With the sad news of Gene Wilder’s death, I revisited one of my favorite’s of his works, The Frisco Kid. In this phenomenally funny movie, Gene Wilder plays a Polish rabbi sent to serve a community in San Francisco in the 1850s. Encountering lots of trouble along the way, Rabbi Avram Bellinksi befriends train robber Harrison Ford and makes his way across the United States.
Upon this review, I realized how deep the movie was, not just in its subtle awareness of Jewish cultural and religious rituals, but for its deep sense of Torah.
We Live in a Changing World
Wilder’s character takes his rabbinic knowledge and applies it anew in the “New World”. It was not what he expected, it wasn’t the shtetl in which he began his journey, and it was full of people who did not know Judaism. He did his best, keeping Kosher, Shabbat, and his obligation to pray. Not once did he say, “this is not how we did it in the old country,” but instead lived Jewishly in the new circumstances that he found.
This is absolutely still true. Entering the 21st century, moving to a new city, or thinking about what modern Judaism really looks like is an essential task that is upon all of us. We cannot be bound by “how we did it in the old country,” but rather the new ways we can apply our Judaism. Like Rabbi Bellinski in the movie, this does not mean we abandon our Tradition, instead we find the ways where it fills the new spaces.
Our Values Still Matter
Throughout the film, Wilder’s character is always trying to do the right thing. In the very early minutes, he is volunteering to help complete strangers. He might have been hoodwinked and robbed by them, but as a stranger in a strange land, he is still being the best person he can be, as motivated by his faith. This is true for us too. We live in a time in which values are shouted at us from a million corners. Recognizing the places where our Tradition pushes us is a real gift.
We Question Our Faith
At various points, Rabbi Bellinksi doubts his faith. When he’s come up against an obstacle, when he’s lost all of his money and belongings. When he chooses a physical Torah over a human being’s life. He does the deep soul searching that so many of us ignore. We see this pious man face his own beliefs seriously and significantly. When was the last time that we asked ourselves if we are really acting on what we say we believe? How often do we really ask ourselves, what is God’s role in my life? What does that relationship really look like? Not often enough, at least for me.
We Can Always Find Common Ground
One of the funniest scenes in the whole movie is when black and white dressed Rabbi Avram Bellinksi sees stereotypically dressed Amish travelers wearing black and white. He calls out “landsman!” and begins to pour out his troubles to them in Yiddish. Of course, they don’t understand, but take him in once he faints after the realization. At the end of the encounter, you see Wilder and his new Amish friends shaking hands in mutual recognition and respect. Despite the real differences, they share more commonalities and this comes through once they’ve spent time together.
Later, in another overly stereotypical treatment of Native Americans, Wilder’s character finds himself held captive. However, after surviving their initial contact, they find mutuality in expressing joy through dancing. They discuss faith and God while respecting each other’s traditions.
Today, we’ve forgotten so much of our commonalities, focusing instead on how we are all different. This is such a great reminder that our first impressions are rarely accurate, but can be an invitation to learn and share more.
I’m a pretty new rabbi and there is a lot that I have yet to learn. Happily, I can say that Rabbi Avram Bellinksi aka Gene Wilder, is one of my rabbis today, and I hope he becomes yours too.