What News on the Rialto?

Fill the Void (2012) is one of a growing number of movies produced in Israel that affirm the truth and worth of Judaism. Photo: Norma Productions/AF Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

 

BASSANIO: If it please you to dine with us.

SHYLOCK: Yes—to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarine conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. What news on the Rialto?

***

Signor Reb Shylock, if I may speak with you from the twenty-first century, the news on the Rialto is that Jewish life has changed since you lived in Venice. The Ghetto is open! Curfews are gone! Jews come and go as we please! This liberation spread from Venice to all of Europe and beyond, walls tumbled down, and we can eat with everyone and drink with everyone, and even, if we like, pray with everyone. And many of us do. We assimilate. Of course, some of us do keep up the good old Jewish laws and customs. Those who do are called “Orthodox.” The term “Orthodox Judaism” came about around a century and a half ago when the more assimilated, reformed, liberated Jews distinguished the less liberated, the unreformed by naming us “Orthodox”—to make things clear. So today, you, Signor Reb Shylock, would not be simply “the Jew, Shylock,” today you would be “the Orthodox Jew, Shylock.” As for the Rialto, the news of the Rialto, well, it has become something called The Media. And in The Media there are Jews and there are Orthodox Jews.

Orthodoxy in High Cultures

Shakespeare was not the first or last creative genius to exploit Jews. In fact, Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1599) is a pussycat compared to Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta (1590), which was a London favorite nine years before The Merchant of Venice. The Jew of Malta is a vivid drama that is almost never performed today. No wonder: Shakespeare’s Shylock claimed a mere pound of flesh, Marlowe’s Barabas poisons an entire nunnery to be sure he kills his daughter who has become a Christian. Marlowe would surely win the Oscar for Outstanding Blood Libel.

These are but two examples of artistic anti-Semitism—Jew-hatred in highly nationalistic cultures like Elizabethan England.

Charles Dickens’ Jewish Fagin, in Oliver Twist (1838), is smarmy, greedy, smart and tattered as he turns homeless boys into pickpockets. Dickens himself expressed warm feelings for Jews and softened Fagin in revised editions, but look at the size of actor Alec Guinness’ nose in the movie of Oliver Twist (1948). Hypnotic Svengali, the lovesick villain of George du Maurier’s best-seller, Trilby (1894), casts his sinister, musical Jewish spell over innocent Irish tone-deaf Trilby until she sings herself to death. Jews cast spells. (Where have we heard that recently?) Creepy Jews sold books and mirrored both aristocratic and popular opinion in Victorian England.

Shakespeare was not the first or last creative genius to exploit Jews.

On the Continent, Richard Wagner, an outspoken, unapologetic anti-Semite, surprisingly put not a single Jewish character or Jewish reference of any kind into any of his operas. Wagner was on friendly terms with Jews personally while venting his bigotry in print, principally in the treatise, Das Judenthum in der Musik, Jewishness in Music (published twice, in 1850 and 1869). Justifiably or not, some Holocaust historians trace the fuse of the Shoah back to Wagner. And could there have been a higher national culture than Germany from the nineteenth century through Weimar 1933? The Mitteleuropean “Jewish Problem” would seem to have grown more problematic in direct proportion to the height of the culture.

Even so, along with the anti-Semitism in high cultures there was also philo-Semitism. Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise) (1799), George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda (1876), Mascagni’s opera L’amico Fritz (1891), Halevy’s La Juive (1835), and more, all characterize Jews and Judaism fairly with no calumny or caricature.

Nevertheless, there is something in higher, purer, prouder cultures that doesn’t like a Jew, something that chauvinistically values and protects itself from the incompatibility of Jewish influence—Egypt, Greece, Rome, the French Enlightenment—all high cultures with a “Jewish problem.” What is it? And what about our own?

Orthodoxy in Contemporary Media

Our not-so-lofty popular culture, “Hollywood” (the catch-all label for the motion picture television culture) seems to be having a Jewish problem lately, in particular an Orthodox Jewish problem. Unfair, untrue and even libelous storytelling and characterizations have hit the screen in
recent months.

NBC was forced to withdraw an episode of the Canadian television series Nurses, in which a young Chassidic patient refuses a leg-saving bone transplant in keeping with the “religious prohibition against transplantation from a non-Jew.” It could be a bone from a goy. Maybe an Arab! Perhaps even (gasp!) a woman’s bone! The patient and his father would rather rely on Divine healing or even suffer the loss of the leg.

Alarms went off at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which then made it clear to NBC that there was no such repulsive religious prohibition in Judaism, and that this was “no slip of the tongue,” but either dense, unchecked ignorance or deliberately scripted anti-Semitic libel. The episode is now gone—at least from NBC, although it may be doing damage elsewhere in the world.

NBC’s long-running Saturday Night Live comedy show (est. 1975) took a cheap political shot when one of its comics quipped, “Israel is reporting that they vaccinated half of their population. I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half.” Not a crack about the Orthodox precisely, just the entire Jewish State. And a deliberate and malicious lie.

Netflix, a worldwide home-screen streaming channel, features a sub-stream of Orthodox Jewish programming, not entirely unflattering, but occasionally defamatory.

A widely watched Netflix miniseries, Unorthodox, tells a somewhat biographical, mostly fictional story of “Esther Shapiro,” who breaks from the Brooklyn Chassidic community and follows the example of her divorced mother to a life free of religion in Berlin. The inciting issue here is intimacy, very specifically “ultra-
Orthodox” intimacy, and it is all callously false and adolescently scatological in every derogatory detail. This hogwash is unfortunately made convincing by a radiant performance by Israeli actress Shira Haas.

Netflix, worldwide home-screen streaming channel, features a sub-stream of Orthodox Jewish programming, not entirely unflattering, but occasionally defamatory.

Netflix also presents One of Us, a sensitive, poetically photographed documentary about Chareidim who go off the derech, lose faith, lose marriages, lose ties with children and families, and communities that nurtured them, and find themselves adrift in secular society, unprepared for the “outside world.” It’s well done, honest and it hurts. But where is the other side of the story? There are many more Jews and non-Jews who find fulfillment in religion, many more who discover and embrace Orthodoxy than there are those who turn away. Aren’t the incoming as cinematic as the outgoing? Where are their stories?

I happen to be among the “incoming.” As a ba’al teshuvah who is a television screenwriter and playwright, I have tried to drum up Hollywood interest in the joyful, powerful appeal of religion and Orthodoxy. So far, no sale. Why not?

The Religion of Assimilation

If there is a prejudice against Orthodoxy in the world of motion pictures and television, it is not rooted in anti-Semitism. Sure, there may be anti-Semites in Hollywood, as there may be anywhere, but movies and TV have an Orthodoxy problem for another reason: Jewish Orthodoxy in all of its varieties stands against assimilation.

Shakespeare got it right in dramatizing Shylock as a Jew who buys, sells, talks and walks with Christian neighbors, but will not go beyond that. To paraphrase Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, Shylock will “integrate” but he will not “assimilate.” Hollywood, in contrast, in all of its varieties, stands very much in favor of assimilation. In Hollywood, Issur Danielovitch becomes Kirk Douglas.

Assimilation is the undeniable crusade of another Netflix miniseries, a “reality-TV” show called My Unorthodox Life. A narcissistic, exhibitionistic, elaborately produced rampage of anti-Orthodox revenge, the show features a formerly frum consummate control freak who has assimilated into the super-secular world of haute couture, bringing along her dependent, vulnerable, half-grown children while discovering her new Prince Charming adorably non-Jewish husband. A celebration of assimilation.

This could well have been entitled My Glamorous New Life or My New Birth of Freedom, but no, the very title, My Unorthodox Life, is bait devised to take the show off the entertainment page and into the news—a prison break from Orthodoxy—to create controversy: man bites dog; woman bites Jews. The irony is that with all the glamor and with all the unsophisticated clunky strivings of this would-be glitzy family of doubtful style, the simple decency of their former husband-father back in Monsey seems much more sympathetic by comparison. Sadder even is that for all her assimilated superiority, the heroine seems so bitter—even to the point of tears—because her fourteen-year-old son loves Torah.

Shtisel is a sincere, affectionately told story of a faith-driven Chareidi family in Jerusalem. Photo: Ohad Romano

 

Anyway, My Unorthodox, Unorthodox, whatever—Netflix’s menu has rebalanced with the unexpected popularity of the Hebrew-Yiddish miniseries, Shtisel, a sincere, affectionately told story of a flawed, faith-driven, very Chareidi family in Jerusalem, portrayed by an extraordinary cast of actors. Netflix did not originate or develop Shtisel. It is an exquisitely directed Israeli production that Netflix had the excellent taste and courage to acquire as-is for international distribution. And it was a big hit.

Shtisel is universal because Shtisel is as specific and as sectarian as it can be. The actors recalled that the most difficult part of their work was not the acting but the early morning hours of hair and makeup. But it’s not the painstakingly perfect beards, peyos and sheitels that make Shtisel special, it’s what that makeup represents. No matter how difficult the loves and struggles in the Shtisel narrative, we feel certain of one thing: there will be no assimilation. Five hundred years from now, the descendants of the characters of Shtisel will be Jewish. And they will be, whatever it will mean then, “Orthodox.”

So, is Hollywood anti-Orthodox?

Assimilation: The Legacy of Hollywood

No. Hollywood is not anti-Orthodox. Hollywood is not pro-Orthodox, either.

The miniseries Unorthodox resembles an earlier movie, The Jazz Singer (1927), a historic film that was Hollywood’s first “talkie” (feature-length film with spoken dialogue) about a chazan’s son who wants to be a jazz singer.

Compare “Esther Shapiro” (Shira Haas) and “Jackie Robins” (Al Jolson). Both abandon religious roots for secular fulfillment in music—she classical, he jazz. Both arrive at similar finales: Esther with new non-Jewish Hochkultur Berlin friends, Jackie with his non-Jewish Broadway wife and life, blessed by his Yiddishe Mama.

Al Jolson (aka Asa Yoelson) sings to Esther Shapiro across the century that divides them, a century of assimilation, which has been a dominant theme in the pop-culture of the American-Jewish melting pot—not in fulfillment of any ideology, but in recognition of the realities of the box office. Business is business and show business even more so.

The movie business can be said to have begun in 1914 with a silent, twenty-minute-long movie, The Squaw Man, directed by a young actor turned director named Cecil B. DeMille. One of its producers was a salesman turned movie producer, Samuel Goldfish. The Squaw Man was an interracial love story, the first movie ever made in Hollywood and a big success. Goldfish changed his name to Samuel Goldwyn and later spoke a cardinal principle of Hollywood, “If people don’t want to go to the picture, nobody can stop them.”

The box office is the arbiter of taste and ultimate control.

Hollywood is not anti-Orthodox, it is pro-assimilation.

The legacy of the Jewish founders of the Hollywood studios lives today and determines what “green lights” productions. Those founders of American mass culture, for whom Yiddish was often their first language,  ate with everyone, drank with everyone, even prayed with everyone. Assimilation was their primary religion. Even today, a concept for a movie that deliberately opposes assimilation, that enhances separation and promotes segregation is no sale. Orthodoxy separates. Hollywood is not anti-Orthodox, it is pro-assimilation.

Even so movies and television could be nicer to the Orthodox—or at least, not tell lies.

There are happy exceptions—mainly from Israel. It took nearly seventy years, but the Jews of Israel have begun to catch up to what the Jews of Hollywood began a hundred years ago—exporting entertainment worldwide, and some of it is even good for Orthodoxy.

Writers Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon’s Shtisel is exceptional but not unique. The ground for Shtisel was prepared by Shuli Rand’s Ushpizin (2004), Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void (2012) and The Wedding Plan (2016), and Joseph Cedar’s Footnote (2011), all of which affirm the truth and worth of Orthodox Judaism. Srugim, created by Eliezer Shapiro and Havva Deevon, is a well-watched TV series about Modern Orthodox Jews.

***

And so, Signor Reb Shylock, since your troubled time, four centuries of Shylocks have strutted and fretted upon the stage and screen. But as touched on in this brief account, we have had our victories and heroes too. Directly, indirectly, good and ill in every art form, Orthodox Judaism has played a role in every culture. The difference today is that Zion is reborn, Israel is regenerating Jewish culture and sending it around the world at the flip of switches “over the rainbow”1 and, Reb Shylock, “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” 2

Notes

1. Yip Harburg (born Isadore Hochberg) (Lyrics); Harold Arlen (born Hyman Arluck, son of a chazan) (Music).

2. Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson, son of a chazan). Famous words said by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, which heralded the end of the silent film and the arrival of sound to the movies.

Playwright and screenwriter Allan Leicht is the recipient of an Emmy Award, two Emmy nominations, a Writers Guild of America Award, a Christopher Award, and the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association—all for his work in television. His most recent work for the stage, My Parsifal Conductor, a Wagnerian Comedy, premiered on pre-pandemic Off-Broadway.

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This article was featured in the Winter 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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