Purim Parallels in ‘Black Panther’

Marvel’s latest blockbuster, “Black Panther,” is an epic sermon on multiculturalism and the struggle to tame identity politics. Its grand themes of personal identity and ethnic pride are especially meaningful in today’s polarized socio-political climate, where a new sense of ethnocentric pride is galvanizing the outrage-driven left while also making American white nationalism “great again.”

The film is set in the fictional wealthy African kingdom of Wakanda, a highly sophisticated modern country with ancient traditions, rituals and beliefs. Since ancient times, when their technological advances were further ahead of the rest of the world, Wakanda’s foreign policy has been isolationist. The kingdom shuns outsiders to protect its most important resource, a secret mineral called Vibranium that powers their scientific achievements and would be deadly in evil hands.

The titular Black Panther and king of Wakanda is a man named T’Challa. His militant nemesis is Erik Killmonger. Having experienced and witnessed grave racial injustice, Killmonger believes Wakanda’s isolationist tradition is wrong. A supremacist, Killmonger plots to arm black people all over the world with Wakanda’s super-weapons in an attempt to conquer the world.

T’Challa also agrees that isolationism is wrong but he plans to enrich the lives of black people around the world through generosity, education and kindness.

T’Challa is cut from the same royal cloth as Queen Esther. His ethnic pride also inspires charity and kindness, as well as thriving within the global community.

Similarly, the Purim story is also about multiculturalism and ethnic pride. The entire threat of Haman’s genocidal plot turns on the fact that Queen Esther is a Jew but is hiding her identity because her people are refugees in exile. However, they do not intend on melting into Persian society. Their plan is to retain their Jewish identity and return to the Promised Land, but the memory of Israel and our Temple is beginning to fade at the beginning of the Purim story. We were so broken and downtrodden that King Achashverosh was nonplussed by the idea of exterminating us.

Our salvation came about because Esther owned her Jewish identity. She sparked a renewal of Jewish pride and identity across Persia that was so great, it inspires Purim traditions of charity and rituals of kindness to this day.

T’Challa is cut from the same royal cloth as Queen Esther. His ethnic pride also inspires charity and kindness, as well as thriving within the global community.

On one level, “Black Panther” is a metaphor for the historical struggle between Black nationalist extremism and the civil rights movement. Both are inspired by the same identity politics but yield opposite results.

Esther embraced her identity to save her people, and when her people were safe they celebrated by bringing light into the world. “La’Yehudim hyta ora v’simcha” – “There was light and joy for the Jews.”

Similarly, T’Challa’s ethnic pride inspires him to add light into the world by raising up the oppressed and downtrodden.

“Black Panther” makes the case for embracing identity politics to uplift others and inspire brotherhood. That is the opposite of supremacy. Ethnic pride is not an end in itself. At its best, it’s part of a vibrant and unifying multiculturalism.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

A Charedi Sitcom that Teaches Co-Existence

Our world is in the midst of a massive social experiment. “Shababnikim,” the surprisingly popular Israeli sitcom about the lives of four yeshiva students, is a perfect laboratory to conduct some analysis.

For almost all of human history, diversity was not a value — it did not even exist. A principal culture ruled each place and time. Minority cultures were assimilated into the dominant culture and communities were not multiethnic societies.

This evolved into the American melting pot. Popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot” in 1908, America was not a dominant culture absorbing others, it was an amalgamation created by millions of immigrants contributing to the greater whole. For 200 years, this ethos built America. The tired, poor and huddled masses immigrated to the New World and melted into Americans — e pluribus unum, out of many, one.

Zangwill’s vision echoes one Jewish tradition about the coming of the Jewish Messiah. In the future, all the nations of the world will assimilate into a moral universe, and the world will be one.

A new ethos is now emerging. It’s less like a melting pot and is more like a kaleidoscope. The new ethos values diversity and seeks to create a multicultural society built on principles of tolerance and respect among groups. No one culture is privileged with dominance — not even the new American culture. Instead of assimilating, we co-exist. No melting required.

This is the world of “Shababnikim.”

Instead of assimilating, we co-exist. No melting required.

It is remarkable that a secular Israeli society loves a show about Charedi yeshiva students. “Shababnikim” tells an empathetic story about the authentic struggles and triumphs of people living in that world. The show is a hit because it feels real. The jokes the yeshiva boys tell, the way they see the world, the way they see themselves, and the way they speak in conversation is remarkably authentic. Equally important to the show’s success is that there is no agenda to vilify Charedi society or create any antipathy in “Shababnikim.” If anything, the show humanizes yeshiva students so well that I predict it will inspire greater empathy for the Charedi community.

In one scene, a secular Israeli woman with a crush on a yeshiva student remarks how much she admires his chastity and appreciates being seen as a person as opposed to an object. “You’re in the ’50s,” she says with a smirk. But the show immediately reminds us that the ’50s are not ideal, either. In the following scene, Meir, one of the yeshiva boys from a simple, poor family, confides to his friend that he wants to date a girl from a very prestigious family. The friend is from an upper-crust family and he not-so-gently explains that “his kind” does not marry “Meir’s kind.” The 50’s giveth and the 50’s taketh.

On a meta level, “Shababnikim” is really about the challenge of multiculturalism. We are accustomed to the challenge of Jewish assimilation expressed as the tension between maintaining Jewish identity vs. blending into society. “Shababnikim” turns this idea on its head. Their challenge of assimilation is the tension between the opportunities of the outside world vs. their inability to engage it.

To an outsider, it can seem easier to melt into society’s pot, but the yeshiva boys are proud of their religious identity and commitment. While off on one of their misadventures, the most pious of the group exclaims, “I don’t need to see the world — I love my world of the yeshiva!” It is true, the young men have their struggles, but they do not wish to abandon the yeshiva. They want to access the rest of the world, and in a kaleidoscope world it is possible to maintain one’s unique cultural identity while living in the bigger world. But it does make things more difficult on both ends. It’s hard to be a non-insular yeshiva student and it is hard to be a yeshiva student in a multicultural world.

“Shababnikim” reconfigures the multi-cultural experiment as a page of Talmud. Using talmudic tools like questions, debates and anecdotes, “Shababnikim” gently appropriates from the yeshiva to inspire our world.

Perhaps that is the formula for multi-culturalism’s success.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Photo from Vimeo

Joseph and Paddington

It is unanimous.

Movie review site Rotten Tomatoes aggregated all 176 critic reviews of “Paddington 2” and every single one has been glowing with adulation — making it the best reviewed movie of all time. The children’s story of an immigrant CGI bear living in real-world London has captured the hearts of even the most hardened film critics.

It is fitting that a mean word cannot be said about a movie without a single mean-spirited or cynical moment. “Paddington 2” manages to entertain, enlighten, enchant and inspire without an ounce of negativity. The world of “Paddington 2” is exactly what we wish for our world: a community of decent people with curiosity, mutual respect and so much joy. Visiting this world, even through a children’s film, is so powerful that everyone who sees “Paddington 2” leaves the theater with the same exact thought: How do we make our world into that world?

This question led me to consider the story of the most likely Biblical inspiration for “Paddington 2”: Joseph.

The superficial parallels are striking. Both Paddington and Joseph are dreamers who get into trouble by oversharing their aspirations. Both are outsiders falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. Both manage to keep their morals and good spirits in prison by being super helpful to other inmates. Both are rescued because of their helpfulness and both experience a yearning to be reunited with their family — despite feeling like foreigners in their own families.

With role models like Paddington emerging from the juggernaut of Hollywood, we can change the world.

There is something deeper in the Joseph story that explains the simple beauty and joy in “Paddington 2.”

How did Joseph see an interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams that no one else saw? He has no superpower or special wisdom other than his ability to see things in a novel way, without the same biases as his Egyptian overlords.

Ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god and lived by the predictable rhythm of the Nile overflowing into its irrigation canals. It was a world with very firm cycles. Measuring time with the sun gives you the same 24 hours in a day, every day, and 365 days in a year. It’s pretty regular. Joseph comes from a family that lives by the moon and worships a conversational, relationship-based God. The moon seems unpredictable because it grows and shrinks throughout its lunar phase. The lunar month has irregular cycles of 29½ days. The God of Joseph and the Bible is unpredictable and changes plans or ideas in reaction to human intervention.

Pharaoh’s dreams appear to be so contrary to the fixed order of nature. Lean cattle swallowing bigger, fatter cattle and small ears of grain swallowing larger ears of grain make no sense in a world of strict order. Pharaoh’s dream interpreters were completely stumped. But in Joseph’s moon-based culture, anything is possible. Hope springs eternal, cynicism and despair are the enemy, and there is always hope for a better tomorrow. He saw years of plenty followed by overwhelming years of famine in Pharaoh’s troubling dream — and he was right. But Joseph also saw reasons for optimism and believed in Egyptians’ ability to roll up their sleeves,  work hard and endure.

Paddington embodies this idea. He unabashedly believes in the power of unconditional kindness and the strength in optimism. When confronted by life’s struggles, Paddington “keeps calm and carries on” with British aplomb and a contagious sincerity. Everyone who comes into contact with Paddington is better for the experience because cynicism is poison and Paddington is the antidote.

The most compelling message of “Paddington 2” is that the world thrives when we follow Paddington’s golden rule: If we live with hope and kindness, reject cynicism and negativity, we can change people. Thankfully, the world is watching “Paddington 2” and loving it. Society is responding to Paddington’s modest proposal with a resounding and reassuring, “Yes, more please.”

Indeed, with role models like Paddington emerging from the juggernaut of Hollywood, we can change the world. As Paddington fondly quotes from his Aunt Lucy throughout the film: “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” Amen.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Spielberg Goes Biblical

The credits were rolling when it hit me: “The Post” was over. Time to go home. “Why am I still sitting here?” I looked around and saw others still sitting in their seats. “Why are they still sitting here?” “Why are we all still sitting here?!”

In my opinion, the answer is in the Bible.

It is accurate to frame Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” as a retelling of the 1971 Pentagon Papers drama, but it is also overly simplistic. Spielberg transforms a historical narrative into a profound commentary on American culture, partially conveyed by the choices made for the beginning and the end of the film.

Stories usually open with “Once upon a time” and end with “The End.” The soft ambiguity of “Once upon a time” signals that whatever preceded the story is unimportant. Correspondingly, the hard certainty of “The End” says that everything important to the story has been told. The narrative exists only in the space between “Once upon and time” and “The End.”

The Bible does the opposite.

It starts with a jarringly definitive “In the beginning” and it ends so gently that the narrative is never formally closed. It follows that the Bible, by its narrative structure, is signaling to the reader that the Bible is important from The Beginning — it has always been important. More significantly, the teachings of the Bible endure long after the story ends, — it always will be important.

Spielberg faced a dilemma about the beginning of “The Post.” When does the story of the Pentagon Papers begin? The first moment of this story is a finite place and time. But which moment?

“The Post” begins its story in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who eventually leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, is on the battlefield documenting the war. A soldier notices Ellsberg and wonders aloud, “Who’s the longhair?” meaning, who is the hippie civilian?

That phrase stuck with me because Ellsberg is an outsider and is identified by his long hair. For the duration of the film, the outsider is the publisher of The Washington Post, Katharine “Kay” Graham, played by Meryl Streep. She is an outsider in a corporate world dominated by men and, as a woman, she is also identified by her long hair. Graham’s journey in the film is the story of how and when she found her voice as a strong, confident, trailblazing woman who confronted and stood up to a powerful White House.

In a movie with consequences of biblical proportions, Spielberg seems to take a cue from the Bible.

There is a third outsider identified by her long hair in “The Post.” Meg Greenfield, played by Carrie Coon, is the only woman on the editorial board of The Washington Post. As the film rises to its crescendo, Greenfield is holding court in the newsroom. She is on the phone with a contact at the court, and she is relaying everything she is hearing. Greenfield has the attention of the entire newsroom. The air is silent and heavy with dramatic pause when a middle-aged white male editor barges into the newsroom and steals her thunder. Reading from a slip of paper, he exuberantly announces victory. For a moment Greenfield’s face falls, but she composes herself and gets another chance to shine a few moments later when she dictates Justice Hugo Black’s forceful opinion — uninterrupted.

In a profound film about women’s empowerment, this moment was a reminder that we adapt and evolve slowly. Kay Graham may have found her voice but women could still expect to be interrupted by men oblivious to the shifting social environment around them.

“The Post” could have ended with the euphoric reaction to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the media against the president. But Spielberg ends by setting the stage for the Watergate scandal. In a movie with consequences of biblical proportions, Spielberg seems to take a cue from the Bible and opts for a gentle, open-ended final scene.

Long after the Pentagon Papers were published, freedom of the press remains an issue. Long after Kay Graham found her voice, treating women fairly remains an issue. Long after Meg Greenfield was interrupted, respecting women remains an issue.

“The Post” does not conclude with finality because, just like the Bible, it is the beginning of a long struggle, not a story about one particular struggle. And that explains why we lingered in the theater watching the credits roll.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal

Screenshot from Twitter.

Mrs. Maisel and the Jewish Revolution

I was delighted when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” won the Golden Globe for best television series — but not for the reason you think. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is as Jewy as it gets. It is witty and humorous and deserves its award. But more than its laughs and giggles, Hollywood — and the rest of us — really need the very serious and timely message hidden in this overtly Jewish show.

We are witnessing a massive cultural shift in Hollywood and Western culture. For decades, abusive behavior and mistreatment, especially toward women, went unchecked. As the most powerful people in Hollywood summarily announced at the Golden Globes, “Time’s up.” The revolution is well underway.

The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries. People who upheave society are not just rebels, they are zealots. Average people don’t take on city hall. Hollywood and Western culture desperately needed drastic change, and it took the strength, courage and near-recklessness of incredibly brave revolutionaries to inspire this transformation.

As is often the case with revolutions, initially the #metoo movement brought everyone together. But the subsequent hedging and handwringing by more moderate voices was inevitable. The pushback began. It was then followed by the pushback to the pushback as people quickly retreated from the harmonious center to their partisan corners.

“Mrs. Maisel” embodies the Jewish secret to resolving this vicious cycle.

In the show, 20-somethings Miriam and Joel Maisel are living out their scripted lives along with their two children in 1950s New York City. Everything changes when Joel confesses to an affair and Miriam, or Midge, as her friends call her, kicks him out. As per “the script,” Midge’s parents expect a quick reconciliation, but when Joel apologizes and begs for a second chance, Midge goes off-script and says no. Viva la revolución!

The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries.

Midge’s rebellion leads her on a winding road to a bright future as a trailblazing female comic and a strong, powerful woman. The most impressive part of Midge’s personal cultural revolution is that her path is entirely original, yet she manages to include multiple parts of her previous, scripted life in her new life. In other words, Midge does not innovate at the expense of her entire past. She rejects all that is bad in the script and embraces all that is good. Her parents, her family, her fashion, her etiquette, her femininity, her Judaism and her sentimentality are all brought along into Midge’s journey.

In the season’s final scene (mild spoiler alert), Midge confirms her identity is independent from her past but also rooted in that same past when she creates her stage name: Mrs. Maisel. Despite the fact that she is divorcing Mr. Maisel, and despite the fact that she is an independent woman, Midge appropriates the name she was given and turns it into the name she chose.

In some ways, this frames Midge as a moderate revolutionary — a feminist hero toppling society’s conventions, gently. Midge’s foil in the show is her manager and adviser, Susie Myerson. She is the other kind of revolutionary. Susie is completely cut off from her family, she dresses and acts androgynously, and she has enough chips on her shoulder for herself and for Midge. There’s nothing gentle about Susie.

Some may think that a gentle revolutionary is weaker than a scorched-earth revolutionary. But the historic Jewish cultural revolutions of deity, ritual, philosophy, literacy and justice were not scorched-earth revolutions. We validated and valued the past while molding the present to create a better future. We have adapted and adopted from every culture we have visited on our 2,000-year Diaspora journey. We have created Judaisms that are unique to their time and place, interpretations specific to different academic spirits, and rituals that connect us to our surroundings. We are the gentle revolutionaries.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the story of Jewish revolutions retold for a postmodern world. To inspire Hollywood’s cultural revolution, we needed scorched-earth revolutionaries. Now, to make Hollywood’s cultural revolution stick, we need gentle revolutionaries.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Pixar and the Zohar

If you’ve seen the trailer or any advertisements for “Coco,” you already know that it’s Pixar’s most Mexican film yet. What you don’t see in the trailer is that Coco is also Pixar’s most Jewish film. You probably would not see that by watching the movie, either, but it’s all I saw.

“Coco” tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a Mexican boy who travels on Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to the Land of the Dead, where he must reconnect with his deceased ancestors to return to the Land of the Living. “Coco” fits neatly in the pantheon of familiar Pixar stories and the film is bursting with wholesome values.

The Jewish idea that aveira goreret aveira — once we step onto a dark path of sin, it can lead to an endless cycle of darkness — is prominent in “Coco.” The filmmakers sprinkle simple truths and lessons throughout: Fame is not correlated with talent or ability; our role models should be the people in our lives who are good, not those who appear to be most successful; we should follow our dreams but not hurt others in the process. Seeing Hollywood teaching good values is worth the price of admission.

On a deeper level, “Coco” is much more. It’s the stuff of primordial storytelling. Many stories dazzle us with mind-bending plot twists and vibrant original characters. “Coco” has neither. The story is not particularly remarkable and the characters are not unique.

“Coco” is a different kind of story — it is a fable. Specifically, it is the kind of fable that has been the bedrock of religious storytelling for thousands of years. “Coco” is a biblical story with new people and modern dilemmas.

Bible stories are not known for their plot twists, but they are brilliant vehicles for life lessons. The purpose of a Bible story is not to entertain — it is to enlighten. “Coco” is certainly entertaining and its agile lesson-teaching impresses. But its true brilliance is the way it enlightens the audience.

Religious stories, loaded with religious meaning and morality, serve a social function, as well. They connect people through ritual and common beliefs. They form a moral fiber that binds religious people to their communities while also answering the “big questions” of life. They connect and enlighten people. This is how religion builds society through storytelling. Without answers to “big questions” and meaning to pull everything together, people don’t build societies.

“Coco” is Hollywood’s most financially successful attempt to tell a universal story with lessons addressing one life’s “biggest” questions: What happens after we die?

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife. Consider this: Pixar spent $200 million to respectfully and faithfully teach the world about Día de los Muertos — authentically. There’s a lot of explaining in the movie as the theology and traditions of Día de los Muertos are doled out in bite-sized pieces.

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife.

The religious moviegoer expects Hollywood to get religion wrong and to subvert whatever it manages to get right. Incredibly, “Coco” does the opposite. It gets Día de los Muertos right. In a nutshell, on Día de los Muertos, the dead visit with the living. Only when we celebrate the dead will their memories live on, enabling them to visit and celebrate along with the living.

This is a powerful teaching. Another movie of biblical proportions, “Interstellar” (2014), also conveyed this idea. Coop, its protagonist, tells his daughter, “We [parents] are the memories of our children.” We find a similar idea in Jewish mysticism. The Zohar says that on days of great celebration, when the living inevitably remember the dead, the souls of the dead leave their heavenly domain and join in the celebration with the living.

This is the kind of “big idea” that traditionally was exclusively religion’s domain. “Coco” is a film doing what religion used to do. It is building culture and meaning. It is building society. Most of all, it is not replacing traditional religious stories with something new, but faithfully retelling the old in a modern way.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.