December 17, 2018

Watching the Watchers

Every year, Hollywood creates a handful of culturally significant movies that captivate a wide audience and sweep us away on what can be described as a cultural wave. Recently, I’ve taken to rewatching those films that had a lasting impact on me. Rewatching, but not re-experiencing. Rather, I’m sharing them with my sons.

For me, rewatching is not simply the act of “watching again.” By default, rewatching bypasses the hype and hoopla of a new release. All that remains is the actual film. There is no cultural wave to sweep us away but something more meaningful is left in its place.

I want to share those feelings with my sons and I hope they will feel something, too. I watch the screen with one eye, the other eye on my boys, to see their reactions to powerful moments in the story. You get only one chance to see your kid’s face when he finds out Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

“Game of Thrones” is one of the most popular shows in television history. It is also one of the most intense, and you can watch videos of people’s reactions to scenes from the show on YouTube. Those who had read the “Game of Thrones” books were ready for these moments and used their phones to record their friends’ and family’s reactions to them on the screen. Uploading these videos to YouTube helped propel the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon. The show pushes our most sensitive, emotional buttons and arouses our most primal feelings.

You get only one chance to see your kid’s face when he finds out Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

James Cameron’s “Titanic” was a cultural tsunami. It was big and beautiful, sad and spectacular, and infinitely rewatchable. Some teens saw the film dozens of times. They went not only to rewatch the movie but to watch others watching it for the first time.

Sharing feelings with words is clumsy. Sharing experiences that create those feelings is Divine, and it’s this idea that explains Jewish holiday rituals.

We weren’t there for the original cultural mile markers. We weren’t liberated from bondage by Moses; we weren’t present when God split the sea; we weren’t imperiled by Haman’s xenophobia; and we weren’t saved by Esther’s heroism. But those who were there shared their stories with their children so they could feel the same thing as their parents.

That is why we retell our stories and why our holiday rituals are so important.

Judaism does not live in the past. It is the past that lives in us.

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.

Joseph and Paddington

Photo from Vimeo

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.