Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"
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The Oscars, through a Jewish lens

The Judaism in the nominees for this year's Best Picture

This being Oscar weekend, some thoughts, reflected through a Jewish lens, about this year’s nominees for Best Picture. I’m not one to subscribe to the idea that Jews own Hollywood. To the contrary, this year’s crop speaks voluminously to some our most embarrassing mea culpas, just in case we were getting too full of ourselves.

We’ve got films based on two big time Jewish crooks, “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” reinforcing some of worst Jewish stereotypes of greed, shrewdness and bad hair. 

Philomena,” which I saw last week, describes the unpardonable sins of the Catholic church. Although no one has accused Jewish organizations of enslaving young moms and selling their babies, the inexcusable betrayal of trust by religious organizations to cover up crimes of clergy, particularly sexual abuse of minors, has become all too prevalent in our backyard. Just last month, a court let Yeshiva University off the hook because the statute of limitations had run out on the cover up of hundreds of acts of abuse by two rabbis and an alumnus during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. A close friend of mine and noted rabbi recently revealed that he was a victim of those crimes. There is no statute of limitations on the pain of the victim. I loved “Philomena” for reminding me of that.

In “Gravity,” a profoundly spiritual film, Sandra Bullock floats through the valley of the shadow of death. At one point she nearly loses hope, saying, “I know, I know, everyone dies; not everyone knows the day.”  This line echoes Rabbi Eliezer, who advised, “Repent one day before your death,” Expressing the fears of so many Jews and others, Bullock then adds,  

“No one will mourn for me. No one will pray for my soul. … I’ve never prayed. … Nobody has taught me how. … 

By the end of the film, when she embraces the mud, looks heavenward and says “thank you,” she has learned how to pray as a Jew prays, not asking for the moon, but being grateful for some dry land to stand on and some blue sky filled with breathable air.

Her” has a Jewish connection, aside from Scarlett Johansson, and it’s about loneliness and the limits of technology to satisfy our most human needs.  I’m a big technology fan, but there is something to be said for unplugging once in a while – which is a nice promo for next week’s National Day of Unplugging. (Sign the pledge and upload a photo). When we fall in love with our machines, that means that we have fallen in love with ourselves, the work of our hands, and there is no more virulent form of idolatry.

12 Years a Slave?” Well, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Jews were 400 years a slave. No one knows slavery like we know slavery! This film reminds us that we Jews have lots to teach the world about how to live by a moral code that stresses that all humans are created in God’s image.

Last weekend I saw both “Philomena” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”  Without being too much of a spoiler, AIDS figures prominently in each.  At a time where the Berlin Wall of homophobia seems to be crumbling before our eyes, in the courts (Kentucky and Texas this week, following New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, Ohio and Virginia), on the playing surfaces of the NFL and NBA and even in the statehouse of Arizona, the prejudices exposed in both films are receding as the arc of inclusiveness continues to bend precipitously. Any Jew who remembers the Nuremburg Laws, not to mention Jim Crow, had to find Arizona’s proposed law enabling businesses to discriminate against gays both repugnant and dangerous.  Fortunately, bipartisan outrage made its mark. Yes, it’s troubling that the law actually passed at first, especially in the name of “religious freedom,” but maybe this was the tipping point.

I did not see “Nebraska” or “Captain Phillips,” so I’ll leave it to others to find the Jewish messages embedded there. 

Of the ones I saw, which did I like best? I liked them all. And I’d rather award them a collective Oscar, because their messages are complementary. We’ve come a long way since the homophobic 1980s, and the clergy abuse of the ‘70s and ‘60s. We can still avoid the dehumanizing, techno-landscape of the near-future in “Her.” We’ve come to see the fragile beauty of our precious blue planet as seen from space in “Gravity.” We’ve come to understand the destructiveness of excessive greed. And slavery is no longer the law of the land. We may not own Hollywood, but Jewish teachings and historical experiences can help humanity set a course for a better future.

And yes, there is much more work to do. Hatred still exists, so does greed, so does narcissism, sexual abuse and there are 30 million slaves on earth today, 60,000 in the US

Someone will probably mention that when “12 Years a Slave” picks up the ultimate gold statuette on Sunday night.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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