Exodus – the final frontier?

Exodus – the final frontier?

Franklin Lakes father-and-son team look at the seder and 'Interstellar' at Emanuel

Ayal Prouser taught circus arts in Uganda. Joseph Prouser

Unnatural dark.

Feelings of dread.

Nothing good coming. Nothing bad holding back.

Have to leave. Gotta go. Need a new world. This one’s no good. Have to follow hope, follow destiny, follow God. Fight through hardship. Persevere. Face despair. Suffer many losses And then, finally, make it to a new home.


That’s a paradigmatic story. We know it best as the story of the Exodus from Egypt, one of our people’s most basic narratives, the story of how we left bondage and journeyed through a generation toward freedom.

It’s the narrative that has undergirded much world history, including the movement to free the slaves that led to the Civil War in this country. It’s formed the basis of many poems, books, and movies.

As Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes realized, it is also the narrative underlying “Interstellar,” the Christopher Nolan epic that came out last fall.

He and his son, Ayal, will lead a pre-Pesach workshop, “An Interstellar Seder,” that will investigate the paradigm and suggest ways to enhance discussion during the seders that by now are only weeks away.

“When I saw the movie, I realized that the storyline is very much about family and family relationships,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It is really a three-generation story, giving different perspectives on family relationships over time. That is the heart of what happens at the seder table.

“I saw it with Ayal, and it all kind of fell into place. We will present it as a father-and-son team; that will serve the goals of the program and bring the themes out even more strongly.”

The connection between “Interstellar” and Pesach is not obvious to every viewer, but it was inescapable for Rabbi Prouser. “The problem for me isn’t in finding themes in movies, it’s being able to enjoy it without seeing it through my theological lens.” Not that it’s really a problem, he added, and it’s an occupational hazard for any rabbi, but “well, I suffer from it perhaps more than most.”

The movie “lends itself to seder-table discussion,” he said. “The main character, Cooper, says things like ‘Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us.’ At another time, he says, ‘Once you are a parent, you are the ghost of your children’s future.’ That is very powerful stuff.”

“We are going to be looking at the movie as a way of looking at the Jewish concept of redemption,” Mr. Prouser said. He is a recent graduate of Clark University, where he earned a degree in screen studies and also, though less relevantly for this story, helped found CHAI (Clarkies Helping and Advocating for Israel).

“There is a clear genealogical aspect to ‘Insterstellar,'” Mr. Prouser said. “It’s about multiple families and generations.” The main characters are a father and daughter, and a teacher and his student; “Teachers and parents often can be interchangeable in Judaism,” he said.

And the movie, like the seder, shows that “redemption is not only for you, but for future generations and for previous generations.”

Also, Mr. Prouser said, “Judaism is very action-based, versus faith-based.” If something is wrong, someone will have to fix it. Instead of waiting for God to throw thunderbolts, Jews assume that God is guiding human action.

Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar’s” director, “is very big on audience placement,” Mr. Prouser continued. “He makes his movies in a specific way, so that you, as the spectator, feel something that mirrors the content of the film.

“His ‘Memento’ is a movie about amnesia. It mirrors cognitive confusion. The movie is backward, and it gets confusing very quickly. ‘Inception’ is written so that it is like a science lesson.

“In the beginning, it is all about theory. How gravity works. The executive producer, Kit Thorne, is a physicist, and the scientific theory is very important to him. It came across in the first act as education. And then it is about what the student, Cooper, has learned. It brings it back to the intergenerational, to the student being the teacher, not only in the audience, but through the movie to the audience.

“The story of redemption in ‘Interstellar’ can be told in 15 words,” he said. “‘People leave a place that’s no longer good for them to find a new homeland.”

That’s the Exodus story – but with a wormhole in space substituting for the parted Red Sea.

Mr. Prouser, who lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, knows something personal about gravity, and how to defy it. He’s an aspiring circus performer, and he teaches circus arts; he used to teach on Long Island, where he grew up, and now works at Circus in Massachusetts.

His interest in circus was spurred by his Jewish family, and he dates it to family Pesach celebrations, he said. “I grew up in a very tight-knit family,” he said. “There are seven of us – first cousins – born in seven years. It’s pretty crazy.” (Two of that group are his older brother and sister.)

“We all went to Jewish day schools, and so we had Passover breaks together. We would go to Ringling Brothers circus every Passover vacation. And then my mom” – that’s Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers – “came home with a learn-to-juggle book. And then I went to a circus day camp.” After that, more circus camps, both day and sleepaway, more coaching, more teaching, more performing followed. “And it all started because I come from a religious family, and we went to the circus together on Passover,” he said.

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