Books: Jews Making Movies

The Retrospective by A.B. Yehoshua and other fiction and non-fiction about Jews in film

by Beth Kissileff

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In this new CJ column we hope to bring to your attention books that offer pictures of Jewish life you might not have been aware of, as well as books that are meaningful, enjoyable and accessible. Here we look at Jews in the movies, with two works of fiction and one scholarly yet highly readable history.

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The Retrospective (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) is distinguished Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua’s most recent novel, ably translated by Stuart Schoffman. The protagonist, aging Israeli film director Yair Moses, is invited to the famed pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, for a retrospective of his work. The location is not accidental; “In this city of pilgrimage,” writes Yehoshua, “people tend to seek a symbol behind every detail.” The retrospective has been organized by a priest with possible Jewish ancestors who tells the director, “although the film you made at the beginning of your career may seem naïve or primitive to you now, it nevertheless contains religious truth.” For his part, Moses, the director, resolves to be “tolerant even of allegorical speculation.” Much of the novel is concerned with what it means to be a director, to create characters and take responsibility for them – not unlike a novelist. Yehoshua’s depictions of imagined films are wonderful, and The Retrospective would be worth reading for them alone, yet the interactions between the characters, and the final, masterful scene where Moses gains the inspiration he craves make this a highly recommended read.

Jay Neugeboren’s The American Sun and Wind Moving Picture (Texas Tech University Press, 2013) is also a tale of Jews making movies, specifically silent films that feature a stunningly attractive young actor who credibly plays both the male and female roles. As in Yehoshua’s book, the descriptions of the movies are beautiful, including a stop-action sequence in which Joey, the main character, rides around a frozen lake on a horse-drawn sleigh with his mother, as his life flashes before him. Joey is not just an object of the filmmaker’s gaze, he is a creator as well. His uncle is a director, his parents are actors, and his cousin Izzie is a stuntman; Joey’s ideas and images help this family of moviemakers create their successful films.

The transition from stories told entirely in images to movies made with the new technology of sound changes the family at the center of the novel as profoundly as its westward move from New Jersey to California. The new technology changes the ways people think about stories, and everyone must adapt one way or another. Joey’s uncle, the director, explains why sound in movies is such a good thing: “The rabbis had associated silence with slavery and words with freedom. The slave… lives in silence, whereas free men are always eager to tell their stories to others.” Readers will be entranced by Neugeboren’s fictional movie scenes as well as by the vividly written escapades of his various characters. This is one of the year’s great books, and could work particularly well for book groups as there are so many aspects to this novel worth discussing.

In The American Jewish Story through Cinema (University of Texas Press, 2013) film scholar Eric Goldman offers an accessible history of how American Jews have told their stories on film. He explores the ways in which subjects such as American anti-Semitism and the Holocaust could, and could not, be discussed in film, and how Jews and Jewish organizations reacted to these issues. Individual chapters provide insightful, informative discussions of films like The Way We Were, Avalon and The Jazz Singer, with some fascinating background about the ideas and personalities behind these iconic stories.

New & Noteworthy

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Other recent books include the novel One Hundred Philistine Foreskins (Counterpoint Press, 2013), by Tova Reich, a funny, inventive and very feminist book about a female spiritual leader in Israel. Don’t recognize the title? It is the bride price requested by King Saul for the hand of his daughter Michal. The book, more than learned wordplay on Hebrew and Biblical ideas, is a satirical romp through many layers of modern Jewry, like Reich’s previous funny and knowing satire My Holocaust. The protagonist here, nee Tema Bavli of Brooklyn, in the course of the novel becomes HaRav Temima Ba’alat Ov, whose followers chant “Te- Tem-Ima-Temima-from-Brooklyn.” Tema searches for a meaningful Jewish existence in various spiritual enclaves in the land of Israel, from the settlements of Hebron to the black Hebrews, eventually forming her own group for whom she becomes a guru. Reich writes that it is “heartbreaking” for women to yearn for the messianic age since the messiah may in fact be female, not the male all have been planning for. Yet “the chosen have no choice” but to keep yearning as women and Jews. This realistic yet celebratory tale of possibilities is masterfully written and jauntily plotted.

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Erica Brown, a popular adult education teacher in the Washington, DC area, is the author of a number of Jewish books including Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things, and Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, as well as a weekly blog that dispenses Jewish wisdom. She wrote Happier Endings (Simon and Schuster, 2013), her most recent title, for a nonsectarian audience, and it has much truth to dispense on how we think about death and prepare our families for our eventual passing. Brown interviews people from a variety of religious perspectives; the chapter on writing an ethical will alone is worth the price of admission.

Acclaimed fiction writer Elinor Lipman (The Inn at Lake Devine) has a new book of essays, I Can’t Complain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), and many of the essays are on Jewish themes. Among my favorites is the one on the meaning of the Yiddish word trepsverter (meaning “step words,” or the perfect retort you don’t think of until you’re walking away and down the stairs). I was also moved by a story about a bat mitzvah she attended, and by the essay on how she coped with becoming a widow in her late 50s. Always delightful, humorous and wise, Lipman continues to be good company, in her essays as well as in her fiction.

Yair Zakovitch is one of exactly three teachers I have had in my life in whose class I watched the clock hoping there was still more time left, because I wanted to hear as much as possible of what he had to say. An emeritus professor of Bible and former dean at Hebrew University, Zakovitch’s Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch (Yale University Press, 2012) is now available in English. Go and learn.