Poem of the Week

hanukkah

Hanukkah Lights Tonight

by Steven Schneider
Our annual prairie Chanukah party—
latkes, kugel, cherry blintzes.
Friends arrive from nearby towns
and dance the twist to “Chanukah Lights Tonight,”
spin like a dreidel to a klezmer hit.
The candles flicker in the window.
Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.
If you squint,
the neighbors’ Christmas lights
look like the Omaha skyline.
The smell of oil is in the air.
We drift off to childhood
where we spent our gelt
on baseball cards and matinees,
cream sodas and potato knishes.
No delis in our neighborhood,
only the wind howling over the crushed corn stalks.
Inside, we try to sweep the darkness out,
waiting for the Messiah to knock,
wanting to know if he can join the party.
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Trailer: The Jewish Cardinal

Here’s the trailer for The Jewish Cardinal so you get more of a sense of the film.

The Jewish Cardinal

jewish_cardinal

What an absorbing — and true story!

I happened upon The Jewish Cardinal (a.k.a. Le métis de Dieu) at my library and am so glad I did. It’s the story of Jean-Marie Aaron Lustiger, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who converted to Catholicism as a boy during WWII. His mother was killed at Auschwitz and though his father isn’t religious, he’s hurt by his son’s conversion and later decision to become a priest.

As the movie starts, Pope John Paul II soon makes Lustiger a bishop and soon a cardinal. Lustiger is real, someone whom people can relate to. He shakes things up and causes turbulence but eventually people see he’s right. For example, early on he sees that the church needs to reach people via mass communication and he starts an archdiocese radio station which he himself broadcasts from.

He also doesn’t like when his Jewish origins are written about as a gimmick or when he’s asked by a high ranking rabbi to deny his Jewish identity.

He often meets with John Paul II in the ’80s when the pope is fairly new. They understand each other and he earns the pope’s respect.

jewishcardinal-01

When it’s learned that Carmelite nuns have made a convent in Auschwitz, Lustiger becomes something of a mediator and possible pawn in a conflict that’s both political and religious. He’s savvy enough to broker a fair resolution, but gets betrayed.

The acting is stellar with Lustiger (played by Laurent Lucas) and the actother cast members turning in bold, believable performances. The actor who played JPII carried off the role with great credibility. (He’s not perfect.) The film’s never hokey or preachy, just real and compelling. I’m so glad the intriguing name called to me.

A Gentleman’s Agreement

gentlemen's agreement

I felt in the mood for an old movie so off the top of my head I entered “Gregory Peck” in Netflix’s search box. The first film in the list was A Gentleman’s Agreementwhich is the story of a journalist, Philip Skylar Green (Peck), whose hired to do a story on anti-Semitism for a weekly magazine. A widower, Green’s just come to New York with his young son and mother.

While some may think the film is too talky or preachy, I’d disagree. I liked that a film would take on such a dirty secret. Green doesn’t merely encounter and write about blatant anti-Semitism, he reacts to those who aid and abet, the polite, liberal people who aren’t anti-Semitic, but remain quiet when comments and jokes are made. That’s a big part of the film.

A young divorceé, Kathy suggested the story idea to her uncle, the magazine publisher. She meets Green and they hit it off. Throughout the film, she maintains how she isn’t anti-Semitic and she’s defended a colleague who quit due to its vile consequences. Romance grows between Green and Kathy, but time and again Kathy’s behaves timidly when confronted with anti-Semitism. When Kathy’s sister gives a party for the newly engaged couple, Kathy tries to persuade Green to let the sister and her crowd know that he “really isn’t Jewish.” She tries to make exceptions time and again and this causes great conflict in their relationship. This behavior is exactly what the film aims to address – how well meaning people go along and behave in such a way that prejudice lives on.

Another sophisticated aspect of the film involved Green’s secretary. It turns out that when she first applied to work at the magazine using her real name, she was rejected. Then when she used a false name, one that doesn’t sound Jewish, she got hired. Green makes this problem known to the publisher, who insists that HR print a line in its ads stating that religion is a matter of indifference to getting the job.

When the secretary learns this, her reaction surprises Green. She’s worried that the “wrong kind of Jew” would be hired, perhaps a secretary who fits a stereotype she wants to distance herself from – someone too loud or who wears too much make up. This sort of complexity isn’t seen in movies today. I doubt such a movie would be made today. I know we’ve made great strides in acceptance and diversity, but my hunch is such bias is still with us and is ignored.

A Gentleman’s Agreement is a good film that could launch discussion within a family or classroom. It doesn’t bore and the actors – Gregory Peck, Celeste Holm, Dean Stockwell and others who aren’t well known but still performed well – make this film worthwhile.

Facts:

  • This film was 20th Century Fox‘s top grossing film of 1948.
  • A Gentleman’s Agreement won Best Director, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars.
  • Producer Darryl F. Zanuck sought legal advice regarding the naming of the three anti-Semitic political figures. When told there was only a small risk of libel, Zanuck, who wasn’t Jewish, replied, “Let them sue us. They won’t dare, and if they do, nothing would make me more happy than to appear personally as a witness or defendant at the trial.” As it turned out, Sen. Bilbo (D – Miss) died before the film’s release, Rep. Rankin (D – Miss) lost in his campaign to succeed Bilbo (but remained in Congress), and Gerald L.K. Smith filed a lawsuit that ultimately failed.
  • When other studio chiefs, who were mostly Jewish, heard about the making of this film, they asked the producer not to make it. They feared its theme of anti-Semitism would simply stir up a hornet’s nest and preferred to deal with the problem quietly. Not only did production continue, but a scene was subsequently included that mirrored that confrontation.<p>Fact source: imdb.com

Daniel Deronda

Adapted from a George Eliot novel, the BBC production of Daniel Deronda will quench any Anglophile’s thirst for drama and romance. The series opens with a head strong, vivacious beauty, a Victorian Scarlett O’Hara, winning and quickly losing big at a German gaming table. It seems her laughing off the loss doesn’t ring true. Maybe she isn’t as well off as she appears.

Soon we learn the captivating woman is Gwendolyn, whose family isn’t well off (in fact they lose everything by the end of episode 1). The title character, Daniel, sees Gwendolyn lose all her winnings and as a professional guardian angel, retrieves the lost necklace Gwendolyn had to hock. While few words pass between the two, we can see that they’re both smitten.

Daniel has no idea who his real parents are. Most his life a rather stodgy, yet kind man has taken him in and acted as a father. He plays the part so well that most people assume the man is Daniel’s father. In any event Daniel has had the upbringing of a gentleman without the solid footing of one. Like any good hero, he’s very handsome and very kind.

One day he rescues a young woman, Mira, who tries to drown herself. He takes her to some friends and oversees her care and her budding singing career. There’s some warmth between Daniel and Mira, but it simmers in the first three episodes. They would make a good couple, but she is Jewish and while Daniel is open minded for the era, he doesn’t seem ready to chance marrying Mira. Still he doesn’t like it when his best friend expresses a desire to marry Mira either.

While Daniel and Mira are getting acquainted and Daniel’s helping Mira find her long lost relations and learning more and more about Jewish culture in a corner of Victorian England, I’ve never seen, Gwendolyn’s family has hit hard times. It’s impossible for them to keep her in silk and satin. (She always got the best horses, clothes, etc. while her non-blonde-haired siblings got table scraps it seems.) Her uncle can get her a position as a governess.

A governess? Are you kidding? Gwendolyn has always wanted the finer things and she’ll do anything to get them, anything including a cold man with money, whom she knows has neglected a mistress and three children.

The story is absorbing. The relationships are all in a knot and no one’s where they should be. To make matters more complicated, you have to ask yourself whether you’d root for Gwendolyn and Daniel since she’s so self-absorbed. The most redeeming aspect of Gwendolyn’s character is that she doesn’t pretend to be generous or kind. She’s quite open about her faults, which she sees as assets, rather like Cynthia in Wives and Daughters. If a villain knows her faults, she’s on the path to heroism.

After seeing Hugh Bonneville in Downton Abbey it’s hard to imagine him as a cad, or worse, but in Daniel Deronda he’s a scoundrel. He enjoys subjugating Gwendolyn and that is why he married this stunningly beautiful, albeit selfish and frivolous young woman. My, a lot of women need rescuing here and there’s only one Daniel in the village.

Tomorrow I’ll finish episode 4.