October 21, 2018

Hollywood and the Jewish future

Of the great ironies lately — the German chancellor rescuing 800,000 refugees, the Israeli prime minister making a Holocaust gaffe — Hollywood adds another: “Homeland” has moved to Berlin. 

The show that began as Israel’s “Hatufim” (Prisoners of War), about captured Israeli soldiers returning home to their families, and which later became Hollywood-ized, about an American soldier who was “turned” by Islamic radicals in Afghanistan, is now set in Germany, where the CIA bureau chief is Jewish (Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson) and celebrates Jewish holidays.

Last week’s episode — “Why Is This Night Different?” — began with a Passover seder. A beautiful child sang the Four Questions. And the Israeli ambassador to Berlin made a poignant little speech acknowledging how incredible an occasion it was: 

“We eat maror, the bitter herb, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery our ancestors endured in Egypt,” he said with a thick Hebrew accent. “And for us, celebrating this seder in Germany, it is important to remember the slavery we endured under a tyrant worse than Pharaoh, only 70 years ago. In this land, on the street where we walk every day, our parents and our grandparents wore yellow stars.” 

I couldn’t decide if it was incredibly sad — or absolutely wondrous — that Hollywood was treating the Holocaust with more integrity than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did recently. Even in fiction, Israeli characters are not naïve; they acknowledge the past without distorting it, and they remain vigilant, cautioning about the future.

“Let’s remember the enemies we still have all over the world who wish to destroy us,” the fictional Israeli ambassador said. “We pray for the strength to defeat them.”

All of this brought to mind the latest issue of Commentary magazine, which celebrates its 70th anniversary next month. It chose to honor the occasion by inviting 69 of the most prominent Jewish leaders, thinkers and religious figures to pontificate on “The Jewish Future” (the 70th is Commentary editor John Podhoretz). Respondents include Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City; Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States; and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University. The group represents varying levels of observance; mixed political stripes; and includes philanthropists, activists and Israelis. About 15 percent are women, which is not enough, but not surprising. 

The prompt: “What will be the condition of the Jewish community 50 years from now?” 

It is an issue well worth picking up and reading through, but for the sake of this column, I’ll summarize its 60,000 words: The Jewish future is radically different from the Jewish present. I’m tempted to use the word “bleak,” but I refuse to give in to despair. So I’ll just call it “borderline dystopian.” 

It is interesting that more than one respondent (philanthropist Lynn Schusterman and Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin) both channeled Charles Dickens in their opening sentences: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

Even from today’s vantage point as probably the most prosperous moment in all of Jewish history, we fear for the future. “The Jewish past gives us no reason to believe the Jewish future will be a sunny one,” Podhoretz writes — get this — under his concluding banner of “Optimism.” 

Here’s a sampling of what 69 knowledgeable and committed Jews think the future will look like: Orthodox Jewry will comprise the majority of both American and Israeli Jews — only those with robust Jewish literacy will remain connected to the religion and the land; Jewish communities in Europe will all but disappear, save for maybe a few tiny ones; Israel will become a military garrison state or an enduring occupying state, alienated from Europe and left to do business with questionable regimes like China. Or perhaps, it will not exist at all. 

In one of the more colorful responses, Wall Street Journal columnist and author Bret Stephens depicts an Israeli expat who re-creates Israel as a tourist destination on a 105-acre resort in Utah. After a mixed Arab-Jewish parliament voted to dissolve the State of Israel in favor of union with the Palestinians, and a nuclear weapon destroyed the coast of Ashdod (and became “Azdud”), what was an Israeli entrepreneur to do but build his own River Jordan, mini-Masada and three resort restaurants named after former Israeli cities? “I want to give Americans the full Israeli experience as I remember it,” he says.  

So, you get the point. Even amid some bright spots — Jews will be Jewish because they choose Judaism! (Buchdahl); there will be an infinite variety of Torah study classes! (Rabbi Dan Smokler, Hillel International); Jews will prioritize social justice and fix our broken world! (Ruth Messinger, American Jewish World Service) — mostly, we will face the price we have always paid for being God’s chosen. 

Fortunately, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that “Jews make prophecies not predictions,” and prophecies are designed to rouse us from complacency and create our future, rather than accept it. 

Podhoretz concludes with the project’s good news: “No one actually envisions the Jewish people’s end in an Iranian mushroom cloud.” 

The future may be dystopian, but it is still a future. “And that is a triumph,” he writes.

I put down this brilliant and fun issue of Commentary and realized that it is actually Hollywood — and “Homeland” — that provides the most hopeful response of all. 

Seventy years after the Holocaust, “Homeland” reminds us, we remember that we lost much, but we have much to celebrate. Germany, the place that seeded our destruction, is now a progressive, humane ally and friend. Berlin, which once turned its back on us, is now hosting a Hollywood TV series born of an Israeli imagination and expanded by an American Jew. 

There is a Passover seder on Showtime! 

For the Jews, that may be the closest we get to utopia.