Monday, February 15, 2010

The Forbidden World of the Ultra-Orthodox


I recently watched an Israeli film entitled The Secrets. It is about a young woman named Naomi who is the daughter of a Rosh Yeshiva, a wise, learned and respected rabbi who is also the head of an academy of learning. Following the death of Naomi’s mother, Naomi asks her father to allow her to attend a Yeshiva for Orthodox girls in Tzefat, an ancient and mystical city in northern Israel. I found it to be a fascinating movie, very different from my expectations. Yet it is also filled with sense of frustration by its modern Israeli filmmakers about the closed, strict nature of the ultra-Orthodox world.
Jews and non-Jews alike have been fascinated by the nature of strict Jewish observance probably since the rise of modernity and evolution of liberal Jewish movements. In particular we have a number of films attempting to enter this ‘forbidden’ world. The Chosen based on Chaim Potok’s book by the same name is probably the most famous of these endeavors. Similarly, but from a more comic vein is The Frisco Kid, and there is also the more recent Israeli movie Ushpizin. All of which are very accepting of men in the ultra-Orthodox world.
However more related to The Secrets are movies like Price Above Rubies, Yentl, Hester Street, A Stranger Among Us, and even Fiddler on the Roof. Each of these portrays in some ways wish fulfillment and frustration at the closed and restrictive nature of the ultra-Orthodox world especially for women. Contained in these depictions are forbidden relationships, and failed attempts at equality.
The conflict seems to be that we want the vitality, exuberance, and faithfulness to Jewish tradition to be observed in the Orthodox world, we just want women to be free to make their own choices and not simply be consigned to the home front.
I was even asked recently in response to The Secrets if a woman could be a rabbi in the Orthodox world. The answer is: of course not. The world of the ultra-Orthodox will never be the world we want it to be. They have their societal structures based off generations of Jewish interpretation of tradition.
So maybe we are fascinated by these communities in part because we commend the ultra-Orthodox for living the way they live, knowing we could never live that way. Yet, we wish to change them to reflect our sensibilities as is reflective in so many of our movies and discussions.
Thus for those of us living in the modern world, it will most likely always be a little alien, a little foreign to our sensibilities. Yes it is demanding. Yes it is rigid. Yes it can also be beautiful and spiritual. But truth be told, our modern approach can also be beautiful and spiritual. One does not need to be Orthodox to spirituality and meaning in a Jewish environment.
We just have to remind ourselves that a closed society does not necessarily make it more ‘authentic.’ It just makes closed. Which is why it is nice to be able to visit from a distance, but when the lights come back on, I personally am thankful to be in a tradition that allows my daughter to choose any path she wishes, and not have it be a path she can only dream about.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Purim 5770

As my tenure here as associate rabbi is rapidly coming to a close, I find myself spending quite a bit of time reflecting over my past accomplishments. However there is one area I continue to dwell on, namely my failed bid to become President of these United States.
I am sure it was not because of my plan to move Washington D.C. to Cancun during the winter months. Nor must it have been my proposal that all college bowl games once again be played only on New Year’s Day. Instead I blame my campaign manager, Peanut the cat, who I just discovered hijacked most of my campaign funds for the purchase of large quantities of meow mix. Who knew advertising jingles could be so effective on cats? This news sent me into a spiral of self-pity where I found myself addicted to tummy-rubs and head scratches. Oh wait, that was the cat.
Needless to say, I am now in the process of writing my memoirs on this experience. I have discovered in my notes several other proposals I should have put forth, which I am sure would have catapulted me to victory. Here they are in no particular order:
I propose all airline CEO’s be required to fly coach 300 days a year. Maybe then, they would finally understand.
I propose that if you are on hold longer than thirty seconds, the company be required to play great music like the Beatles, Stones, U2 or Alvin and the Chipmunks. And while on hold, they stop saying, “you’re business is important to us,” because clearly it isn’t. Otherwise, why would we still be on hold?
I propose your license plate number also be your cell-phone number because the light is green already!
And lastly I propose outlawing the following phrase under the penalty of having to watch American Idol reruns over and over again. That phrase is, “you know.” No I don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t be asking. Please stop assuming I know. Sheesh.
With an agenda like this, I proud to announce I am changing the focus of my campaign. As I will be just outside the D.C. area, during the summer months when it’s not in Cancun, I am hoping to become a player in the current administration. If you are ever in the area, feel free to stop by. Just don’t fly coach; otherwise you might end up sitting next to an airline executive. But be sure to give me a shout, and I will gladly wish you a Chag Purim Sameach, you know!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a 2008 British film based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Irish author John Boyne. It is in the genre of historical fiction and stars David Thewlis (of Harry Potter fame), Vera Farmiga (most recently seen in Up in the Air), and Asa Butterfield, the young British actor hired to portray the youthful innocence of the lead 8 year-old-character Bruno.
In some ways The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is similar to Rosenstrasse, the 2003 film, which also portrays elements of the Holocaust from a German perspective. However where these two films differ is that in Rosenstrasse, the main character Lena was a German woman married to a Jewish man who was taken into custody by the Nazi authorities. Also it was based on historical events.
Where Boy in the Striped Pajamas differs is that the only historical element to it, other than the holocaust, was the possibility that a German Commander might have housed his family near a concentration camp.
The problem with the movie is that it is incredibly unlikely any German youth especially of Bruno's age would not have been involved in the Hitler youth, especially if his father was a high ranking official in the German military. We just need to look at the history of Pope Benedict XVI to understand how many German youths fell under its sway. It is equally as unlikely that Bruno would not have known about the vicious, hateful propaganda used against the Jews, especially for a child of Berlin. And it is equally unlikely a child of 8 would be alive in a concentration camp or that Bruno would have been able to do what he did towards the end of the movie.
Thus, in many ways, it is an unfortunate and unrealistic portrayal. Yet I feel there is redeeming value to the movie because it is told through the eyes of a child. It is a movie today’s children can relate to in ways they might not otherwise be able to. With the daily passing of survivors, the next best way to keep their stories alive is through cinematic portrayals. Thankfully the movie industry is getting more involved with telling these stories from a multitude of perspectives. There has been a mass of movies coming out especially during the past twenty years, especially since the critical and commercial success of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List.
Just over the past couple of years movies have included not just the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but also Defiance, the Reader, and the excellent PBS movie God on Trial. Not every movie about the Holocaust is great or even good. Not every movie is realistic. Yet what they do is keep the dialogue going when the voices of the eye witnesses are sadly leaving our very midst. So in this sense, it is very much worth it to keep watching. And every now and then, a great movie about such a difficult and troubling subject comes out in ways that helps us understand not just this tragedy, but also our own humanity.