In a season of holiday events, I want to suggest two works of art that are timeless: a profoundly playful book about love, and a compelling film about faith — and resistance.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg on his new book: “The through line is love”
You may know Raphael Bob-Waksberg as the creator of the animated Netflix comedy series “BoJack Horseman,” about the angst of an over-the-hill Hollywood actor with the head of a horse.
Or you might’ve seen his name recently as one of the creators and writers of the new Amazon Prime series “Undone,” an animated drama about a young woman struggling with alternate realities.
Or … you might know him as the clever, creative son of Bay Areans David Waksberg, executive director of Jewish LearningWorks, and Ellen Bob, former owner of the Judaica store bob & bob.
In all those roles, Bob-Waksberg has explored, in his unique, transgressive way, the elusive nature of love and its sidekick: happiness.
That’s also the focus of his first book, published in June with the heartbreakingly vulnerable title, “Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory.”
A collection of stories, it’s a volume that puts his creativity on display as he searches for verbal forms adequate to the complexities of human bonding.
Why try fiction when you’ve already got a hot career in television?
“I’ve got a short attention span,” he told J., “so I’ve always loved short pieces, things you can pick up in one sitting and have an experience.”
Some of his stories are little more than lists of observations that manage to sketch the entire arc of a relationship from attraction to disillusionment. These are tales born from tweets, blog posts, text messages and — oh yes, thoughts. “I’m attracted to the idea of finding new ways to tell stories,” he said.
Others, such as the longer and more narrative “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion,” traces the fraught path to a wedding when everyone has opinions about how it should be done. Hilariously conflating ancient Jewish ritual, satirical inventions and contemporary practices, he captures the longing of every couple in love to just get to the other side of societal expectations so they can start their lives.
The details are fresh: Bob-Waksberg got married only 2½ years ago.
“It started small and simple, but it was remarkable how complicated things got,” he said of his wedding. “We’re fine — now.”
Since that important date, he completed this book, which in its stylistic variety is another testimony to his willingness to take risks.
“The through line in all these stories is love,” he explained. “But more than that, it’s a question about love: Is it worth it?”
He said this over the phone, so I couldn’t tell if he was winking. You can ask him yourself when Bob-Waksberg returns to his hometown of Palo Alto for a live reading and Q&A.
“An Evening with Raphael Bob-Waksberg,” 5:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15 at Oshman Family JCC. The $25 ticket includes a copy of the book. Tickets and information: paloaltojcc.org/bob-waksberg, firstname.lastname@example.org, or (650) 223-8678. Also at City Arts & Lectures, in conversation with Emily Nussbaum, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 16. Tickets at https://www.cityboxoffice.com/.
“A Hidden Life” and the inviolate territory of conscience
Several weeks ago I went to an advance screening of “A Hidden Life,” a new film by American director Terrence Malick — whose portfolio includes “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The Tree of Life” (2011) — that will be in local theaters Friday, Dec. 20.
And although I quickly decided that it is not, per se, “a Jewish film” — meaning one that speaks directly to Jewish life — I can’t get it out of my head.
The film dramatizes, in three transcendently beautiful hours, the true story of an Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to join the Nazi regime in World War II and paid the ultimate price for his convictions.
Beginning with revelatory scenes of agrarian life in his village, high up in the Austrian Alps where work, life, family and community form a seamless whole and ideologies are foreign, Jägerstätter is not the kind of man one would expect to take on the Third Reich. But as German fascism reaches the village, bringing out the baser tendencies of men and women alike and enabling intolerance of Jews and others, his deep Catholic faith prevents him from falling in line with a political cult that places itself above all other authorities.
Everyone, including his mother, the local priest and his death-row lawyer, tries to convince him that he can choose to save himself, if only he will go along with the Reich. But for Jägerstätter there is no choice.
While stories about individual conscience like this one make for powerful drama, my first take was that the ethos of the film was Christian. I’m no theologian, but I believe the bottom line of Judaism is to choose life, whereas Christianity upholds the example of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. (Thus, the film’s release at Christmastime. The pope himself had a private screening.)
And yet. Isn’t the development of a moral compass the function of all religions? Don’t they all direct us to stand up for individual conscience in the face of a society’s inhumanity?
That’s why I recommend that you go see “A Hidden Life” — whether it’s a Jewish film or not. Apparently the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival came to the same conclusion, offering a special screening in late November.
Many historical films with a social message deem it necessary to close with some footage of contemporary events to make sure viewers don’t miss the parallels. This one, I am both thrilled and devastated to say, didn’t have to.