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December 30, 1983 - Image 6

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1983-12-30

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6 Friday, December 30, 1903

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

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Movies Pose Question for Jews

By JOSEPH COHEN

NEW ORLEANS — TO
be or not to be, that is the
question." This famous line
from Hamlet's soliloquy is
also the title of Mel Brooks'
new film, an updated ver-
sion.of the 1942 movie about
a Yiddish theatrical troupe
in Warsaw on the eve of the
Nazi invasion of Poland.
Brooks' film joins two
other current Jewish suc-
cesses, all of them remarka-
ble for the fact that in each
one the leading actor is also
the producer and guiding
genius. These movies are
Barbra Streisand's "Yentl"
and Woody Allen's "Zelig."
I cannot recall another
time when three major
films, Jewish in content,
theme and spirit, addressed
their basically similar is-
sues to an audience over-
whelmingly non-Jewish,
i.e., the American public.
This coincidence aside,
I find it even more in-
triguing that Brooks' title
focuses on the central
issue in both "Yentl" and
"Zelig." Both of these
movies are about Jewish
identity, and while the
times into which the
stories are set are long
since past, "Yentl" in
turn-of-the-century Po-
land, "Zelig" in. the
period between the two
World Wars, their mes-
sages are startlingly up-
to-date and insistently
familiar.
Those messages carry a
warning about the fragility
of Jewish survival in the
Diaspora. The actor's art is
one of impersonation. An-
other word for "impersona-
tion," in terms of all three
movies, is assimilation. At
the heart of assimilation
lies the question "To be or
not to be?" For too many
Jews, pulled both ways, con-
fusion is the end-product.
The connection between
confusion and assimilation
is blood-thick, and, hence,
rich in its literary, and by
extension, its theatrical and
cinematic possibilities, par-
ticularly in a world where
conformity has become the
ante-chamber to anonym-
ity, and it is the door that
beckons to those Jews seek-
ing a resolution to the con-
fusion of their identity.
The meaning to me of
"Yentl" and "Zelig" is to re-
sist capitulating in order to
preclude a century hence
the replacement of Jewish
identity and survival by
conformity and anonymity.
What is being tragically
forced upon the Jews in
Russia today, we should not
in America voluntarily
seek!
Streisand's "Yentl" is
adapted from Isaac
Bashevis Singer's "Yentl,
the Yeshiva Boy," a mar-
velous story of a Jewish
daughter whose father,
lacking •a- son, instills in
her a passionate love of
learning. Because East-
ern European Jewish
tradition rigidly forbade
study of the sacred books
by girls, Yentl, after her
father's death, cuts her
hair, changes into male
garb, and acts as a

yeshiva student to con- dered anonymous. Where
tinue her studies. Deftly, Yentl tugs at us out of
she succeeds in conceal- strength and purpose,
ing her identity until she Zelig's pull is through
falls in love with a fellow weakness and indecisive-
student who is unaware ness.
she is a girl.
To drive home his point
The complications of her about Zelig's assimila-
deception seriously affect tion, Woody Allen draws
the lives of all those with upon a second, perhaps
whom she comes into con- less obvious but no less
tact, leaving her with no *real theme in American
choice but to disappear.
Jewish literature.
Yentl earns our sym-
Though life in the immig-
pathy easily on-two counts; rant community was
first, by her belief that the hard, that community
study of the sacred books is nonetheless fell in love
paramount and should not with the idea of America.
therefore be denied on the From the 1930s forward,
basis of sex, and, secondly, that love affair has been
by her acute awareness that represented symbolically
the meaning of the Torah in our literature as the
prohibition against wearing Jewish boy's attraction
the clothes of the opposite to the shicksa. As a theme
sex rests in the folly inher- in our literature it has
ent in the deception of the been endeniic, reaching
self as much as in the decep- its early apei in "Abie's
tion of others.
Irish Rose" and its nadir
Yentl, to her own self as a in Philip Roth's
woman must first be true. "Portnoy's Complaint."
This only makes more poig-
Zelig's salvation- is abso-
nant her abortive hope for lutely dependent upon his
securing a deeper and more marrying his non-Jewish
profound Jewish identity therapist. Salvation is one
through study. Her expecta- thing, redemption is quite
tions are as contemporary another thing. Zelig may be
as her lot was futile. Yet, saved, but he is not re
not a small part of her at- deemed. His redemption is
traction to us today is in her in limbo.
These movies are obvi-
symbolic representation of
the struggle, increasingly ously so entertaining, we
successful, contemporary may not recognize that they
Jewish women have under- are also subtly instructive.
taken to gain admission to While we are enjoying
the yeshivas, tube ordained, them we should perhaps re-
and to play a full role in all flecta little on.their ramifi-
cations. For the moment,
matters of Jewish life.
We perceive in Yentl's the answer to the question
effort to enlarge her "To be or not to be" is all
Jewish identity the urge over the silver screen.
toward Jewish survival
at its very core.
Understanding is the
If Yentl seeks a larger wages of a lively faith, and
role in Jewish life, Zelig, by faith is the reward of a
contrast, wants an infi- humble ignorance.
nitely smaller one.
Pluralism is absolutely
vital to Jewish survival in
America, but for Zelig it is
an invitation to disaster.
The son of an itinerant
Yiddish actor, Zelig is a no-
body in America. He
willingly trades in his own
identity for the identities of
others —it is the old story of
exchanging one's birthright
for a mess of pottage. We see
Zelig, the human chame-
leon, cleverly take on the
characteristics of all the
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