As we approach Passover and ready our Haggadot for the seder, we are reminded of the relevance of the exodus from Egypt to our lives today as well as of the struggles of Jews throughout the centuries.
With the arrival of spring, we turn to the Haggadah as a manual for justice and compassion as we contemplate a new season and take some comfort in our status as free people in an open society. Each year, we are blessed with the publication of innovative Haggadot with inspirational readings, fresh translations, and new challenges. But we may not be giving enough credit to our newest Haggadah- the cinema.
There is growing recognition that feature films can be considered an important primary source for the study of 20th- 21st-century life. Since the birth of cinema, filmmakers have provided us with films that reflect the world in which we live, and their work often affords great insights into the prevailing attitudes of that world. Like the Haggadah, cinema offers a valuable text from which to gain an understanding of the social, political, and cultural realities of the era. Movies provide a powerful lens, a window on the past, an opportunity for historical examination.
Narrative feature films, despite almost always being fictional, have the capability of reflecting on historical reality. Historian and sometime film critic Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote that “the fact that film has been the most potent vehicle of the American imagination suggests all the more strongly that movies have something to tell us not just about the surfaces but about the mysteries of American life.” His observation assuredly is true for an understanding of American Jewish life.
Jews have been involved in the production of motion pictures since the beginning of filmmaking in America and also have been the subject of many of those films. In an industry strongly influenced by Jewish moviemakers who made and continue to make the decisions about which films are produced, the complex and changing nature of the American Jewish condition has had considerable impact on cinema, and in particular, on how Jews are reflected on the screen.
If we study the American Jewish experience over time through the cinematic lens, we are able to see an evolving portrait of the American Jew over the last century: where Jews have been and possibly where they are going. A corpus of movies has recorded the evolution of Jews within America over the last century, and the cinema provides a meaningful and real accounting-a way of telling the story, a Haggadah detailing what has happened to Jews in America and what continues to take place.
Through movies, we can better understand America’s Jews and the changes in America that had an impact on us. Film historian Peter Rollins wrote that “films can serve the student of American culture in a far more interesting way than simply as a record of visual reality, for films register the feelings and attitudes of the periods in which they are made.” A close study of the film text and visual images within the film offers a great deal of information.
When Jakie Rabinowitz holds up a tallit in the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer” as he is being forced to make a choice between career and religion, this tells us a great deal about how American Jews struggled with their Jewishness in the early twentieth century. A little over half a century later, Neil Diamond, playing the same Jakie, proudly throws a tallit around himself as he shows himself at home in both the synagogue and the concert stage. Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights,” made in 1999, presents three young Jewish men dismantling a sign that reads “No Jews, Dogs or Colored,” where only 50 years earlier, in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a non-Jew played by Gregory Peck does the fighting against bigotry, while the Jew stands on the sidelines.
You are able to study American Jewish life today simply by watching some Adam Sandler or Judd Apatow films. Take another look at Liev Schreiber’s “Everything is Illuminated” or Joel and Ethan Coen’s “A Serious Man.”
Films truly put our lives into some context. By extension, analysis of Israeli cinema offers insights into Israeli society and films about the Holocaust provide a body of work for study and introspection. Cinema, now easily accessible not only on DVD but on your laptop or smartphone, provides a meaningful and real accounting- a way of telling the story, a Haggadah about the story of Jews in America, Israel, and around the world.