On King's The Beauty of Judaism on Film
Mike King's The Beauty of Judaism on Film offers a thoughtful, insightful, and sensitive contribution to film studies, Jewish studies, cultural studies, philosophy, and religious studies. It lends itself superbly as a text for a course on Judaism in film, as a film-club guide, or as an introduction for anyone seeking a better understanding of Judaism. It can serve as a first—but not last—step in a journey of appreciating, respecting, and learning about but also from the holiness of Judaism.
King's thesis is that the inner drama of Judaism is represented well by the dynamics of narrative cinema. In examining a wide range of both historical and contemporary films, King demonstrates that great insight and nuanced cinematic art can be found in films representing and exploring the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism. As King phrases it in his typically articulate manner, cinema offers an opening to "new religious vistas" (190), which can be explored by the unique nature of the medium. Like an entranceway to a Borgesian mystical maze or a Kafkaesque link to the "castle world," the book sends the novice reader on an introductory journey through various worlds of Judaism.
Yet King's exegesis gives the reader a glimpse not into what Mordecai Kaplan in Judaism as a Civilization called the culture of Judaism but rather into the notion of Judaism as a religion. This is not merely a sociological perspective of how Jews [End Page 116] became white folks or what Nathan Abrams describes as the normalization of the Jew as a typical American, free of the past negative stereotypes of the "Jew as thief" or the "Jew as liar." King's book fills a void that Abrams identifies in his The New Jew in Film: "It is surprising to note that to date not much work has been done on Judaism, overshadowed by a tendency to focus on the image of the Jew/ess or on the Holocaust in film."1
Although this book can be enjoyed by lay readers and academics alike, King draws from the inspiring writing of foundational scholars such as Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and Milton Steinberg. King uses examples from popular cinema that form the structure of the book, which is organized thematically. King recognizes the great importance of written sacred texts as sources in Judaism (3), which is part of Elliot Gertel's critique of the limits of the moving image.2 However King also argues against Michael Medved's assertion that film is inadequate to depict Judaism respectfully and factually.3
The chapters of King's book are organized into nine major, creatively conceived categories, including extended examinations of mystical Judaism, musical Judaism, Holocaust Judaism, and family Judaism. Forty films have been chosen and classified within these rubrics to illustrate the beauty of Judaism. For example, mystical film texts studied in the book include Pi (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 1998), Bee Season (Scott McGehee, David Siegel, USA, 2005), and A Stranger Among Us (Sidney Lumet, USA, 1992). Musical film texts include Yentl (Barbra Streisand, UK, USA, 1984), Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison, USA, 1971), and two of the four produced film versions of The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, USA, 1927; and Richard Fleischer, USA, 1980). Holocaust Judaism texts include The Believer (Henry Bean, USA, 2001), The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens, USA, 1959), Left Luggage (Jeroen Krabbé, Netherlands, 1998), The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, USA, 1964), The Quarrel (Eli Cohen, Canada, 1991), and the Devil's Arithmetic (Donna Deitch, USA, 1999). In the appendix King rates the ten best films with plot summaries to aid the reader. King's analytic sharpness shines when he describes the following three main clusters of filmmaking: (1) Hasidic Jews in New York, (2) Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and (3) shtetl Jews from Eastern Europe. One film, however, is about Sephardic Jews, and another takes place in North Africa.
King acknowledges that the scope of his project is limited to offering glimpses "into a small scale of a phenomenon that is vast" (8). He groups the films to explore specific themes, except for the first chapter covering The Chosen (Jeremy Paul [End Page 117] Kagan, USA, 1982), Ushpizin (Giddi Dar, Israel, 2004), and The Quarrel, which aims to provide a general introduction to Judaism. Some films that fit into more than one heading are marshalled in different chapters. This division of Judaism into themes is not inherent to the academic study of Judaism or the structure of Judaism. Rather, the forty films treated in the book suggest the structure. To help the introductory reader there is also an appendix containing a glossary of Jewish terms. The book also includes a short bibliography, endnote references, and a helpful index.
When asking after the essence of Judaism, what Leo Baeck called "Das wesen des Judentums," King persuasively identifies the beauty of Judaism as its moral and ethical principles that guide behavior. These principles focus on lived interactions united with intellectual coherency, and spiritual uplift emptied out of selfish, self-referential, and solipsistic motivations. Thus King is not interested in Jewish identity per se, or in secularized Jewishness, which King correctly identifies as arising from the modern Enlightenment processes of assimilation and acculturation. The beauty King is looking for is a religious one of holiness (kedushah). King gives voice to the liturgy whereby a religious Jew is enjoined to say each morning in prayer, "Yafa helkenu" ("How beautiful is our portion").
King clarifies what he means by the book's title, The Beauty of Judaism on Film. He defines the essential beauty of Judaism as lifting minds above the realm of sense, to "a higher (ethical) order" (11). This is not mere aesthetics but rather the internalization of ethical principles transformed into moral conduct or action, the striving to perfect virtuous character traits in thought, mind, emotion and deed. Thus King's attention is drawn to film protagonists wrestling with their conscience to do the right and moral thing. King uses Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (USA, 1989) to exemplify a critique of lax moral standards. Films that exemplify how a mensch sanctifies G-d's name (kiddush ha-Shem) in the world through ethical action are rightly identified by King as depicting a central aspect of the beauty of Judaism.
King's book has nothing to do with cultural Jewishness but rather focuses on the religion of Judaism. King grasps that the survival of Judaism depends on a fusion of the ethical with the intellectual—as in the way Talmudic debate and Kabbalist mystical numerology play with the mathematics of gematria—and also the spiritual realm. An example of this is the moral friendship in the film The Chosen, where Reuven (Barry Miller), who is brought up Modern Orthodox, with its strong Zionist commitment to the State of Israel, reveals the beauty [End Page 118] of Hasidism to Danny (Robby Benson) by introducing him to his father, Reb Saunders (Rod Steiger). The film depicts this beauty in passionate dance, sublime singing, and spiritual ecstasy, among other ways. King writes, "He [Danny] seems to represent a modern discomfort with all this, but his face too breaks into smiles before long. He is capture by the beauty of it" (20). Thus beauty is something that is experienced also at the highest levels of the spirit and enchants the soul with the desire to cling (devekut) to G-d and experience awe and wonder. This spiritual dimension is found not only in the Talmudic learning of Reb Saunders but also in the belief and prayer represented by the simple faith (emunah peshuta) of the protagonist of the film Ushpizin, who spends all the family funds to purchase an etrog (citron) for the holiday of Sukkot because he believes so fervently that this will bring blessings to his family. In the end the protagonist and his wife are blessed with a child. King interprets the film's message this way: By ethically putting the needs of others above his own and offering hospitality to the less observant, the protagonist allows this blessing to be realized.
King succeeds in conveying the religious profundity that opens up new religious vistas for the reader. The book encourages the reader not only to treasure the beauty of Judaism but also, more important, to live its ethical principles. King hopes his book will inspire readers to view the films and convene groups to discuss them. The Beauty of Judaism on Film promotes the value of the films for expanding what Hasidic texts refer to as religious consciousness. It is highly recommended. [End Page 119]
1. Nathan Abrams, The New Jew in Film (London: I.B. Taurus, 2012), 134.
2. Elliot Gertel, Over the Top Judaism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003).
3. Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).