You’ve finished “Fauda” on Netflix, “The Plot Against America” on HBO and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”on Amazon Prime — and perhaps the rest of the Jewish and Israeli content from my “hunkered down at home” viewing suggestions on March 18.
But there’s still plenty of Jewish content to tackle.
Today’s bounty of Judaically infused content is primed and ready for the cheers, jeers and general over-analysis (based on your personal Jewish lens) that we apply to our media consumption.
So let’s create our own at-home film festivals and screening sessions to explore the context of what we’re watching.
Think critically. Feel deeply about what you’re watching. And ask the usual questions.
As you discuss any show or film with Jewish themes, use these questions to launch conversations and controversies around the content:
Presentation: Does this show or film present Jews as victims, justice-seekers, aggressors or with any “stereotypical” Jewish characteristics? How do you feel about how Jews are presented? (Answers may include: “Jews are always victims,” “Jews have to be careful about not being seen as aggressors” and “remember the Holocaust.”)
Your experiences: Does the portrayal of Jewish life and practice in this show or film resonate with your own Jewish experience? Why or why not? Find a moment or character whom you can relate to, even if their personal practice doesn’t match your own (might as well find a way to encourage empathy during quarantine).
Identity and content: How does a character’s Jewish identity or commentary serve the content? For instance, in Showtime’s 2018 fantasy-comedy “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” (available online on several platforms), a character who lost her husband and daughter in the Holocaust gasses a room of dolls. Yes, they’re creepy and evil dolls, but visually it looks as if she’s gassing effigies of children. How do we feel about this?
Good for the Jews?: Overall, is this TV show or film “good for the Jews?” (The answer is always simultaneously “yes,” “no” and “remember the Holocaust.”)
Now, here are some suggestions for making your own film festivals, double features and “film school” screening sessions.
Old version of “The Goldbergs” vs. ABC’s new “The Goldbergs”
“The Goldbergs” was a popular radio show from 1929 to 1946 and then a comedy-drama on TV from 1949 to 1956 — with the catchphrase “Yoo-hoo! Mrs. Goldberg.” Check out this episode on YouTube and compare it to ABC’s sitcom, which is just concluding its seventh season. How has the world changed for Jews, in the world at-large and in Hollywood? How has Jewish representation on TV changed?
“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) vs. “The Frisco Kid” (1979)
This is a matchup of a Broadway and big-screen musical classic against a comedy about a Polish rabbi (Gene Wilder) traveling across the American frontier to San Francisco, with Harrison Ford as a bank robber who befriends him. Sounds crazy, no? Compare shtetls and perceptions of America, as well as attitudes toward Torah and observances of Shabbat. Both are available for rental from YouTube, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime.
“The Producers” (1967) vs. “The Producers” (2005)
Which is your favorite pair of scheming Broadway producers who ogle a tall blonde woman and take advantage of old ladies in order to fund a musical about Hitler, hoping that it will close immediately? Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the 1967 version? Or Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in 2005? Both can be rented on YouTube, Google Play or Amazon Prime, or found on other platforms.
On and off the derech: On-screen portrayals of Hasidic adherence and rebellion
In the following movies and TV shows, discuss how Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities are depicted. Are the depictions rendered with love, respect, disdain, frustration or resentment? Based on these portrayals, how do you perceive the American or Israeli Orthodox community? How do these movies and TV shows portray women? And what does it mean for characters to accept or reject the values of the community around them?
Here’s my list: the 1992 movie “A Stranger Among Us,” directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Melanie Griffith as a cop who goes undercover in a Hasidic community (rent it on YouTube, Google Play or Amazon Prime); the 1998 movie “A Price Above Rubies,” starring Renée Zellwegger as an Orthodox Jew (find it on HBO Now, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play or Amazon Prime); the 2001 documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews (rent on Amazon Prime); the 2017 documentary “One of Us,” about Orthodox Jews facing ostracism and anxiety (Netflix); the 2020 fictional miniseries “Unorthodox,” about an unhappy Hasidic woman who leaves Brooklyn (Netflix); and the Israeli two-season drama “Shtisel,” about a fictional, traditionally religious family in Jerusalem (Netflix).
Justice or revenge? Jews who kill
Make this a film festival! And afterward discuss Jews and power: What do we think about Jews exerting power? What Jewish texts support the ideas of justice and revenge? What’s the difference between justice and revenge? Is revenge ever justified?
I suggest these films: the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film “Inglourious Basterds,” in which a band of fighters, including Brad Pitt, track down and graphically slay Nazis (Netflix, or rent it on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play or Amazon Prime); the 2018 drama “Operation Finale,” about the search for and extraction of Adolf Eichmann from South America to stand trial in Israel (Hulu, or rent it on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play or Amazon Prime); the 2005 Steven Spielberg action-drama movie “Munich,” in which an Israeli special ops squad is tasked with finding and assassinating the terrorists who massacred Israelis at the 1972 Olympics; actor Guri Weinberg plays his own father, Moshe, who was one of the Israeli athletes killed. (Rent it on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play or Amazon Prime).
Bottom line: There’s more content now than there used to be, with more being added all the time. So tune in, get creative, get cerebral. Netflix and kvell and Purell. And, as always, #RememberTheHolocaust.