He was just so cute. So entirely appealing. So — well, so adorable.
That’s not why Rabbi Joseph Prouser is centering the discussion that will accompany Selichot services on Gene Wilder, the comic actor who died on August 29. But it doesn’t hurt.
Film in general offers a good way for a culture to look at itself and think about the issues that stir it, Rabbi Prouser, who heads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes said. “It is a forum where you are able to reach a broad demographic, and where you get people thinking about issues beyond themselves.” As they sit there in the dark, their emotions exposed and their defenses down, real-life questions can penetrate the barriers people build and defend efficiently at other times.
And then there’s the specific content of Mr. Wilder’s films. “Many of Gene Wilder’s movies identify socially significant issues,” Rabbi Prouser said. He plans on concentrating on three of them — “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Frisco Kid,” and “Young Frankenstein.” Those films, like many others Mr. Wilder made, include insights on the themes of the High Holy Days.
“‘Willy Wonka’ is focused on resisting temptation and acting in a way that sets aside selfish interests for something that is greater — a greater cause, a greater gain,” Rabbi Prouser said. The movie’s colorful surface and Mr. Wilder’s eccentric, apparently heartfelt (and deeply beloved) performance made the moral not only palatable but actively appetizing.
There are gems in “Willy Wonka,” made in 1971, Rabbi Prouser continued. “‘Time is a precious thing — don’t waste it.’ ‘So shines a good deed in a weary world.’ And it reflects our approach to Selichot as a whole when he says that ‘a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.’”
“Young Frankenstein,” made in 1974, touches on a number of relevant themes, Rabbi Prouser said. “To what extent are you bound and burdened by the past? By the burdens and blessings of family heritage? Can you strike out in a new direction and redefine yourself?
“There’s a great scene where Gene Wilder, as Young Frankenstein, is sleeping fitfully, and he says ‘Destiny. Destiny! There’s no escaping it for me.’” Most of us are not the descendants of mad scientists who create new, emotionally complicated, funny song-and-dance golems, but the question of “whether we can escape the patterns we have carved out for ourselves in the past, exercise moral sovereignty, and go off in a new direction is an inescapable part of the High Holy Days,” Rabbi Prouser said. “‘Young Frankenstein’ is a study of whether we view ourselves as monsters or see the beauty in our flawed beings.”
“Frisco Kid,” from 1979, is the most overtly Jewish of Gene Wilder’s movies — given that his character, the eponymous one, is a rabbi, it would be hard to top it. “It’s not Wilder’s most popular movie, and it’s a niche movie, but I love it,” Rabbi Prouser said. “When Rabbi Avram Belinsky — Wilder’s character — has to explain God to Chief Gray Cloud, he has a beautiful definition of the Jewish view. The chief says, ‘Does your god make rain?’ and Rabbi Belinsky says, ‘No, that’s not his department.’” Does the Jewish God make thunder? Or snow? Or sunshine? Or anything else? No, it’s not his department. “So the chief asks, ‘So what does he do?’ And Wilder’s character answers, ‘He gives us strength when we are suffering. He gives us compassion, when all we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we are all running around blindly, like little mice in the dark.
“‘But no, he does not make rain.’
“And then, there is a big thunderclap, and it starts pouring,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It’s a sophisticated understanding of what God does.
“One of the concluding scenes includes a whole discussion of what is means to do teshuva” — repentance — “with his best friend” — the cowboy bank robber played by Harrison Ford. “Even if you fall, if you go in the wrong direction for a while, you still are who you are,” he said. You still can turn around. “It is a healthy and a soundly Jewish point of view, to recognize the mistake you have made but still come back to yourself.”
“Selichot presents rabbis with an unusual opportunity to teach,” Rabbi Prouser said. “It’s a challenge, because Selichot is in some ways a somber time” as Jews begin to enter fully into the emotional complexity of the High Holy Days, with its call for self-reflection and turning. “Many congregations, though, use it as a light programming time, with music or other kinds of entertainment or diversion.” That’s at least in part because it’s a Saturday night, and therefore it feels a little bit festive. Also, because it’s not a holiday, merely a liturgy to mark the coming holidays, there are no prescriptions against using electronics or any other form of technology or music.
“The High Holy Days are top-heavy with big issues, almost to a counterproductive level, so Selichot is an opportunity to give some counterbalance to that,” Rabbi Prouser said. “And Gene Wilder gives us the opportunity to talk about serious issues in an engaging way. People will leave singing and laughing and still wrapping their heads around the big issues of the days of awe.”
And why Gene Wilder? “He had a gentleness and a soft-spokenness,” Rabbi Prouser said. “And although he was a very funny man, his life was filled with a great deal of sadness.” (His mother was sick when her son, who was born Jerome Silberman, was a child, and died young; Mr. Wilder’s first wife, the comedienne Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer when she was 42. Mr. Wilder made fund-raising for cancer research a large part of his life’s work.) “Particularly in the Jewish ethnic framework, someone who has responded to personal sadness, adversity, and suffering with understated humor really is very appealing.”
There still is something about Mr. Wilder’s life that disturbs Rabbi Prouser, and he plans to address it head on. He will show some of Mr. Wilder’s film clips at Selichot, and “we also will screen at least a few minutes of interviews he’s done,” he said. “He had a troubled relationship with religious expressions of Judaism. Culturally, he was a proudly identifying Jew, but he had a shakier relationship with organized religion and with religious expressions of Jewish identity.
“That also makes him an appealing subject for this program, because we come to the High Holy Days struggling with our issues. What does it mean to be Jewish? How does our tradition speak to us? How does it relate to our own experiences?
“I always find it sad that such accomplished members of the Jewish community had not connected as fully with Jewish tradition as they might have, and that will be a part of our discussion as well.”
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser
What: Will present a video memorial tribute to Gene Wilder, including a discussion of the High Holy Days as seen through the prism of some of his films, before Selichot services.
When: On Saturday, September 24. The Wilder tribute will begin at 9 p.m.; services start at 10:30.
Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, in
What else: There will be movie-appropriate refreshments; Selichot will include the music that evokes the season.