D’var Torah for Parsha Pinchas (5777)

D’var Torah for July 15, 2017

By Jan Lisa Huttner

Park Slope Jewish Center

Brooklyn, NY

Follow link to download text as a PDF file: 17July15DvarTorahPinchas

My D’var Torah today on Parsha Pinchas is about cherry-picking, a subject which immediately leads us into the conceptual thicket of memory and the construction of memory – not just how we as individuals construct memories, but how we as a culture construct memories. How do some things (rather than other things) become part of Conventional Wisdom?

Of course, there are a lot of current events we could talk about in this context: Faux News, Fake News, et cetera, but I do not want to address any of these topics today. For me to do so in the context of a D’var Torah would be above my pay grade.

But as many of you already know, I am a professional film critic, so whatever the subject, I always have a movie reference ready to hand.

Who here has seen John Ford’s film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance from 1962?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the story of a very prominent man named “Ransom Stoddard” (played by Jimmy Stewart) who returns home after many years as a man of the world. He’s been a congressman. He’s been a senator. He’s even been America’s ambassador to Britain’s Court of St. James. So, of course, the local press wants an interview with him, and they are especially eager to know all of the details about the event that first made him famous – the day he shot a really bad dude named Liberty Valance. 

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the interview, Ransom Stoddard reveals – after all these years – that he is not, in fact, the man who shot Liberty Valance. Liberty Valance was killed by “Tom Doniphon” (played by John Wayne). Ransom Stoddard – now at the end of his life – wants to set the record straight… but the publisher does not want to hear it. He (the publisher) grabs the pad of paper on which his reporter has been taking notes, and he tears the pages off the pad, and he rips them up!

Ransom Stoddard says: “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” And the publisher says: “No, sir. This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

These words are now part of Conventional Wisdom (at least here in the USA):

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

I really do not know when I first read the story of the five Daughters of Zelophehad (pronounced ZelophKHAD) – Mahlah (pronounced MakhLAH), No’ah (pronounced NoAH), Hoglah (pronounced KhogLAH), Milcah (pronounced MilCAH), and Tirzah (pronounced TirZAH) – probably my sophomore year of college, but who knows? However, I can tell you the exact moment when the story of these five women became personally important to me.

Thinking about this moment now – at the age of 65 – I marvel at the fact that I was almost 60 before I embraced them. After all, I had been a feminist since before Feminism had a name, and a full-fledged Second Wave Warrior. So why did it take me so long to understand how important Mahlah, No’ah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah should be to me as a Jewish Feminist?

The answer is actually quite simple. The Daughters of Zelophehad had never been cherry-picked. In fact, for most of my adult life, Mahlah, No’ah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah had been disappeared. They had been disappeared, even though their story is told over two parshot (Pinchas and Mattot/Mas’ei). They had been disappeared, even though they are mentioned multiple times in the Torah by name – meaning not just as a collective noun Daughters of Zelophehad.They were simply not part of Conventional Wisdom, either in my Jewish world or in my secular world.

Skip to 2010, when my husband Richard began attending Torah Study every month at KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago. I went to Services with him, of course, but I did not attend Torah Study because we do not think – as a couple – that we need to do everything together in lockstep. Me? I preferred to spend that time reading quietly by myself, as I do now on the days that Richard attends Talmud class here at PSJC.

So on that day in July 2011 when members of KAM were studying Parsha Pinchas, I was sitting in a little lounge near the room where the Torah Study class was meeting. I was reading whatever I was reading… when I suddenly became aware of the fact that people in Torah Study were talking about a man with five daughters.

By that point, I had been doing research on Fiddler on the Roof for over a decade and I was stunned. When Richard came out of Torah Study, I confronted him: “You were just discussing a Biblical story about a man with five daughters, and you didn’t think to tell me that was your assignment for this week?” (You can just imagine!)

Richard shrugged: “Nope. Never occurred to me.” So, of course, I went back and read the whole parsha later that week (plus the next one), and the following Shabbat I was ready to talk to our Rabbi – Rabbi Appel – at Kiddush.

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By that point, I had been doing research on Fiddler on the Roof for over a decade, and I had already read both Sholem Aleichem’s autobiography From the Fair (published in Yiddish in 1916, but not released in a full English translation until 1985), as well as My Father, Sholem Aleichem (the biography Marie Waife-Goldberg published about her famous father in 1968).

On page 231 of From the Fair, Sholem Aleichem talks about the day he met Elimelech Loyev – his future father-in-law – for the first time.

Listen here, young fellow, let me ask you something,” old Loyev sang out. “My son [Joshua] tells me that you’re just as knowledgeable in our holy Jewish books as in their secular ones. Do you remember what Rashi says about the daughters of Zelophehad?”

Then commenced a long-winded discussion on Rashi. And Rashi led to the Talmud. At which followed a learned disquisition about scholarship and Haskala, as is usual among Jews who are at home in all the commentaries.

I had read these words – in Curt Leviant’s translation from 1985 – but they had not registered. Since I had no appreciation yet for the Daughters of Zelophehad, the significance of this reference to them in Sholem Aleichem’s autobiography had gone right over my head… Until the day Richard was in a Torah Study discussion of Parsha Pinchas!

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So my question to you is this: How could a story that is so present in our Biblical literature have been disappeared for centuries? After all, this is critical part of the narrative, at the end of the Book of Numbers, when the Israelites – after all their years of wandering in the desert – are finally going to enter the Land? This is not one of those weeks where the poor Bar/Bat Mitzvah student has to struggle through the rules of Kashrut or whatever. Parsha Pinchas is in a really critical part of the Torah, right before we begin the Book of Deuteronomy in which Moses gives his final exhortation before the people cross over the Jordan.

And there, at this point of maximum promise and peril, we learn the story of the five daughters of a man named Zelophehad, and three times, we hear their names: Mahlah, No’ah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. The drama begins when the five sisters go to the Tent of Meeting:

They stood before Moses, Eleazar the Priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah's faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!’

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them.’

‘Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows:

'If a man dies without leaving a son,

you shall transfer his property to his daughter.’"

The five daughters of Zelophehad are in the Torah and they are in Sholem Aleichem’s autobiography, and therein lies our challenge with respect to selective memory: Our culture, like all cultures, prizes some pieces of our story above others, cherry-picks what it wants to remember, and disappears the rest. And yet – at least in our Jewish Tradition – the original texts are still there, waiting for us to find them, and pull disappeared stories back into significance.

Honor the text!

Defy Conventional Wisdom!

Never allow the legend to occlude the facts!

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What is happening in Sholem Aleichem’s life – in his telling – when he reaches this part of his autobiography? Well, he’s been wandering around as an itinerant scholar, and he is at an inn one night, and he meets a young man named Joshua Loyev who is the son of a prominent local landowner (something very rare for Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement in those days). After speaking with this 18 year old teenager (really, Sholem Aleichem was a very young man at that time), Joshua Loyev says: You know, I think my father would really like you, so I’m going to tell him about you.

And Joshua goes home and he brings his father Elimelech Loyev back to the inn to meet Solomon Rabinowitz (aka Sholem Aleichem), and the first thing that Elimelech Loyev wants to know – according to Sholem Aleichem – is: Have you read Rashi’s commentary on the Daughters of Zelophehad?  And young Solomon Rabinowitz says: Yes, in fact, I have, sir. And they proceed to have a discussion, and Sholem Aleichem describes how a crowd gathered around them, riveted by his erudition. What are we to make of this?

I used to say to myself: Well… maybe? Is this a true memory? Did Sholem Aleichem actually have this conversation with Elimelech Loyev the first time they met, or is this just the memory of a man knowing he is close to death – a man who has been ill for a long time – is this just the memory of a man who at the time of his death is still plagued by the fact that he had four daughters and one ward, and had been personally responsible for five dowries? Did the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad resonate with Sholem Aleichem at the end of his life such that he put them into his story in thinking he remembered them?

And then I read Rashi. Rashi was also a man blessed with daughters but no sons. Rashi had three daughters, and Rashi taught them Torah, and Rashi’s daughters became the mothers of sons who became famous scholars in their own right, and helped to secure their grandfather’s legacy. And Rashi’s commentary about the Daughters of Zelophehad is quite long and very positive in tone.

So now, as I think about all of this again, I think maybe this is a true fact about the day Sholem Aleichem first met Elimelech Loyev. Maybe Elimelech Loyev asked young Solomon Rabinowitz (aka Sholem Aleichem) about the Daughters of Zelophehad because he wanted to know if this young man would be a good tutor for the children who currently resided at his estate in Sofievka? After all, Elimelech Loyev knew something that Solomon Rabinowitz did not know yet: Elimelech Loyev knew there were three girls in Sofievka awaiting his return to the estate.

Let us assume that this is a true fact. Let us that assume Elimelech Loyev did ask Solomon Rabinowitz if he knew Rashi’s commentary on the Daughters of Zelophehad. Why might he have asked that? Maybe what he was thinking was: Would this young man be an appropriate teacher for these three girls of mine – my daughter Olga (age 15) and my granddaughters Manya (age 9) and Natasha (age 5) – who are back in Sofievka?

If I bring Solomon Rabinowitz back to Sofievka, will he be a good teacher? Or is he the kind of young man who will say: “Girls?!? No Way!!! I am not going waste my time teaching girls!!!”

So maybe the fact that Solomon Rabinowitz did know about Rashi’s commentary on the Daughters of Zelophehad, which is, in fact, a very positive commentary about these five woman and their role in the Torah, maybe this was the reassurance that Elimelech Loyev was looking for?

Of course, we are not ever going to know. We do not have Elimelech Loyev here. We do not have Solomon Rabinowitz here. We do not have Ransom Stoddard here to interview about what really happened on the day that Liberty Valance died. But we do know that Parsha Pinchas and Parsha Mattot/Mas’ei roll around every summer, and maybe now, we will pay more attention to this text.

Before I close, I want to bring us back to last Saturday when Rabbi Carter gave her wonderful D’var Torah on Parsha Balak before heading off on vacation. Her subject was the talking donkey, or, as this creature is best known, “Balaam’s Ass.” Maybe I knew before last Shabbat that Balaam’s Ass was, in fact, a female donkey, but if so, then that is another fact that I had also forgotten. So when I was listening to Rabbi Carter’s D’var Torah, I was extremely moved because, of course, Rabbi Carter made clear that this voice – the voice of Balaam’s Ass – was a female voice.

A man named Balaam is beating his animal, and finally she turns to him and says: Why are you beating me? And Rabbi Carter asked us to imagine what Balaam’s Ass was thinking at that moment.  Then Rabbi Carter talked in her D’var Torah about domestic violence and that whole thread that was part of her D’var Torah last Shabbat. But what I was sitting here thinking was: Is this story of Balaam’s Ass an introduction to the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad? Is this where the authors of our most revered text warn us about men who refuse to listen to females voices?

This female being – one of God’s creatures – is being beaten without mercy! When Rabbi Carter asked us what we thought Balaam’s Ass was thinking, we called out: Why don’t you trust me? I have been your faithful companion all these years, and I have never done anything like this before, and suddenly I am calling your attention to something, so why are you beating me instead of asking yourself, “What is my faithful companion trying to tell me?” Is there something I see that you – Balaam – do not see? And that is, of course, when the angel reveals itself to Balaam.

My life’s work has been about recovering the voices of women, always in dismay over how the voices of women are systematically disappeared from our culture. I am not going say anything about the political year – 2016 – that just ended. I am going to leave that to you, to think about on your own.

But I do want to say this: “Let us not allow the legend to become fact. Let us not cherry-pick from our most revered text, leaving out things that may be “unconventional” in our own time. Let us strive to see what is actually there in the text, and in this case, one of the things that is clearly there in the final three parshot of the Book of Numbers is the celebration of the female voice, and the affirmation by God to Moses and the People of Israel that yes, indeed, these five Daughters of Zelophehad – Mahlah, No’ah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – are essential members of the Jewish People and they each deserve a portion in the Land.

Shabbat Shalom!

Top: Sculpture “The Five Daughters of Zelophehad” © Judith Klausner

Middle: Painting “Daughters of Zelophehad” © Iris Wexler (2008)

Bottom: Triptych “The Daughters of Zelophehad” © Janet Shafner (2006)

ALL ART -- POSTED WITH PERMISSION -- ALSO APPEARS in Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter (MY 2014 eBOOK)

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Scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

In front: Carlton Young as “Maxwell Scott” (the publisher)

In back: Joseph Hoover as "Charlie Hasbrouck" (the reporter)

Scene from Fiddler on the Roof from The Theatre at the Center (2007).

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Someone To Run With

Told from two perspectives, Someone to Run With directed by Oded Davidoff and based on the novel by David Grossman, follows two teenagers on parallel journeys of salvation and self-discovery. (EML: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

“Tamar” (Bal Belfer) never goes anywhere without her dog, “Dinka.” Living on the streets, Tamar busks to try and bring in money, while she searches for a boy. Though it is unclear to the audience who the boy is to Tamar, at the time.

“Assaf” (Yonatan Bar-Or) is given the assignment to return an abandoned dog to its owner. His boss instructs him to allow the dog to lead him back to his owner and then serve that person with a summons. This dog, is Dinka, and Assaf soon finds himself invested in rescuing the girl who owns this dog.

Switching between past and present, Tamar’s journey and Assaf’s journey, Someone to Run With provides a dual protagonist like structure that allows both teens to be the hero of their own story. For Tamar, this journey involves moving into a hostel for gifted kids, where the owner manipulates the homeless children to busk as a front for his drug dealing business. For Assaf, the twists and turns he takes following Dinka toward Tamar leads him to engage with the seedy underbelly of Israeli society.

Tonally, Someone to Run With feels scattered and unsure what it wants to be. At times, the film feels to be a straight drama, exploring the emotional arcs of Assaf and Tamar on their respective journeys. Yet, at other times, the cinematography and score seem to delve into the realm of thriller, heightening the tension through quick cuts and dramatic music cues. This back and forth in tone makes the film difficult to latch onto, and keeps the audience pushed back a bit from really engaging with the characters.

Notably, however, David Grossman, the author of the film’s source material, just won the 2017 Man Booker International Award for his latest novel, making him the first Israeli recipient. In his novel, Grossman utilizes his characters to not only engage with the narrative plot, but to provide insight into a side of Israeli society rarely explored. As a novel, Someone to Run With serves as both an emotional, exciting ride as well as a coming-of-age story.

Overall, while this adaptation of Grossman’s novel is enjoyable, it lacks some of the emotional depth that Grossman’s prose is able to provide. Despite impressive and believable performances by the actors, Davidoff fails to capture the emotional thruline of the story in the inability to focus on a narrative tone. The disjointed nature of the storytelling, while effective in moments, occasionally distracts the audience from understanding the stakes for each of the protagonists as well as the motivations behind their actions. With a clearer tone and structure, Someone to Run With could have truly lived up to its source material.

© Eliana M. Levenson FF2 Media (6/21/17)

Top Photo: Cover for David Grossman’s novel, Someone to Run With

Middle Photo: “Assaf” (Yonatan Bar-Or) follows Dinka, Tamar’s dog, in a whirlwind adventure to find and rescue Tamar.

Bottom Photo: Author David Grossman with his latest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, which just won him the 2017 Man Booker International Award.

Photo Credits: Picador

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Tzivi’s Cinema Spotlight (April ’17): Tzivi raves about NORMAN!

On Account of a Hat. In one of Sholem Aleichem’s best–loved stories, a wheeler dealer is forever “negotiating transactions” until “one day God takes pity on him, and for the first time in his career—are you listening?—he actually works out a deal.” But on account of a hat, exhilaration turns into farce and when he finally gets home, the people “point him out in the streets and hold their sides, laughing.”

Has Joseph Cedar, the Israeli-American director of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, ever read “On Account of a Hat”? As Tevye famously said: “I’ll tell you—I don’t know!” But since I do know that Joseph Cedar planted a snippet from Fiddler on the Roof in his last film Footnote, I am placing my chips on yes.

Norman Oppenheimer, the eponymous hero of Cedar’s new film, also negotiates “transactions,” however, in Norman’s case, God’s instrument is not a hat but a pair of shoes. Late one night, on a train from Washington, DC to Manhattan, Norman describes these shoes as “the most expensive shoes in all of New York,” and, for the first time in his career, someone—a woman named Alex—is actually listening. Maybe if Norman had spent more time reading Sholem Aleichem stories, he would have known to keep his mouth shut on a train… But where better for Cedar (who also wrote the Norman screenplay) to sprinkle the seeds of Norman’s “tragic fall” than on a train from Union Station to Penn Station?

These shoes are not Norman’s shoes; he buys them as a gift for a man named Micha Eshel who has come to New York to speak at a conference. Eshel is one of three deputies to a minister in the cabinet of Israel’s (unnamed) Prime Minister, so his presentation is sparsely attended, and when it is over, he leaves the hotel and begins wandering the streets of Midtown Manhattan tourist-style. Eshel thinks he is alone. He has no idea that Norman is shadowing him, waiting for just the right moment to pounce.

This is Norman’s modus operandi, and it rarely works, but Eshel is at a low point in his life and he simply does not have sufficient energy to resist. The apparently unselfish kindness of an American man—obviously a Jewish-American man—moves him, so he allows Norman to purchase the shoes, almost as a favor to him.

Returning to his hotel, Eshel takes a call from his handler Duby, and Duby is immediately skeptical. Eshel submits, goes to dinner alone in the hotel restaurant (It must be in the hotel, Duby reminds him, because the gas company is paying for his trip!), eats oysters (treyf!), and gets drunk. Back in his room, Eshel pulls Norman’s card from the pocket of his jacket and calls. And when Norman answers, Eshel whispers to him in a moment of male bonding so heart-rending that the memory of it still send chills up my spine.

The big wheel in the amusement park? How do you say? Galgal anak?

The Ferris Wheel?

Yes, yes, the Ferris Wheel. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. I just wanted to say I have that taste, you know? Being on top of everything? Once you’ve tasted it, you can’t settle for anything else. Do you understand what I am saying?

I do.

I too do.

The curtain falls on act one, and when act two begins “three years and many small favors later,” Eshel and Norman are both on the biggest Ferris Wheel of all, the Ferris Wheel in Washington, DC. And now I will say no more about the plot; I will talk only about the execution.

Everything about Norman is first rate. The casting is superb, beginning with Richard Gere as “Norman Oppenheimer” and Lior Ashkenazi as “Micha Eshel.” On the Israeli poster for Norman, Gere and Ashkenazi are back-to-back, emphasizing that they are equal partners in this story. On the other hand, the American poster—which only shows Richard Gere—makes the pragmatic assumption that many Americans have no idea who Lior Ashkenazi is.

To readers who fall into this category, let me just say that Lior Ashkenazi is as much a heartthrob in Israel as Richard Gere is here. Do Americans know that Lior Ashkenazi was the star of Late Marriage and Walk on Water? Do Israelis know what Richard Gere did after Pretty Woman, let alone before? No matter. Cedar knows that these two men actually do share intimate knowledge of how it feels to be at the top of the wheel, and they also understand that they have both passed its peak. Older now, they are still in the game, but more as character actors than objects of desire. How perceptive of Cedar to cast such a potent pair in a bromance of such depth and poignance.

The huge cast also contains many well-known actors playing Jewish men, and part of the joke is that most of them are as goyishe as Richard Gere is. Josh Charles as “Arthur Taub,” Dan Stevens as “Bill Kavish,” Michael Sheen as “Philip Cohen,” Steve Buscemi as “Rabbi Blumenthal,” are any of them Jewish? Josh Charles (born Joshua Aaron Charles) has a Jewish father and a mother of German/English/Scottish ancestry, so you decide. The others? Definitely not.

Only Harris Yulin as “Jo Wilf”—the “ocean liner” of movers and shakers—has a career based, to some extent, on his Ashkenazi Jewish background. But what about Hank Azaria you ask? Another joke. Azaria gives “Srul Katz” a risibly fake “Yiddish accent” which is surely intentional since this master of voices actually grew up in a Ladino-speaking family.

Meanwhile, the actors who play the Israelis in Eshel’s world (Yehuda Almagor as “Duby,” Neta Riskin as Eshel’s chief aide “Hanna,” and Tali Sharon as Eshel’s wife “Naomi”) are all stars there, even though they are probably unknown here

And Alex? Charlotte Gainsbourg plays “Alex Green” as the compleat cosmopolitan. When Norman prods, Alex tells him—in a perfect British accent—that she is from Geneva. Gainsbourg (who, like Josh Charles, has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother) showed her gravitas early when Franco Zeffirelli cast her as “Jane Eyre” in the mid-90s, and she has carried it with her ever since through a huge number of films (many in French). As the Paris-born daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, she brings personal knowledge of Ferris Wheels to her portrayal of Alex too. When Norman asks Alex what she needs, Alex replies: “I need the satisfaction of knowing I am doing good in the world. Can you give me that, Norman?”

For once, Norman is stumped, but Cedar is not. A master of his craft, as best exemplified in two dazzling scenes in which time literally stops (first at the top, and then at the bottom), Cedar receives expert support from everyone on his team. Cinematographer Yaron Scarf (who won an Ophir Award for Footnote) is back, but for Norman, Cedar also added many newcomers to his crew including music director Hal Wilner (who brings both cantorial solos and klezmer riffs to composer Jun Miyake’s score), costume designer Michelle Matland, and casting director Laura Rosenthal. Working with a large team of American and Israeli producers, Cedar has secured his place in world cinema.

Who is “a Jew” in Norman? What is “a Jew” in this crazy world of ours? This is the conundrum in which Cedar ensnares us, because answers to questions like these are no longer as clear as they were once thought to be. And that brings us to God. Where is God in this film? God is certainly the force that powers the wheel; God is “the ghost in the machine.” But the God of Norman is definitely a Jewish God. As the Yiddish proverb says: “Man Plans; God Laughs.” In Norman, God laughs through tears.

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Norman opens today (April 21) at the Landmark Century Center in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park. For times and tickets, visit the Landmark Theatres Chicago website.

Norman is Joseph Cedar’s fifth film, and yes, I have seen them all. For my reflections on Norman in the context of Joseph Cedar’s career, see my blog post (which also contains additional photos).

Top Photo: Richard Gere as “Norman Oppenheimer” on his way up an escalator. Photo by Chris Saunders.

Middle Photo: Charlotte Gainsbourg as “Alex Green” from Geneva, "the compleat cosmopolitan."

Bottom Photo: Gere and Lior Ashkenazi as “Micha Eshel” first set their eyes on “the most expensive shoes in all of New York.” Photo by Niko Tavernise.

Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics (2017).

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Norman (2016): Huttner reflects on what we talk about when we talk about “Norman”

I am not just in love with Joseph Cedar's new film Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, I am ensnared and somewhat obsessed.

I have now seen Norman three times, first at a critic's screening in mid-March, then at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on opening weekend in NYC (the night Joseph Cedar, Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi were all onsite for a post screening Q&A), and then back to the Lincoln Plaza on a weekday to take notes under the "Exit" light before writing my review for Chicago's JUF News.

Why go a third time? First because I wanted to make sure I had all my quotes right. That's the kinda gal I am. A homework-doing, conscientious Jewish gal just like "Alex" (the character played in Norman by Charlotte Gainsbourg). But also because Norman is the kind of film that gets better every time you see it. Cedar's screenplay is so dense and the implications are so vast that all you can really absorb on the first go is the mere tip of the iceberg.

For example, I began my review of Norman with a quote from a story by Sholem Aleichem. In “On Account of a Hat,” a rather pathetic wheeler-dealer finally negotiates a successful "transaction," but then it all goes bad, and he ends up a laughing stock. I have no idea if Cedar has ever read this story, let alone if he consciously planted bits of it in his screenplay. but the parallels are simply too close to ignore.

But while I talked a great deal about Ferris Wheels in my review (even quoting whole from Act One's intensely moving final scene), I did not have the space in my review to ask the pertinent question: Is this an allusion to the famous Ferris Wheel scene in The Third Man from 1949?

Cinefiles and most readers my age will know exactly which scene I mean. In our mind's eye, we are instantly high above Vienna listening to "Harry Lime" (Orson Wells) trying to convince his friend "Holly Martins" (Joseph Cotten) that his black market machinations are simply business as usual in a corrupt world. Harry is so charming, of course, that Holly despite all his common sense, wants to be convinced.

The big wheel in the amusement park? How do you say? Galgal anak? 

The Ferris Wheel?

Yes, yes, the Ferris Wheel. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. I just wanted to say I have that taste, you know? Being on top of everything? Once you’ve tasted it, you can’t settle for anything else. Do you understand what I am saying?

I do.

I too do.

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer yet, then please stop reading this post now. I hope you will see Norman and then return to read on, but I do not want to risk spoiling the experience of "tasting" this terrific film for yourself. So see first, analyze later.

With a tip of my hat to Nathan Englander, here are three things we must Talk About When We Talk About Norman:

1.) Corruption. We must talk about how insidious corruption is and how it starts with little things, often things so little that we barely notice them. In Norman, everyone is searching for one tiny key to a magic door. In the USA, this is called "networking;" in Israel (at least way back when I lived in Israel) it is called "protexia."

“Micha Eshel”(Lior Ashkenazi) understand this, which is why he knows he cannot buy the suit, even if he were to use his own money to purchase it. Even so, he can not erase the memory of how he looks in the suit because it burned itself into his brain when he looked at himself in this mirror.

This is why he turns his back on his wife "Naomi" (Tali Sharon) when she tells him to stop answering calls from Norman. He knows that, having gotten what she wanted from Norman, Naomi will now conveniently erase it from her mind, and convince herself that Norman's connections had nothing to do with her son's admission to Harvard Business School. But, of course, HBS has its own aims too. No doubt they will be happy to publicize that one of their new students is the son of the Prime Minister of Israel. (Forget the part about going AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard, and just ask yourself how George W. Bush was ever admitted to HBS in the first place?)

2.) The relationship between Israelis and American Jews

3.) The differences between man and women

© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/27/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo from Left: Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel (in Jerusalem) and Richard Gere as "Norman Oppenheimer" (in Manhattan). Image cropped from the Israeli poster.

Middle Photo: Charlotte Gainsbourg as "Alex Green." Photo by Yaron Scharf.

Bottom Photo: First row from left: Dan Stevens as "Bill Kavish," Harris Yulin as "Jo Wilf," and Steve Buscemi as "Rabbi Blumenthal" at the AIPAL Conference. Photo by Yaron Scharf.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Q: Does Norman pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

No.

The only woman who plays a central role in Norman is Charlotte Gainsbourg as "Alex Green." Israeli actresses Neta Riskin and Tali Sharon also have well-crafted supporting roles as Micha Eshel's aide "Hanna" and Eshel's wife "Naomi," but these three women never talk to one another.

Norman takes place in a male-dominated universe. That's part of the tragedy of the dramedy.

BONUS Click here to read Pam Powell's interview with Miranda Bailey, an American producer who worked with Joseph Cedar for the first time: “Joseph Cedar’s work is filled with symbolism and innuendo that even I – having made the film – am still discovering. One thing I love is that I discover something new re-watching every scene.”

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Tzivi’s Cinema Spotlight (March ’17): Reviews of IN SEARCH OF ISRAEL CUISINE and MR. GAGA

Spring brings two new documentary films from Israel to Chicago. One I loved. The other? No so much. So let’s start with the spinach.

Mr. Gaga, which opens tonight at the Music Box Theatre on Southport, is Tomer Heymann’s new film about Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. Chicago has long been a congenial host for Batsheva Dance Company performances, and their regular visits here have often been an opportunity for lively Hadassah member meet-ups. So if you love Batsheva Dance Company, you should certainly see Mr. Gaga.

I have long been a champion of films by Barak and Tomer Heymann, who alternate directing duties for documentaries they co-produce together under the rubric of Heymann Brothers Films. They are prolific filmmakers and many of their prior films (such as Dancing Alfonso and Paper Dolls) have been favorites of mine at our annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema.

So I was surprised by my reaction Mr. Gaga, which unfolds as a fairly routine BioDoc, told in chronological order from Naharin’s early days on Kibbutz Mizra (due north of Afula) to his current role as an international cultural superstar. Of course there are many clips of Batsheva Dance Company’s uniquely athletic style, so if you are already a fan of Batsheva Dance Company, then this film is definitely for you.

But if you are new to Batsheva Dance Company, then beware. Clips of dancers in motion do not really do justice to the power of a full piece in performance, and you may come out of Mr. Gaga wondering what all the fuss is about.

To kick off the run, the Music Box has scheduled a live dance demonstration plus Q&A after tonight’s 7:15 PM screening, hosted by Anna Long (Chicago’s own GAGA-trained dance teacher). For tickets, visit the Music Box website.

Personally, I much preferred Roger Sherman’s new film In Search of Israeli Cuisine, which tells the story of a Jewish boy coming of age in America who learns to appreciate his heritage anew through food.

Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov travels up and down Israel from top to bottom and coast to desert, sampling a wholy unexpected diversity of tastes and textures. As he chops and stirs side by side with some of Israel’s best known restauranteurs, Solomonov learns first-hand about Israeli’s creative fusion which combines the sorrows of past with exuberant hopes for the future.

This is a theme I have long stressed in prior posts and columns, most especially in my reviews of films brought to us by the terrific programming team behind our annual Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema. We have become accustomed to describing one of Israel’s functions as “the ingathering of the exiles,” but that requires us to pay attention to all the places from which they come.

Too many Americans (including too many Jewish Americans) still think of Israel as a country founded by European Jews, especially Jews who survived the Holocaust. But this was never true and it is even less true now after several generations of intermixing. One of my friends has a father from Yemen and a mother from Poland. Is she Ashkenazi or Mizrachi? Another friend has a father from Morocco and a mother from Rumania. Is she Ashkenazi or Sephardic? The truth is that these old divisions have ceased to be definitive, especially after Ethiopians from Africa, Bene Israel from India, and Jews from the former Soviet Union (not just from Moscow but from Georgia and Bukhara) began entering the mix.

As one wise fellow says in In Search of Israeli Cuisine, a tomato has no politics. So I strongly recommend In Search of Israeli Cuisine for both enlightenment and sheer delight, but with one caution: Make sure to eat before you go 🙂

In Search of Israeli Cuisine opens next Friday (April 7) at the Music Box Theatre and also at the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

For more photos from both films, visit my Blog: www.ff2media.com/secondcitytzivi.

Top Photo Credit: A moment from Ohad Naharin’s ecstatic “Ehad Me Yodaya,” which continues to be a highlight of all Batsheva Dance Company performances. © Heymann Brothers Films.

Bottom Photo Credit: After he arrives in Israel “in search of Israeli cuisine,” Michael Solomonov of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia learns a million different ways to make eggplant © Florentine Films 2013 / Menemsha Films (2016).

Posted on JUF Blogs on 3/31/17

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The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017): Review by Eliana Levenson

Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife recounts the efforts of Antonina Żabiński and her husband, Jan, who risked their lives during World War II to harbor Jewish refugees in the basement of their zoo during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. (EML: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson

Warsaw, Poland, pre-invasion. Happy. Simple. Unafraid. “Antonina Żabiński” (Jessica Chastain) rides her bike through the family’s zoo, clearly at ease amongst the animals. She and her husband, “Jan” (Johan Heldenbergh), share a loving relationship, often working side by side within the zoo as equals. At a dinner party, Antonina faces some scrutiny for her behavior, unseemly for a woman of the time, and a visiting German zookeeper “Lutz Heck” (Daniel Brühl) comes to her aid. Even prior to Germany’s invasion of Poland, there is clear tension between Heck and his Polish peers.

Germany attacks. Bombs fall on the zoo, killing many of the animals instantly, releasing others from their now mangled cages. Antonina and her son run to hide in the basement, a storage space for some of the animals. When they emerge, they find their zoo destroyed, their home damaged, and slowly, they attempt to clean up.

Heck returns, this time in Nazi uniform, explaining that the Żabiński’s zoo will be used as an armament for the Nazi troops and that the animals will be killed off, for the war effort. He also plans to use the zoo’s cages for a genetic experiment he’s working on, hoping to bring back an animal from extinction. In a seemingly altruistic gesture, Heck offers to take some of the more valuable zoo animals to his zoo in Berlin, promising to return them to the Zabinskis after the war. Antonina agrees to his request without Jan present, unaware that she should not be trusting Heck or his empty promises.

For the Żabińskis, the changing world is a loss of their beautiful zoo, their livelihood. But they soon learn, for others, the Nazi invasion means so much more. When their Jewish friends come to visit, explaining the deportations and the ghettoization of Jews, the Żabińskis are quick to do what they can to assist their friends. They even agree to hide their friend “Magda” (Efrat Dor) after her husband is taken, understanding that, in doing so, they are taking a huge risk. For Antonina, this risk is enough, but Jan, who is out in the city of Warsaw, witnessing the monstrosities being done to the Jews, convinces his wife that they must do more.

Under the guise of running a pig farm to provide food for Nazi troops, Jan and Antonina become a stopping place for Jews escaping Poland. Sneaking Jews out of the ghetto and hiding them in the basement crawl spaces of the zoo, the Żabińskis attempt to provide some normalcy for their Jewish guests, including dinner parties where everyone can come out of hiding after the Nazi guards have left for the night.

Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the film comes as the Warsaw ghetto is being burned to the ground, intercut with the Żabińskis and their Jewish refugees celebrating a Passover seder. As the familiar sounds of the Ma Nishtana carry over the destruction of the ghetto, the film provides a brief glimpse into the tragic loss of Jewish culture and community, a sentiment that is mostly overshadowed in a film that focuses on Antonina.

Though there are many ways in which the The Zookeeper’s Wife succeeds, it does add to a problematic and pervasive theme of Holocaust movies that focus on gentile morality rather than Jewish suffering. While there is no doubt that the Righteous Among the Nations such as Antonina Żabiński and her husband should be honored and remembered, the manner in which these narratives are told rewrite a sordid history by glossing over the inhumanity and focusing on gentile mercy rather than Jewish subjugation. For every one Antonina and Jan, there were a hundred just like them who were responsible for the degradation, deportation and dehumanization of thousands of Jews. For every one Jew saved by a Righteous Among the Nations, there were another million who were lost because they were seen as other, as lesser.

In The Zookeeper’s Wife the Jewish characters stand silent, resigned to their fate, idolizing a woman who is more than they can be, who, because she belongs, has the choice to be “other” where they did not, has the choice to stand up against the oppression as they could not. For Antonina and Jan and those like them, the Holocaust was an opportunity to make a choice but for the Jewish victims, this was not the case.  While it is important to tell the stories of those who chose to confront  evil, rather than cave to it, it is equally important to ensure that Jewish characters do not become props in the history of the Holocaust, merely serving to provide the context for a gentile moral triumph.

For instance, when two of the women harbored and disguised by Antonina are murdered on the streets by Nazi soldiers, discovered for being Jewish, the focus is not on the loss of Jewish life but rather Antonina’s reaction to it. She turns to her husband, sobbing, holding the pin given to her by one of the women, and inquires if it was the hair color that she gave her that allowed the Nazi’s to recognize the woman as a Jew. In moments like this, the film reveals a hidden selfishness to a character whose acts, in reality, were likely more selfless. Antonina’s role within the story should be one more of bearing witness, allowing the destruction of a people to be viewable through her perspective, and yet, the film instead, allows the Jews in her care to be a prop for her goodness.

Overall, The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those Holocaust movies that will be lost in the canon of what some feel is an overdone genre. Outside of a few moments, the film fails to achieve true impact, likely because its focus often strays away from the Jewish tragedy in favor of Antonina’s personal struggles with Heck. While this film is not alone in using the Holocaust more as a backdrop, in many ways, the film’s treatment and use of its Jewish characters is more problematic than many of its counterparts, leaving the Jewish audience with a feeling of outsiderness, even as pieces of their own history unfold before them. Though we should be grateful to the film for sharing the names of those who saved hundreds, at its core The Zookeeper’s Wife fails to go beyond the narrative of how the darkest of times can bring out the best in people if, of course, those people are “white.”

© Eliana M. Levenson (4/2/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: A poster for The Zookeeper’s Wife and another indication of the focus of the film not including the Jews. The poster has no reference to any of the Jewish characters or even the Holocaust itself, instead featuring “Antonina” (Jessica Chastain) cuddling a lion cub as if her loving attitude toward the animals provides insight into why she would take in the Jews.

Middle Photo: Antonina, her son, and some of the Jews hiding in her basement, decorate the  walls with Jewish symbols and other art, proof that they were there.

Bottom Photo: Jan attempts to convince a Jewish schoolteacher to come with him as the ghetto is evacuated and the occupants sent to the concentration camps. The teacher, however, refuses to leave his students and makes Jan promise to not act afraid so that the children don’t know that they are on their way to be killed.

Photo Credits: Anne Marie Fox

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Mr. Gaga (2015): Review by Jan Lisa Huttner

From IMDb: Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, is regarded as one of the most important choreographers in the world. Meeting him at a critical turning point in his personal life, this spirited and insightful documentary will introduce you to a man with great artistic integrity and an extraordinary vision. Filmed over a period of eight years, director Tomer Heymann mixes intimate rehearsal footage with an extensive unseen archive and breathtaking dance sequences. This story of an artistic genius who redefined the language of modern dance is guaranteed to leave you skipping.

Bottom Photo © Gadi Dagon / Heymann Brothers Films.

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