A Cantor Goes to the Movies

January 5, 2016Cantor Penny Kessler

When I was a kid, there was nothing better than hanging out on the couch on Saturday afternoons watching movies. I loved gladiator films, British horror flicks, westerns, and movies about faraway places. I had a massive kid crush on the god-like actors, and I desperately hoped to grow up to look like Joan Collins.

It wasn’t until later that I noted how few of these blockbuster movies were about Jews.

In high school, I saw the rerelease of Ben Hur: Romans were the bad guys, Jews were the oppressed good guys, and “ramming speed” became a household expression. It was my first Jewish Bible-type story, and my Jewish pride soared! But by the end of the movie, the Jews head over to Christianity, and I eventually learned that the movie was based on a book titled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It’s still a great movie, but a Jewish one? Hardly.

In the late 1960s, I watched ABC’s presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1959 masterpiece The Ten Commandments, in which Charlton Heston gave a tour de force as our teacher, Moses (was it wrong of me to have a crush on Moshe Rabbeinu?) I didn’t realize how faithful DeMille was to Torah and midrash – because, of course, you’d never know it from the pronunciations of the characters’ names or the delicious (probably unintended) diversity: Heston’s American voice, Edward G. Robinson’s thick New York City accent, Yul Brynner’s Russian accent, Dame Judith Anderson’s oh-so-British decorum, and Anne Baxter’s who-knows-what accent.

Interestingly, DeMille’s original 1923 The Ten Commandments, in black and white, was produced by two of Hollywood’s original Jews: Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky. It was clearly a religious response to the horror of World War I, just as the 1959 version was a response to both World War II and the chaos and fear of the Cold War. The introduction to the 1923 movie states, in part,

“The Ten Commandments are not rules to obey as a personal favor to God. They are the fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live together. They are not laws – they are the law.”

No theologian could have put it any better.

In more recent times, there’s Russell Crowe’s Noah, an odd, quirky, and slightly bizarre movie that was, in its own weird way, mildly close to the Torah story (though I’m still not clear what the relationship was between Noah and his “adopted daughter,” or where she came from in the first place). The use of the fallen angels/nephilim was a riot, and yes, Noah got rip-roaring drunk after the ark made landfall. It was a vastly entertaining Jewish movie, even if everyone spoke in Hollywood’s stilted version of Biblical English.

The flip side, of course, is the really Jewishly bad Bible movie.

We hear a lot today about “cultural appropriation,” when members of a dominant culture adopt or use elements of a different – often a minority or under-represented – culture. In my mind, one of the most egregious examples of cultural appropriation in filmmaking is the 2006 disaster One Night with the King, with a plot that goes like this: Jewish Esther meets hunky Persian King, they fall in love and live happily ever after. This film is all about Christian appropriation of a very Jewish story of survival; it’s also simply an awful movie, and Esther deserves better.

What about the best Jewish Bible movie? My nomination goes to The Prince of Egypt.

When it debuted in 1998, I took my synagogue’s schoolkids to see it and spent most of the time crying. I was incredibly moved by the film’s amazing midrashic elements, the portrayal of the dark-haired and slightly zaftig Miriam, who looks like the Jewish kids I grew up with, and the beautifully sung music, including Ashirah L’Adonai/Mi Chamochah by the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza. Without a doubt, Prince of Egypt is a Jewish Bible masterpiece – and the animation is brilliant, too.

I’ve yet to watch 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, though the trailer suggests that the casting is European Caucasian to the extreme and that Christian Bale uses a bizarre accent that is part Bensonhurst, part British. Most of all, I am intrigued by the possibility of a Moses action figure.

Tell you what: I’ll save it for a lazy Sunday when I can hang out on the couch in my pajamas.

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