CFP: ‘The Art of Cultural Translation: Performing Jewish Traditions in Modern Times’, 26-27 January 2015, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Oxford

This looks interesting.

Conference Theme

The dramatic modern processes of secularization, urbanization and immigration have made Jewish traditions an object of nostalgia, rejection, national pride, and ethnographic research, or various mixtures of these attitudes and practices. From the days of the Haskala movement to today, playwrights, theatre and film directors and other artists have been fascinated by Jewish history, folklore, rituals and tropes. Focusing on Eastern European Jewish culture, but without excluding other Jewish traditions, this conference aims to ask: How are lost or disappearing traditions being staged and re-imagined? What happens when past events and practices return as constructed memories, fantasies or gestures? How do specific art media shape these cultural translations?

In today’s highly departmentalized world, film, theatre, performance and literature are rarely studied together. The conference aims to discuss these various media together, focusing on their common tendency to display, re-imagine and perform what may belong to the past but…

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The Honourable Woman

The Honourable Woman, an eight-part spy thriller set in Britain, Israel and Palestine, has just finished airing on BBC2. A classy, beautifully shot, taut tale of espionage, counterespionage and intrigue, it left many viewers floundering in its labyrinthine plot. Without giving too much away, nearly everybody comes in for a bumpy ride: the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Americans. Given its origins in the UK, it is the British (mostly) who come out as the good guys and the Americans as the baddies. Between those two poles, the Israelis repeatedly fail to protect the Stein family, despite their Zionist leanings, including its patriarch and children, from kidnapping, rape, assassination, and bombings.

In refusing to uphold the mythos of Mossad, The Honourable Woman fits into a recent trend in which the reputation of the Mossad secret agent is tarnished.

As early as 1981 portraits of Israelis as suave assassins, villainous diplomats and manipulative undercover agents appeared in Eyewitness (Peter Yates, 1981) and The Little Drummer Girl (George Roy Hill, 1994), but these have increased in number much more recently.

In David Mamet’s police procedural, Homicide (1991), Israeli secret agents blackmail and double-cross a Jewish cop despite his assistance. Two ex-Mossad bodyguards assigned to protect a key character in Lucky Number Slevin (2006) fail in their duty and are outwitted and shot dead by a supposedly weak Diaspora Jew. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) pokes fun at the image of the Israeli super-agent who ultimately fulfills his dream by cutting and styling hair, as well as the ex-pat and ex-military Israelis who populate New York City.

Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) begins and ends with images of the capture and killing of the eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, illustrating Israel’s failure to protect its citizens abroad. The counter-assassination team assigned to kill the leaders of Black September responsible for the massacre, together with the larger organization of which it was a part, are not represented as being as efficient as Mossad’s global reputation suggests. Mistakes, blunders and errors recur throughout the film. The team are unduly reliant on a shadowy French outfit for their logistics, weapons, intelligence and safe houses that leads to one mix-up when both Israelis and Palestinians share a room for the night. Three of the original five members are killed, one at the hands of a female mercenary, which not only problematizes his masculine identity, but also in death his body is represented as passive and hence feminine, submissive and impotent. Another, Belgian bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) is recruited without anyone realizing that his actual skill was in dismantling such devices. One bomb he makes is so large that an Israeli woman, honeymooning with her Lebanese husband in the next room to the target, is blinded in the explosion. Robert later dies when a bomb he is creating (accidentally?) explodes. Ultimately, the team are ineffectual against the hydra-like rise of terror and, by the end of the film, its leader Avner (Eric Bana) becomes an obsessive paranoid. Convinced that Mossad wants him dead, he rejects Israel, abandons his homeland for the United States, permanently relocating his family to Brooklyn, suggesting that this part of the Diaspora is the safest haven for Jews.

Given that they are at the forefront of the conflict, Israeli films are even harsher in their depictions. In Walk on Water (2004), Mossad operative Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) moves from tough to impotent during the course of the film. In the opening sequences we witness him effortlessly assassinate a Hamas leader by injecting him with poison. By the end of the film, however, literally paralyzed by doubt, he is unable to kill an elderly Nazi war criminal. Indeed, compounding his humiliation, the killing is carried out by the Nazi’s gay grandson.

Finally, in the British film, The Debt (John Madden, 2010) – a remake of the Israeli Ha-Hov (Assaf Bernstein, 2007) – three young Mossad agents are sent on a secret mission to capture and kill a notorious Nazi war criminal. When, thirty years later, a man claiming to be that Nazi surfaces in the Ukraine, it is revealed that not only did they fail in their original mission (the Nazi escapes and permanently scars the heroine) but also they covered up their failure for three decades.

Why is the image of the Israeli suffering on film and TV? There are a number of possible factors. Decreasing identification with Israel coincided with deep divisions among Diaspora Jews and Israelis, characterized by the growing political polarization between religious and secular visions of Israel’s future. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the First (1987-93) and Second Intifadas (2000-2005) in the occupied territories, Rabin’s assassination, the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Operation Cast Lead of 2008, and the current conflict in Gaza, the perception of the continuing intransigence of right-wing Israeli governments backed by zealous settlers and religious fanatics, led many Diaspora Jews to question their ties to the State. Many publicly refused to support uncritically the actions and policies of the Israeli government, creating deep and vocal rifts within Diaspora Jewry. This became particularly evident in the United States where non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders with many professing a near-total absence of positive feelings. Peter Beinart controversially wrote in 2010, ‘Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal’.

Overall, therefore, these images impugn the once-sacrosanct notion of Israeli efficiency and suggest that the Mossad agent is not as one-dimensionally tough as presented in the past.


Robin Williams and the Jews

Although not Jewish himself, Robin Williams played several explicitly Jewish roles. There was, for example, Jakob the Liar (1999) but my favourite must be The Birdcage (1996), itself an adaptation of the earlier French film La Cage Aux Folles (1978).

 In transforming its protagonists from French to American gay men, the remake injects a Jewishness that was missing from the original film. Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert Goldman (Nathan Lane) are a Jewish nightclub owner and transvestite diva respectively. They agree to conceal both their gay and Jewish identities, pretending to be straight and Christian, for the sake of the future marriage of their son, Val (Dan Futterman). Albert even masquerades as Val’s birth mother.

Armand and Albert accomplish their transition from Jewishness to Christianity with marked ease: a small name change, the acquisition of a crucifix for the wall and their ‘conversion’ is complete. This is because, in true filmic tradition, although both are explicitly identified as ethically Jewish – Armand wears a Star of David necklace throughout the film – neither exhibits any religious Jewish beliefs or behaviours; indeed, Albert prepares roast pork for supper.

The irony is that, as one critic noted, Armand and Albert’s ‘decision to pass as Christian fails to produce even the limited soul-searching about staying true to one’s identity or loyalty to group affiliations that the decision to pass as straight’ produces. Indeed, when all is revealed, there is confusion, with one character (Gene Hackman) thinking that they have confessed to being Jewish not gay: ‘I don’t understand […] You can’t be. You can’t be Jewish.’

But probably Mork was his greatest Jewish role, although one that hid its Jewishness beneath the surface. As an alien outsider on Earth, he embodied the Jewish experience par excellence. But in a nod and wink to those in the know, he even had a hand gesture similar to Dr. Spock’s in Star Trek, itself based on the priestly blessing.

The Verdict and the Jews

I was watching Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) last night. It is a courtroom drama, scripted by David Mamet and starring Paul Newman as alcoholic Catholic lawyer Frank Galvin who takes on a medical malpractice case against St. Catherine Laboure Hospital in Boston. The Archdiocese, under whose auspices the hospital falls, is keen to avoid a trial and attempts to settle out of court for a free much lower than Galvin who, admittedly is merely a down-on-his-luck ambulance chaser, believes the claimant should get. Consequently, against the odds and considerable financial and legal muscle of the Catholic Church, Galvin goes to trial. During the course of the proceedings, he loses his star witnesses and is even spied upon, but he continues nevertheless. I shall refrain from spoiling the verdict for you here. One section of the courtroom dialogue really struck home, when Galvin is interviewing a potential Juror.

Galvin: Mr. Abraham…

Abrams: Abrams…

Galvin: Abrams. Yes. How are you today?

Galvin then asks him if he’s ever been to St. Catherine’s and Abrams replies something like, “No, because I’m Jewish.”

The throwaway line aside, Lumet has encapsulated here the problems I have and still have with my own last name and its various mispronunciations. But it also points to a deeper Jewish sensibility running through the film.

Given that the director and screenwriter are both Jewish and that its leading star is part-Jewish (on his father’s side), one wonders if there is a subsurface Jewishness in the film in its sense of the lone warrior taking on the mighty institution of the Catholic Church. Certainly, the shots of Galvin’s run-down office contrast heavily with those of the affluent and beautifully appointed office of the Archbishop as he attempts to suppress the potential fallout from the case. Furthermore, one of Galvin’s star witnesses is Dr. Gruber who is motivated by a sense of justice and right (although ultimately he is scared off and replaced by an African-American MD perhaps hinting at the Black-Jewish alliance of the 1950s and 1960s). Gruber certainly sounds like a Jewish name and also he is played by Lewis J. Stadlen who I think was also Jewish.

Anyway, certainly a film worth watching.