the bless­ing; that would in­volve tak­ing God’s name in vain. In­stead, he does what all day school stu­dents are taught to do: He sub­tly al­ters the names of God (Adonai Elo­heinu) with sim­i­lar­sound­ing fake words (Adoshem Elokeinu). It’s a ver­i­ta­ble dog whis­tle: This is not real, only a TV show. The fourth wall had been bro­ken and al­most no­body no­ticed. For the first time, I found my­self in Amer­i­can TV. The mo­ment stuck; I wanted to find my­self again. This is how I be­gan look­ing for mo­ments of Jewish rit­ual in Amer­ica’s vast sea of TV and cin­ema. I have so far lo­cated al­most 100.

Over the past cen­tury, Amer­i­can en­ter­tain­ment has fea­tured snip­pets of al­most ev­ery piece of Jewish liturgy. There have been wed­ding pro­ceed­ings, di­vorce pro­ceed­ings, Kid­dushes, Kad­dishes, Yizkors, Sed­ers; bless­ings on Shab­bat can­dle bless­ings, bless­ings on Hanukkah can­dles, bless­ings on the To­rah, bless­ings for the mikveh, bless­ings on bread; brises, bar mitz­vahs, buri­als, prayers for the sick, To­rah read­ings, and at least one priestly bless­ing. In ad­di­tion, there have been dozens of snip­pets of prayer it­self: some­times sung, some­times chanted.

The con­stant cin­e­matic in­ter­est in im­port­ing the for­eign to Amer­i­can au­di­ences stands at odds with the abil­ity of the film­mak­ers to un­der­stand what they are im­port­ing. A di­rec­tor isn’t go­ing to learn Rus­sian just be­cause a char­ac­ter is speak­ing the lan­guage; there must be some faith, in both the ac­tors and the trans­la­tors, that the right words are be­ing said. Some­times this fails spec­tac­u­larly, as in a 2015 episode of “Homeland” that fea­tured Ara­bic graf­fiti call­ing “Homeland” a racist show. But ma­li­cious in­tent is not nec­es­sary for un­in­tended el­e­ments to en­ter the scene; trans­la­tion does this on its own. This means, on a prac­ti­cal level, that a bilin­gual viewer will al­ways get more than the di­rec­tor in­tended. This is es­pe­cially true when the im­port is not just words, but also rit­u­als. Jewish rit­ual has been filmed for more than 100 years. The first rit­ual to be recorded was prob­a­bly the Passover Seder, in the 1914 film “A Passover Mir­a­cle.” While the film it­self is lost (as are 75% of si­lent films), the nov­elty of the con­cept is clear from a con­tem­po­rary trade jour­nal, which hails it as an “im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the films which de­pict racial cus­toms.” The jour­nal fur­ther notes that pro­duc­tion be­gan only af­ter the screen­writer con­sulted a Jewish ed­u­ca­tional bureau to find out “whether the Jewish el­e­ment would ob­ject to the por­trayal of one of their sa­cred feasts upon the screen.” The idea was warmly wel­comed by the bureau, which im­me­di­ately saw the ben­e­fit of ex­pos­ing Amer­i­can au­di­ences to Jewish rites. The bureau be­gan con­sult­ing on the film. A Jewish ac­tor (an im­mi­grant from the Ot­toman Em­pire) was hired to en­sure fi­delity. Ti­tle cards were writ­ten in both English and Yid­dish. In a let­ter to the stu­dio, the bureau warns the pro­duc­ers that they may not un­der­stand ev­ery­thing

Prob­a­bly the first Jewish rit­ual to be recorded on film was the Passover Seder in the 1914 film ‘A Passover Mir­a­cle.’

be­ing filmed. “Here and there in a sce­nario, there may be scenes which to you would seem in­de­pen­dent of any re­li­gious el­e­ment, which, how­ever, might re­quire a bet­ter knowl­edge of Jewish mass psy­chol­ogy than you prob­a­bly have at your dis­posal in the stu­dio.” The sin­gle re­main­ing pho­to­graph from the film at­tests to this care for de­tail: On the wall be­hind the lead ac­tors hangs a por­trait of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spek­tor, a re­cently de­ceased Lithua­nian rabbi of in­ter­na­tional renown (Yeshiva Univer­sity’s rab­binic school is named af­ter him). The pro­duc­ers al­most cer­tainly did not know who this was; his pres­ence at­tests to their will­ing­ness to cede some creative con­trol. While “A Passover Mir­a­cle” set aprec­nar edent for re­li­gious con­sul­ta­tion, its ethno­graphic pur­pose is some­what atyp­i­cal: Most of the time, Jewish rit­ual ends up on the screen sim­ply as an im­pri­matur of au­then­tic­ity, as a bit of eth­nic fla­vor­ing. This means, among other things, that the rit­ual is of­ten the last thing one sees be­fore a cut­away or a fade to black; you can’t re­ally give a re­sponse to a rit­ual that the au­di­ence doesn’t un­der­stand. A clas­sic ex­am­ple of this struc­ture is the mov­ing Kol Nidre se­quence in the cli­mac­tic fi­nal scene of the 1927 ver­sion of “The Jazz Singer.” The mo­ment proved pow­er­ful enough to re­peat in the film’s three re­makes. Other TV shows and movies, from “North­ern Ex­po­sure” to “Rocky III,” have fol­lowed the “fade-to­black” pat­tern.

With a few no­table ex­cep­tions — in­clud­ing the haunt­ing Kid­dush by Holo­caust sur­vivor Emil Katz, which opens “Schindler’s List,” the var­i­ous rit­u­als that take place aboard a 23rd­cen­tury space sta­tion in “Baby­lon 5,” and the rous­ing singing of Is­raeli sol­diers in the 1966 film “Cast a Gi­ant Shadow” — Amer­i­can screens typ­i­cally dis­play Jewish rit­ual be­cause Amer­i­can films are about Amer­i­can lives. The var­i­ous ways in which rit­ual en­ters the screen cor­re­spond to the var­i­ous ways in which Jewish tra­di­tion en­ters the lives of Amer­i­cans: through Jewish friends, Jewish neigh­bors, Jewish co-work­ers or Jewish fam­ily. Also like the lives of most Amer­i­cans, Jewish rit­ual is some­thing one vis­its and then quickly departs; TV shows will have their “Jewish episode” and then move on. “Board­walk Em­pire” has a syn­a­gogue scene; there are Hanukkah bless­ings in episodes of “Frank’s Place,” “WIOU” and “ER”; there are el­e­ments of the Seder in “Fam­ily Guy.” Even in these brief episodes, the qual­ity of the per­for­mance is usu­ally quite high. Most im­pres­sive of all is Gene Wilder’s ex­tremely ac­cu­rate de­pic­tion of stan­dard but ob­scure prayer: the Psalm of the Day for Thurs­day. To my knowl­edge, this is also the only Hol­ly­wood de­pic­tion of the con­stant sing-song mum­bling that is so com­mon in Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue.

Still, there is of­ten lit­tle cre­ativ­ity put into the use of rit­u­als; they are sup­posed to speak for them­selves through their for­eign­ness. A few shows have at­tempted to in­te­grate rit­u­als more deeply into the plot. Some­times this is done clum­sily: An episode of se­ries “Di­ag­no­sis: Mur­der,” which ran from 1993-2001,

in­cludes a wed­ding scene in which the glass stomped on by the groom turns out to con­tain a bomb. A more elab­o­rate (and fun­nier) scene ap­pears in the film “A Se­ri­ous Man” where the pro­tag­o­nist’s son is called up to the To­rah for his bar mitz­vah while high. The oth­er­wise for­get­table com­edy “Keep­ing the Faith,” which cen­ters on a rabbi and a priest, fea­tures a gospel choir singing “Ein Kelo­heinu.” More re­cently, Jill Soloway’s se­ries “Trans­par­ent” has fea­tured at least one Jewish rit­ual per episode, each mas­ter­fully wo­ven into the show. When the pro­tag­o­nist of a “Jewish episode” is Jewish, the plot is al­most al­ways about an at­tempt to quell some un­der­ly­ing strug­gle with Jewish rit­ual it­self. Some­times the strug­gle is about a per­ceived dis­tance from one’s tra­di­tion (the “Kad­dish for Un­cle Manny” episode of “North­ern Ex­po­sure,” sev­eral episodes of “Baby­lon 5”). In an episode of the 1970s se­ries “The Par­tridge Fam­ily,” it’s about some­one feign­ing Ju­daism be­fore un­der­stand­ing the re­al­i­ties of ob­ser­vance.”

In an episode of the se­ries “The Wal­tons” (“The Cer­e­mony”), the strug­gle is with a fam­ily’s mem­ory of the Holo­caust and a fa­ther’s deep trauma con­cern­ing all things Jewish. In this episode, the cli­max comes when the fa­ther al­lows him­self to come to his son’s bar mitz­vah. The liturgy here is ex­cel­lent — un­til the rabbi in­ex­pli­ca­bly be­gins “Shalom Ale­ichem,” a song re­served for the Shab­bat din­ner ta­ble.

Per­haps the best use of a Jewish rit­ual is in episode of “MASH,” in which the child of a Jewish sol­dier and a Korean wo­man is to be given a bris. The par­ents in­sist on a rabbi, but the clos­est one is on an air­craft car­rier, barely within com­mu­ni­ca­tion range. The multi-part cer­e­mony, con­ducted in a mix­ture of English and He­brew, is trans­mit­ted via the rabbi’s in­struc­tions through Morse code and re­cited by a priest, Fa­ther Mulc­ahy. The con­nec­tion is lost at the end. and the Korean mother com­pletes the last few words in an un­prac­ticed He­brew. Here, it is the rabbi’s ab­sence and the par­tic­i­pants’ lack of fa­mil­iar­ity that makes the rit­ual feel fresh.

The Amer­i­can Jewish screen rit­ual is al­ways a for­eigner com­ing through the door; for most peo­ple, the fact of that for­eign­ness is less im­por­tant than its con­tent. An episode of “Frasier” rec­og­nizes this and even pokes fun at it. In “Star Mitz­vah,” Frasier re­cites a pre­pared He­brew speech at his son’s bar mitz­vah. Daphne, a gen­tile, sits in the au­di­ence and glows with pride. “Aw, that’s lovely!” she says in her Manch­ester, Eng­land, ac­cent. But the con­gre­ga­tion ap­pears con­fused. “What was that gob­bledy­gook?” the rabbi asks. “That mean’s noth­ing. It’s gib­ber­ish!” A kid in the au­di­ence fig­ures it out: Frasier has been tricked into recit­ing a speech in Klin­gon. Watch­ing Jewish rit­ual on screen, I feel the di­vide be­tween “Aw, that’s lovely” and a de­cod­ing of the words them­selves; by rec­og­niz­ing the se­cret his­tory, I si­mul­ta­ne­ously rec­og­nize my­self to be in the mi­nor­ity. The in­tended and se­cret mes­sages are not al­ways iden­ti­cal, but nei­ther are they at odds — ex­cept for one scene, which I can’t get out of my mind.

“Once Upon a Hon­ey­moon,” a ro­man­tic com­edy star­ring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, was re­leased less than a year af­ter the bomb­ing of Pearl Har­bor. In the film, Grant and Rogers get stuck in Poland dur­ing the Ger­man in­va­sion and are misiden­ti­fied as Jews. “Now he thinks we’re Jewish. This could be se­ri­ous!” Grant says. (Is he dead­pan­ning, or just un­aware?) They are made to wait with other Jews, pre­sum­ably on their way to a con­cen­tra­tion camp. The scene is dark and foggy; Nazis guard a group of Jewish men and

The Amer­i­can Jewish screen rit­ual is al­ways a for­eigner com­ing through the door.

women. Their faces can’t quite be dis­cerned, but they are pray­ing: We hear a man chant­ing “Shema Koleinu,” “Hear Our Voices,” one of the core texts of the High Hol­i­days liturgy. His voice sounds pained, the way can­tors force their voices to sound pained when the threat isn’t real. Did the di­rec­tor know, in 1942, how deep this scene would cut? Did the Jews on the record­ing know? Grant and Rogers are up­set, but not pan­icked; they as­sume they’ll be res­cued. “We’re re­ally in a mess,” Rogers pouts. “What about these peo­ple?” Grant an­swers, mo­tion­ing his head to­ward the singing crowd. For 30 sec­onds they re­main si­lent while the chant­ing con­tin­ues. Ac­cept with mercy and fa­vor our prayer, Grant chants in He­brew. A cho­rus be­hind him re­peats the line. Then: Fade to black.

David Zvi Kal­man won a 1st place Si­mon Rock­ower Award from the Amer­i­can Jewish Press As­so­ci­a­tion for Ex­cel­lence in Arts and Crit­i­cism for his 2016 For­ward ar­ti­cle “The Strange and Vi­o­lent His­tory of the Or­di­nary Grog­ger.”

‘Schindler’s List’ opens with the



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