The Wandering Review: High Holy Films
By Laurie Baron
SAN DIEGO — After you celebrate the New Year, make amends with those you’ve wronged, and pray to God to forgive your sins on Yom Kippur, you might want to catch some movies in which the High Holy Days are featured. Here are a few suggestions for your edification and entertainment:
East and West, Directed by Sydney Goldin (Austria: 1923)– More satiric than penitential, East and West represents a genre of Yiddish films about American Jewish immigrants returning to their birthplaces. Starring Molly Picon as Mollie the feisty irreverent daughter of Morris Brown played by Sydney Golden, the film skewers how assimilated American Jews (derisively nicknamed allrightniks) had become. Mollie and Morris journey back to Galicia to attend a wedding. When they go to Yom Kippur services, it is comically evident that they stick out like cheeseburgers on pieces of challah. Morris wants to demonstrate he still can read Hebrew, but his brother jokes, “That’s a prayer book not a check book.” Mollie conceals a novel in her mahzor to keep awake, but can’t stave off the hunger pangs from fasting and consumes the meal prepared to break the fast. When the irate cook labels her an “American shikse,” Mollie beats her up, and, in turn, gets spanked by her father. Still engagingly impish, she dresses like a man and infiltrates a minyan of Yeshiva bochers whom she teaches how to shimmy. She goes too far when she weds a young Talmudic scholar in a mock ceremony, and he refuses to divorce her. Now the inflexibility of the pious becomes the butt of the humor. A synthesis of assimilation and tradition is forged when the groom’s uncle in Vienna teaches his nephew that he can be both acculturated and pious. This may be a silent film, but you’ll be laughing out loud at Mollie’s antics. Buy at www.jewishfilm.org/
The Jazz Singer, Directed by Alan Crosland (USA: 1927)–The beginning and climax of The Jazz Singer revolve around Yom Kippur. Cantor Rabinowitz scolds his son for singing at a saloon rather than rehearsing for Kol Nidre. After being whipped with a belt for his transgression, young Jakie vows he will never return home. At services the Cantor tells his congregation he no longer has a son. As the years pass, Jakie changes his name to Jack and impresses the up and coming dancer Mary Dale (May McEvoy) who lands him a gig in a Broadway review. Jack’s one attempt to reconcile with his stubborn father fails. The premiere of the show, however, coincides with Kol Nidre, no doubt a serious scheduling error in New York. As his father dies, Jack must decide if he will chant Kol Nidre and follow his father’s calling or perform on stage and pursue his own. In the original story and play it was based on, Jack substitutes for his father and ostensibly forsakes show business. In the film he has it both ways: his father forgives him; he sings Kol Nidre, and then, despite warnings that he would never appear on a Broadway stage again if he missed the premiere, he belts out “Mammy” to his beaming Yiddishe mame, his Gentile girlfriend, and an appreciative audience. Netflix.
The Cantor’s Son, directed by Sydney Goldin and Ilyeh Motyleff (USA: 1937) and Overture to Glory, directed by Max Nosseck (USA: 1940)–Yiddish films reversed the trajectory of The Jazz Singer: the prodigal son regrets abandoning his career choice. In The Cantor’s Son, former cantor Moshe Oysher reenacts his own crisis of conscience. He had acted in Yiddish plays and sung on stage until accepting a position as a cantor in 1935.
Instead of being welcomed back to the fold, many of his congregants challenged whether someone with a background in entertainment was fit to be a cantor. In the film, young Schloyme from Belz runs off with an itinerant theatre troupe and ends up in the United States where he has little success. Reduced to working as a janitor at a nightclub, Schloyme is “discovered” by the club’s diva who overhears him singing.
Listening to him perform on radio, a synagogue committee recognizes his talent and hires him as a cantor for the High Holy Days. This rekindles his yearning to sing liturgical music. Returning to Belz for his parent’s golden anniversary, he falls in love with his boyhood sweetheart and remains there to marry her and serve as a cantor. Oysher also starred in Overture to Gory where he played Strashunsky a cantor who leaves Vilna and his wife and son to sing opera in Warsaw. The death of his son is construed by his father-in-law as punishment for his desertion of his family and religion. The distraught Strashunsky stumbles into his Vilna synagogue on Yom Kippur and spontaneously chants Kol Nidre. Collapsing and dying on the bima, the rabbi declares, “For them you sang. For us you prayed.” Buy at www.jewishfilm.org/
The Quarrel, directed by Eli Cohen (Canada: 1991)–Adapted by Joseph Teluskin from a short story by Chaim Grade, The Quarrel is one of the most Jewishly literate films ever made. Set in Montreal shortly after the Holocaust, Chaim (R.H. Thomson) and Hersh (Saul Rubinek) are two survivors who had been yeshiva classmates in Poland. Assuming the other had died during the war, the two men run into each other on Rosh Hashanah when Chaim recognizes Hersh performing tashlich in Mount Royal Park. The chance encounter prompts passionate debates over whether a just and omnipotent God would permit the Holocaust to occur. The death camps fortified Hersh’s faith since he interprets the Shoah as the culmination of amoral rationalism. Conversely, Chaim has become a Yiddish novelist and believes that reverence for human life rather than dependence on God is what spared the lives of a remnant of Jews. Their theological sparring triggers remembrances of how they had rebuffed each other for being too religious or secular even before the Germans destroyed their shtetl. Unable to reconcile their opposing views, they nevertheless forgive each other, discerning the fragile preciousness of their friendship and survival. Copies of The Quarrel can be found on www.amazon.com and www.half.com
Keeping the Faith, directed by Edward Norton (United States; 2000)–In my recent book, I call Keeping the Faith a “multicultural Jazz Singer. Jake played by Ben Stiller rejects joining his father’s investment firm and becomes a rabbi. His best friend Brian played by Edward Norton does the same by becoming a priest. Both intend to update their respective religions by providing “an Old World God with a New Age spin.” Whereas Jolson in The Jazz Singer dons black face to sing jazz; Jake outsources “Ein Keloheinu” to an African American gospel choir to model the joyousness with which it should be sung to his congregation. Conflict arises when Anna played by Jenna Elfman reenters Jake’s and Brian’s lives. The three had been best childhood buddies, and Anna has grown into a vivacious businesswoman. Unbeknownst to Brian, Jake falls in love with Anna. Attracted to her too, Brian questions whether he should remain in the priesthood. As long as the affair is casual, there is no problem, but when Anna decides to stay with Jake rather than accept a promotion and transfer, he fears betraying his faith, his congregation, and his mother (Anne Bancroft) by marrying a Gentile woman. On Yom Kippur, he confesses to his congregation that he has violated their trust by not confiding in them about his relationship with Anna. Having reconciled with Anna and Brian, Jake joins them at the opening of an interfaith senior center Brian and Jake have founded. The closing scene reveals that Anna has been taking classes with Jake’s senior rabbi and has decided to convert not just for Jake’s sake, but to reconnect with her spiritual side. Netflix.
Lawrence Baron recently retired from being the Nasatir Professor of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University. He is the author of Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Rowman and Littlefield: 2005) and editor of The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Brandeis University Press: 2011). He may be contacted at email@example.com
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