‘Demon’ arises from Poland’s past

So much of Jewish life is about remembering, keeping Shabbat, yahrzeit dates and who in the family slighted whom, that when it comes to a movie about forgetting, such as the Polish and Israeli film “Demon,” we may be at a loss. But as we peer through the edgy gloom of this production, which takes place in an isolated farmhouse in Poland, and see that what some of the film’s characters want to bury is crucial to our collective memory, we have eerie reckoning to the theme, as if taken possession by its message.

This is not a typical horror picture — there are no slashings, screams or chainsaws — yet “Demon,” directed by Marcin Wrona, frightens with a more modern form of horror: that of forgetting the lasting impact the Holocaust has had in Poland.

Stalking this film with a gaunt presence, a groom-to-be, Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran), arrives from England into the Polish countryside on the eve of his wedding to inspect a deserted farmhouse and barn that he and his fiancée, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), have been given as a gift by her parents. Mysteriously drawn to a spot on the surrounding property, he discovers a pile of human bones, which in the rain seem to swallow him into the ground. We are not sure what effect this accident might have (though the film’s title provides a heavy hint) until after the couple’s very Polish church wedding. The first clue comes after the ceremony, when Piotr, by custom, is supposed to dash a shot glass against the wall but instead places it on the floor and prepares to step on it. Is that he is becoming a Jew the horror?

“It is the first sign he is in a different culture. He doesn’t know who is,” the film’s producer, Olga Szymanska, said.

The screenplay, written by Pawel Maslona and Wrona, is loosely based on the play “Adherence” by Piotr Rowicki, a story of a dybbuk: in Jewish folklore, a wandering, often malevolent spirit that takes possession of a living person. In film, “the dybbuk theme has not been touched in Polish culture for 80 years,” Szymanska said, referring to S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk,” later made into a movie, in which a bride is possessed.

The word “dybbuk” is derived from the Hebrew verb dabak, meaning to adhere or to cling, but it is not until late in the film that we discover what — or who — is doing the clinging.

As Piotr’s behavior grows progressively more erratic, and the wedding party, sometimes humorously, devolves into the reception from hell, the father-in-law tries to cover up things by plying his guests with more and more alcohol. After Piotr collapses to the floor in what looks like an epileptic seizure, a doctor and priest (both are guests) are summoned to consult on his condition.

“There are no special effects in the film,” Szymanska said. Yet a special chill, unfortunately known to many Jewish viewers and based on the fog of history, creeps in. When the dybbuk is questioned by a local elder, a teacher who is Jewish, she reveals (speaking through Piotr) that her name is Hanna. She is a local, young Jewish woman who mysteriously disappeared in the pre-World War II era, explains the teacher, who even remembers her.

Speaking in Yiddish, Hanna talks about a promised husband and returning to carry out what “death interrupted.”

As rumor quickly spreads through the party that the groom is possessed, the father-in-law’s fear that the reception will be ruined spins out of control. For him, this is the real horror story. Standing, play-like on a stage, he regales his inebriated guests, saying, “We must forget what we didn’t see here.” When he tries to explain away the groom’s possession as a “collective hallucination,” the film itself is taken over by the dybbuk of history.

“The whole movie is not about the Holocaust,” said Szymanska, who feels it is more about “the past” in which, for centuries, “both Poles and Jews lived together.” Yet, it is the forgetting and remembering of that side-by-side neighbor relationship between Polish Christians and Jews that currently has Poland possessed.

Since the publication of “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” by Jan T. Gross in 2001, a book that details a July 1941 massacre in which, Gross says, 1,600 Polish Jews were murdered (later estimates give a lower number) by a group of non-Jewish Poles, the issue of whether Poles collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust has erupted into a painful national debate. Even though the country has a National Institute of Remembrance to investigate such charges, just this year, the country’s right-leaning government has proposed a new law, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “that would authorize a three-year prison sentence to anyone who claims that Poland collaborated with Nazi Germany.”

“Demon,” released in 2015 in Poland into this atmosphere, got caught up in this national debate. “There were some right-wing people who didn’t like it, and said it was this kind of wave of movie that’s anti-Polish and accuses Poles of killing Jews during the second world war,” Szymanska said.

Sadly, Wrona, who was married to Szymanska, will not be able to participate in the discussion his film might spark here, as on Sept. 19, 2015, at the time of the Gdynia Polish Film Festival, where “Demon” was being shown in competition, he took his own life in his hotel room.

Explaining what she thought drew her husband to the film, Szymanska recalled that “Marcin was very attracted to mysticism.” In the film, he “found an intersection to recall our two nations’ pasts,” she explained. He was interested “in what a modern dybbuk would tell us.”

“Demon” opens Sept. 9 at Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.

A dybbuk in the nuclear deal

In Jewish folklore a dead malcontent may return to possess the living. The troubled soul is known as a “dybbuk’, and it runs amok making mischief. In books and on stage and screen the fiend is invoked to aggravate family wrangles to the point of madness. Yet for all its wicked antics the dybbuk wants nothing more sinister than to settle a score. It may upturn some lives in the ghetto, but not the balance of world power. And no dybbuk, until now, toyed with the President of America.

Love or hate the nuclear deal, no one disputes that Obama’s ‘any deal is better than no deal,’ has upturned the balance of power. Iran, hitherto America’s number one foe, shall henceforth be, in the world’s number one hotspot, America’s number one ally. A detente, in other words, is brewing between the world’s powerhouse and the world’s sour pickle jar.

This devilish diplomacy has nothing to do with Don Corleone’s, ‘keep your friends close but your enemies even closer.’ POTUS has not kept long-time Middle East friends close. He’s left them bewildered and hurt. At least five powers – Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel – look at the mullah coddling by which Tehran had to be coaxed to the table, and wonder what they’ve become to the White House: still allies or new discards. Never mind historic deal: the nuclear accord bears the hallmarks of an historic barter. The dealmakers in Vienna acquired a valuable trading partner in return for a wink and a nod and the signatures of a murderous cabal. 

Unenforceable ‘snap back’ sanctions and a pre-arranged checking mechanism, in case Iran cheats, mean that Obama rolled the dice on a wing and a prayer. And he knows it. That dash to the Security Council to lift sanctions in order to blunt the teeth of Congress is not the way a dealer you can trust behaves.

Call the deal catastrophic or a triumph of diplomacy: Obama swears it was the best of no alternatives. It will stop, he convinced a minority of people, Iran from making The Bomb. It’s what he set out to do, audiences are told; it’s what the ‘good for everyone’ deal does. Sceptics and proponents may both be wrong: the White House’s move to bring war-mongering mullahs in from the cold was neither brash nor bold. Prophetic more fits the bill; not in the narrow sense of foretelling what the future holds, but prophecy that paves the way for upheavals of biblical magnitude. The making of Iran into a regional power (the President’s undercover motive according to Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute), could be the harbinger of tectonic shifts and rude fractures.

A bubbling cauldron of disparate voices; Iran’s consummate cunning, emboldened by weak-kneed Washington and partners. Mullahs knew how deeply Obama was invested in the project. As badly as they needed a deal, he signalled that he needed one far more. Tehran knew that Europe had no stomach and Russia and China no scruples. One shackle after the other came off master criminals, even as the teams parried. The P5+1 conceded sticking point after sticking point; and when all was said and done, six impatient dealmakers left with no guarantees that Tehran would not go back to wicked old ways. The mullah’s red lines, unlike Mr Obama’s, were real and firm. Ridding the world of the ‘Zionist cancer’ was non-negotiable. So it was not negotiated. Anything for the devil to make a pact with White House and partners.

A spectacle of natural allies falling out of bed and habitual enemies climbing into bed brings to mind a celebrated tale of bedlam. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, left alone in the workshop, enchants a broom and a pail to do chores for him. In no time there’s chaos, with the greenhorn clueless how to stop the magic. He splits the broom in half, hoping that will do the trick, but both pieces turn into more brooms while the pail slops water at twice the rate. “Powerful spirits should only be invoked by a master wizard,” scolds the sorcerer when he beholds the mess. A late lesson for the White House and its unholy alliance? Don't get into bed with religious fanatics you can’t control. Perhaps there lies the moral of the nuclear deal, which may be more a ticking bomb than a moment for the world to relish.

Like Marlowe’s creature, Mephistopheles, like hell’s monster, Hitler, Iran would never have struck a deal it meant to honor. The accord with Iran is some more “Peace in our time” scrap paper. Britain’s Neville Chamberlain was innocently bamboozled. Dr Faustus danced with his devil merely to relieve boredom. What made the world’s most powerful leader let his genie out the bottle?  Who or what is the mischief-maker behind the nuclear deal? What fiend runs amok in the corridors of power? If the genie has been freed, what possessed the world’s most powerful leader to let it go free?

Washington’s wager with the devil is a gamble. Faustus gambled his own soul; Obama with the lives of hundreds of millions. And while he tries to sell the pact it’s worth remembering: the devil never deals itself the bad card. It signs pacts with blood, and that’s another thing worth remembering. More, the devil likes to break its word before giving the signature time to dry, and that’s something else to keep in mind.

Let no one accuse Tehran of non disclosure. It revealed its hand. But in the thrall of some dybbuk bent on mayhem, Obama wouldn’t heed bad omens. Which probably explains why pacts with madmen and the paper they’re written on are equivalent in value. Feted honour beckons like a pot of gold. The fate of Marlow’s Dr Faustus was eternal damnation. But the gambling medic was not the President of America. Faustus sealed his own fate, not the fate of mankind, which is what detente with Iran could seal. Embracing his new ally, Obama may have ushered in the era of Gog and Magog.  

Steve Apfel is a prolific author (novels and non-fiction), essayist and commentator on “enemies of Zion” which happens also to be the title of his latest book. Visit his webpage here.

His books are:

‘The Paymaster,’ 1998
‘Hadrian’s Echo: The whys and wherefores of Israel’s critics.’  2012
‘War by other means: Israel and its detractors.’ Contributor. Israel Affairs, 2012.
‘Enemies of Zion.’  (For publication in 2015)
‘Balaam’s curse.' A novel in progress

‘The Possession’ possesses the box office

“The Possession” is off to a devilishly good start at the box office, grossing $21.3 million — making it the second best opening for a movie on Labor Day weekend after “Halloween” in 2007, which brought in $30.6 million. Based on the dybbuk, a malevolent Jewish spirit, and the film “The Exorcist,” it features Matisyahu in his big screen debut and Kyra Sedgwick. The film tells the story of a young girl (Natasha Calis) who buys a mysterious box at a yard sale, unaware that inside lives an ancient spirit. Despite the box office success, “The Possession” received mixed reviews, scoring only 39 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes Fresh scale, but performing better with critic Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Related: Hollywood dybbuk invades suburbia

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, May 13

The beat goes on today at the annual Santa Monica Festival. Head down to participate in a drum circle; hear multicultural music, including a concert by Bucovina Klezmer; and enter the Eco Zone. The city steps up its commitment to environmental responsibility this year, with totally solar powered stages and a host of activities centered on caring for the Earth, including an outdoor adventure challenge course for kids, and a mobile TidePool Cruiser.

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Clover Park, 2600 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt =””>

Sunday, May 14

When a lovely young woman becomes possessed by a dybbuk, it takes a minyan to cast out the demon. In Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” they only have nine, until they pull a troubled man off the street to help with the Jewish exorcism. But he’s got his own demons. The play opens this weekend at The Skylight Theatre.

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.). $20. 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (310) 358-9936.

Monday, May 15

Great American music takes center stage this evening, with a tribute to the works of celebrated lyricist Dorothy Fields. Michael Feinstein, Marvin Hamlisch and others perform “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a celebration of the life and lyrics of Fields, who wrote the titular hit, and numerous others including “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I’m in the Mood For Love.” A post-performance cast party will follow. The event benefits L.A.’s Center Theatre Group’s discount ticket programs, and is hosted by Corina Villaraigosa.

8 p.m. $200 and $500. 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3139.


Tuesday, May 16

S.T.A.R. Sephardic Tradition and Recreation goes big this Lag B’Omer, and invites the community to join in. This evening they’ve rented out the Santa Monica Pier for a citywide Jewish celebration, complete with rides, kosher food and live entertainment.

5-9 p.m. $8. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. (818) 782-7359. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “”>

Wednesday, May 17

Bring your child — or your inner child — to L.A. Artcore’s exhibition of Ursula Kammer-Fox’s “Play Mates,” on view through May 31. Kammer-Fox has created a number of whimsical sculptures of made-up creatures for this show, and she explains, “I perceive one of life’s demands to be that we escape our prisons. This body of work represents my escape from the prison of constant seriousness, and the esthetics of higher education.”

Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). Free. LA Artcore Center, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-3274. ” width=”15″ height=”1″alt = “”>

Thursday, May 18

Lauded short story writer Deborah Eisenberg discusses her latest collection, “Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories” on KCRW’s Bookworm program this afternoon. Host Michael Silverblatt will engage Eisenberg more specifically on the subject of writing about the post-Sept. 11 American sensibility.

2:30-3 p.m. KCRW 89.9 FM.

Friday, May 19

Silliness reigns at the Academy tonight, as it presents a special cast and crew reunion and screening of the classic comedy “Airplane!” Writers-directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker and actor Robert Hays, among others, are scheduled to attend the discussion. No word on the jive-talking Barbara Billingsley.

8 p.m. $3-$5. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 247-3600.

Dybbuks and Heroes Liven Holiday Books

Kibitzers, dreamers, medieval travelers and dybbuks are among the wide array of heroes, heroines and mystical villains in this season’s crop of Jewish children’s books, as publishers expand their offerings beyond holiday books and biblical retellings.

The roster of publishers is also evolving as much as the books they publish. An estimated 160 new Jewish children’s titles were published last year by a growing number of mainstream and religious publishers. This reflects a national growth among religious-themed books.

Ilene Cooper, the children’s book editor of Booklist, a trade magazine published by the American Library Association, said that several years ago, Booklist began publishing an annual spotlight on religion books.

“It was hard then to come up with enough books to fill the list,” she said, but not anymore.

Here are some of the most notable new titles.

“Angel Secrets: Stories Based on Jewish Legend,” by Miriam Chaikin, illustrated by Leonid Gore (Holt, $18.95, ages 5 and up)

Chaikin reveals her mastery of lyrically crafted, endearing stories based on biblical interpretations about the angels who link heaven and earth. Perfect for reading aloud. Chaikin writes warmly of angels of forgetfulness, alphabet angels and the palace of love. Gore’s dreamlike illustrations accompany each story.

“Dreamer From the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall,” by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Holt, $16.95, ages 4-8)

From the attic window of his home in a small town in Russia, the young Moshe Chagall, better known as Marc, sees the world differently from others. Colors are bolder, houses float in the sky and fiddlers dance on rooftops. Markel chronicles Chagall’s young life as he turns from a dreamer to an artist.

Lisker’s fanciful, colorful Chagallesque illustrations dance across the pages. A short biography is provided at the end.

“Dybbuk: A Version,” by Barbara Rogasky, illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher (Holiday House, $16.95, ages 7-10)

This tale, loosely based on the famous Kabbalist play by S. Ansky, is a mysterious, intricate story of broken promises, retribution and love set long, long ago in the tiny village of Brinitz. Rogasky’s retelling is skillful and engrossing. Illustrations by the award-winning Fisher are bold and haunting.

“Hidden Child,” by Isaac Millman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18, ages 8-12)

As a young boy growing up in Paris before World War II, Millman, whose name then was Isaac Sztrymfman, lived a happy life, accompanying his father on Sunday mornings to the nearby cafe, where Yiddish-speaking patrons debated politics.

But the German occupation of France in 1940, when Isaac was 7 years old, changed life forever. In straightforward prose and captivating graphic artwork and photographs, Millman recounts the story of his survival as he became one of the “hidden” children of the war.

Millman strikes a perfect balance in recounting the tragic hardships he endured, while revealing the acts of human kindness of people who took risks to protect him.

“A Horn for Louis,” by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by James Bernardin (Random House, $11.95, ages 6-9).

Leave it to master storyteller Kimmel to write a flowing and heartwarming story about the unique friendship between the young Louis Armstrong and the Karnofskys, a Jewish family in New Orleans. Great for reading aloud, this early reader about New Orleans’ most famous jazzman is made ever more powerful as a portrait of daily life long before Hurricane Katrina devastated this colorful city rich in American cultural history.

“Kibbitzers and Fools, Tales My Zayda Told Me,” by Simms Taback (Viking, $16.99, ages 3 and up)

Bedtime reading doesn’t get more fun than with these Yiddish tales recast by Taback, Caldecott-winning author and artist of “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.” Be prepared to laugh along with the kids who’ll delight in the baffling riddles of kibitzers and shlemiels. Why bring along an umbrella full of holes, asks Mendel. “I didn’t think it was going to rain,” replies Itzik.

The colorful illustrations are as offbeat and humorous as the narrative. Taback fills his short stories with easy-to-learn Yiddish expressions (and their definitions) and adds a glossary at the end.

“Sholom’s Treasure,” by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16, ages 4-10)

The two award winners are perfectly matched as Silverman engages young readers with the childhood world of Sholom Aleichem as he grows from class clown to master storyteller. Gerstein’s illustrations are delightfully playful as he gives readers a Sholom with rosy cheeks, reddish-brown curls under his cap and an impishly endearing smile.

“The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela,” by Uri Shulevitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17, ages 5 and up)

Shulevitz has created a wondrous, illustrated travelogue just right for children by recreating the little-known voyages of a Jewish traveler who visits Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad and Jerusalem in the 12th century. Shulevitz uses the first-person narrative to draw readers in.

Shulevitz has won awards for several books, including “The Treasure” and “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship.”

“Four Sides, Eight Nights,” by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, illustrated by Susanna Natti (Roaring Brook Press, $16.95, ages 4-8)

An offbeat, fun book that goes beyond the traditional Chanukah story to explore the history of the dreidel and spinning tops from around the world. There are dreidel facts from collectors and Sevivon science, including a lesson on friction from Sir Isaac Newton.

Natti is familiar to young readers as the artist of the popular Cam Jansen series, and her light touch and expressive characters enliven the book.

Danger in Not Knowing Our Story

Claire Luce Booth, the wife of the owner of Luce Publications, reported a frank conversation with a Jewish friend. Booth said, “I must admit being positively bored by all this talk of the Holocaust and its constant repetition of Jewish suffering.” The Jewish friend replied, “I know just how you feel. I feel exactly the same way about the Crucifixion.”

Each would like to see the other's story go away. But neither will go away. Golgotha and Auschwitz, the Crucifixion and the Holocaust, remain the dybbuk of our culture. They must both be confronted and understood.

I saw Gibson's Passion movie because I had to. When in conversation with Christians or Jews, they ask me, “Did you see the movie?”, and I reply, “No,” the conversation is broken.

The conversation must not be broken. The dialogue must continue. I cannot and ought not hide my eyes from this crucial and excruciating story seen by millions throughout the world. Both terms “crucial” and “excruciating” are more than etymologically related to the Latin “crux“, “cross”, Latin for “excruciare“, “to crucify”. I saw the movie at a public screening and behind me sat a woman who sobbed and gasped throughout the movie. I understood her tears. She saw in this tortured, relentlessly violated figure on the cross a martyrdom, which in Greek means “witness” and “agape“, an altruism which is the highest form of love, to sacrifice oneself for another. The god-man on the cross died to save her soul.

She cried, and I cried. I saw, on that Roman cross, the crucifixion of my people. For two thousand years my people have been hounded by the unspeakable accusation of deicide, the murder of God. Blood libel, pogrom, inquisitions, expulsion, are bound with fearsome chains to the Passion story. On the cross, I saw 1.5 million Jewish children hanged, 90% of Eastern European Jews decimated, eight out of ten rabbis in Europe slaughtered. Who can reasonably expect that I can see this picture of priests and crowds, draped with prayer shawls, hovered over by a she-devil, without a measure of paranoia? Who can expect a traumatized people to review this film with dispassion? I remembered my zayde's fear when he crossed the street before a church, not out of disrespect, but out of fear. The Crucifixion may be a symbol of self-sacrificial love, but to a black man, a fiery cross set on his lawn by the K.K.K. is no act of compassion.

We both cried, she because she saw in the Crucifixion the saving of her soul, and I because I saw in it the cremation of millions of innocent lives. In the movie, I was not troubled by the discrepancy between the New Testament and Gibson's version, nor the logic which condemns Judas for doing that which he was fated to do by the design of the Father who willingly sacrificed His son to wipe out the sins of mankind. Faith is not logic. Against all arguments, the Church father Tertullian declared, “Credo quia absurdam est” — “I believe because it is absurd.” Beyond logic or the intentional or unintentional anti-Semitism of the movie, I became troubled by something else. That became clearer to me on one particular occasion, when seated at a dinner alongside an intelligent Jewish man, who initiated a conversation about the movie he had just seen. The intensity of his discomfort and nervousness was evident. He touched my hand and asked me with earnestness, “Rabbi, how do we answer it? Did the Jews kill their god? Why do we Jews reject Jesus? Why did we not appreciate his suffering?” The depth of his questioning revealed that something more than anti-Semitism was at stake. His question recalled my earlier years in the rabbinate when parents would come to ask me, “What do I say to my child who wants to know 'Why can't we have a Christmas tree?'” It soon became evident to me that the parents were not concerned about the tree, but with the root of the question. Not, “Why can't we have a Christmas tree?” but, “Why can't we be Christians?” In other conversations about the movie with some Jews, I heard similar undertones of doubt and came to realize that Jewish ignorance is lethal, that it eats away at our morale and our self-understanding. It made me more aware of how dangerous the lack of philosophic and theological grasp of our tradition is.

We have to understand their sacred story but assuredly, we must understand our own sacred story. Every religion has its root story which expresses the purpose and meaning of life — who we are, what we hope our children will become, how we regard those who may not accept our story. Every religion has its own unique story. Mine is not superior to yours, nor yours to mine. Without understanding what Judaism affirms, we are left only with what others consider our rejection. Out of ignorance of our own story, we tend to see ourselves through the eyes of those who view us as apostates.

My friend echoes their question, whether or why we killed the son of God. I don't understand the question. The question derives from their story, their premises and presuppositions. What does it mean to torture and murder God? In my story, the question makes no sense. In my story, God is not a person, not incarnate, not made of flesh and blood. In my story, God is not visible, not mortal, not victim, not capable of being killed. God is not a sacrifice. In my story, we bring sacrifices in the name of God, but God is not our sacrificial lamb. Abraham's sacrificial ram is not Isaac, the son of Abraham, nor the son of God. In our story, when Abraham believes that God would have him sacrifice his son Isaac, the angel of God in the Bible contravenes: “Do not raise your hand against this child or do anything to him.”

The accusation “Why did Jews kill God?” begs the question. It makes sense only if you accept the theological premises and presuppositions of another story. I feel trapped, much in the same way that the defendant is tricked by the lawyer's question “And when did you stop beating your wife?” It wrongly assumes that which is to be proven. In my story God is not to be made into any image: “You shall not make me into any image or any likeness that is in the heavens above or in the earth beneath.” We sing it in our liturgy: “God is not a body, nor the semblance of a body.”

We must respect the uniqueness of each other's story, but we cannot impose our story upon the other. Am I to respond to your question “Why did you reject Jesus as the son of God?” with “Why did you reject the tradition of Moses? Why did you reject the mother faith?”

If you understand the affirmation of our faith, you will understand that the rejection does not single out Jesus for rejection. In our story, no one, neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob nor Moses nor David is accepted as divine, perfect or infallible. There is no rejection of any priest or prophet, only an affirmation expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes: “There is no person who has walked the face of the earth and has done good and who has not sinned.” In our story, no one who walks the face of the earth is divine. In our story, the struggle is against apotheosis, making of anyone a god. No priest, patriarch, rabbi is worshipped. We have no saints; we have no beatification or canonization of any patriarch, priest or prophet. In our story, we do not even know where Moses was buried lest his burial place become a shrine. In our Passover story, the name of Moses is not to be found in the Haggadah, lest we deify a human being. This is our affirmation, not our rejection. Our affirmation of the One-ness of God is prior to the claim of the Trinity of God.

We are asked why we do not accept a savior to save our souls from the burning coals of hell and perdition. Here again the question is loaded: The question makes sense from the point of view of their story that is based upon the belief that every human embryo is stigmatized by an original sin, not a consequences of free choices, but, like DNA, an involuntary sin inherited from conception. In that story, sin is supernatural and therefore cannot be overcome, erased or expiated by human deeds or human efforts. In that story, vicarious atonement, the death of God's son, can wipe out my sins. But that never was our story. In our story, no sin is original, no sin is supernatural. My sins are not inherited, they are chosen by me and I am responsible to expiate for my transgressions. There is something I can do to apologize, forgive and repair for the hurt.

In my story, neither God, nor priest nor rabbi can stand in my place. In my story, there is no vicarious atonement, no surrogate for my doing teshuvah. If I sin, it is I who must pay, I who must appease. No one else, neither father, nor mother, nor saint can suffer for the hurt I have inflicted on others. It is I who must bind the wounds, set aright the broken bones. In our story, no one can fast for us, no one can pray for us, no one can beg forgiveness for us.

When you speak of saving our souls from hell and perdition, you impose another story upon ours. In our story, hell is not “down there.” Hell is not an eternal torture for people who don't believe in our story. In our story, hell is here on earth — starvation is hell, slavery is hell, genocide is hell, terror is hell, prejudice is hell, hatred is hell. In our story, in the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Jacob it is taught that “One hour of repentance and the practice of good deeds are better than the entire world to come.”

You cannot read your story into mine and then question my fidelity. Out of your story comes the belief that souls must be saved, that “extra ecclesia nulla salus“, “outside of the Church nobody is saved.” That story is not ours. In our story, no one who does well, no one who lives a good and decent life, is excluded from the world to come. In our story, the sages declare: “I call as witnesses heaven and earth that be it an Israelite or Gentile, a man or a woman, only according to the deed does the Holy Spirit rest upon him.” In your story, souls are saved. In our story lives not souls, are to be saved.

It is true that we own different stories, but it is equally true that those stories can change, and that stories have changed. It is a desecration of the nobility and power of the Church's moral capacity to change, as it is a blasphemy to Islam or Judaism when the wisdom and compassion to change is denied. Experience, history, compassion and moral sensibility correct our stories and add to them new wisdom and new love. What concerns serious critics about the movie is it's assault upon the post-Vatican II Church which has proven to be sensitive to the misuse of the Christian story.

Something revolutionary occurred forty years ago when the Second Vatican Council opened its doors to 2,540 bishops gathered in Saint Peter's Basilica. One of the most unforgettable figures in contemporary history, Pope John XXIII, introduced two concepts that revolutionized religious thinking in the twentieth century and into our century. One concept, “aggiornamento”, called for the “updating of the tradition;” and the other, a French term, “ressourcement“, urged “the recovery of ancient sources,” especially the sources from Judaism, the mother tradition which nurtured and gave birth to Christianity and to Islam. After thousands of years of persecution, Inquisition, Crusades, Pope John XXIII courageously opened up the windows of the Church.

In 1960, Pope John XXIII with a notable Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, and began an intense discussion with him. Jules Isaac presented the Pope with a book entitled Contempt of the Jews, in which he appealed to the Pope to remove the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic elements in Catholic liturgy. Pope John XXIII kept Jules Isaac in the Vatican for three days, and when they emerged from their deep conversation, Jules Isaac said to the Pope, “Can I leave with hope?” And the Pope responded, “You are entitled to more than hope.” Thus began the greatest blessing of the Church and honor to the memory of its savior.

Lest we allow the movie to eclipse the moral heroism of the Church, let us recall the changes within the Church. Only yesterday, at the turn of our century, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, called upon Pope Pious X to support the cause of Zionism and the return of the homeless people to Zion, Pope Pious X responded with a classic position from the old Church theology: “We are unfavorable to the movement. We cannot prevent Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we can never sanction it. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Should the Jews manage to set foot on the once promised old-new land, the missionaries of the Church stand prepared to baptize them.” This was the stigma of Cain, placed upon the wandering Jew, who would have no rest until the second coming of Christ.

But this present pope, John Paul II, on December 30th, 1993, and against the internal opposition from right-wing Catholics and Arab states, and even over the objection of his Secretary of State, established full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, exchanged ambassadors and put an end to the Church's condemnation of the Jewish people as the eternally uprooted, wandering Jew. That event was celebrated here at Valley Beth Shalom at a Service on a Friday night in the presence of Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles and bishops and priests and nuns from the Catholic community.

It is important that men and women of good will, from churches and synagogues, not allow high jacking of Vatican II post-Holocaust Church. Mel Gibson does not hide his opposition to the Pope, nor to the papacy, since John XXIII.

Jews and Catholics alike honor this pope, under whose auspices a “Mea Culpa“, a plea for repentance, was proclaimed. This pope, in our time, urged the Church to remember in the words of the Pontifical Commission wrote: “The Second Millennium draws to a close. It is imperative that the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recording all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his counsel.” This Pope, in our time, called on the sons and daughters of the Church “to purify their hearts in repentance of past errors and infidelities so as to help cure the wounds of past injustice.” In this synagogue, at Valley Beth Shalom, in the presence of the Cardinal and Catholic theologians, we discussed with amity and love the need for repentance, the acknowledgment of responsibility of the Church and the importance of excising from Catholic liturgy, Catholic prayer, those sections that were plainly anti- Jewish and anti-Judaic.

We must not allow this retrograde movie to dismiss the remarkable progress of the Church when Father John Pawlokowski, among others, searched through the Catholic textbooks taught in parochial schools to eliminate those passages inimical to Jewish life and to Jewish thought. The prayer on Good Friday that condemned “Jewish perfidy”, the alleged betrayal and treason of Jews, was excised. In January 1965, the prayer written by Pope John XXIII to be read in all Catholic churches, was printed in Commentary Magazine. It must be read over and over again: “We are conscious today that many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people. We realize that the Mark of Cain stands on our forehead across the centuries that our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew. And we shed tears that we caused, forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for crucifying a second time in their flesh, for we knew not what we did.” It would be a betrayal of hope and of goodness to let a hate-filled film become the definitive statement of Christianity. It would be a blasphemy to raise Gibson's perverted notion of the New Testament based upon the writings of two Medieval, anti-Semitic nuns as the Catholic position.

What are we to do? We must recognize the struggle, after 2,000 years of anti-Judaic venom, to detoxify the poisons of contempt. We must engage our Christian brothers in a continual dialogue to educate, to understand the sanctity of our respective stories.

But first, Jews must understand their own story, their own theology — what it is that we believe, and why it is that we believe, else they will be confused and defensive.

We must take advantage of the new interest in religion, amongst Christians and Jews and unbelievers, and turn the sorry state of events into the great opportunity to penetrate darkness with light, sickness with health and contempt with compassion.

May not be reproduced (except for personal use) or published without written permission of the author. For permission, contact Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis at Valley Beth Shalom, 818-530-4007 or lcowley@vbs.org