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

Elie, Albert and Oscar: Manufacturing Hope

Warning: Spoilers aplenty ahead!

This weekend’s Academy Awards present numerous Jewish subplots, including some prime Jewish acting, writing and directing nominees. (See the Forward’s Complete Jewish Guide to this year’s Oscars). I managed to see all but three of the nominated films for Best Picture (THE IRISHMAN, JOKER and FORD V FERRARI).  I really liked all the ones I saw, so ranking them is misleading, but here goes:

BEST PICTURE (My ranking)

1) 1917

2) JOJO RABBIT

3) LITTLE WOMEN

4) ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

5) MARRIAGE STORY

6) PARASITE

I find that all of them resonate so much this year because they share a similar, timely theme: the search for hope in a hopeless world.

Elie Wiesel, the great prophet of the Holocaust, who had every reason to succumb to despair, quoted Albert Camus in a 2006 interview with Time: “Camus said, ‘Where there is no hope, one must invent hope.’ It is only pessimistic if you stop with the first half of the sentence and just say, There is no hope. Like Camus, even when it seems hopeless, I invent reasons to hope.”

Judaism, I have often stated, is a glass half full religion followed by a glass half empty people.  No glass could seem emptier than one sitting in a World War One trench in eastern France; or in a Jewish stowaway’s attic in a German town during the Holocaust, or in a failed marriage where every spoken word is a dagger, or in Charles Manson’s Hollywood in the summer of 1969, or in a bomb shelter in a Seoul mansion with a killer loose and North Korean missiles just 30 miles away.  Yet each of these nominated films finds sunlight in the darkness, each of them leaves us smiling, or at least smirking, even if hope these days must be escorted by tragic death, some gratuitous gore and a whole lot of cynicism.  That’s what hope looks like in 2020.

No, the Jews don’t own Hollywood – but we are the world’s leading manufacturers of hope.  That’s why manufacturing hope is our Jewish value of the week.

Let’s take a look at some key lines from the nominated films.

1) From “1917”: “I hoped today would be a good day. Hope is a dangerous thing.”

Hope is a dangerous thing, especially when fighting an endless war whose motto is, as the movie declares at the end, “Last man standing.” But for Schofield, the main character, the personal war he fought, to save the life of a single person, becomes the overriding force that gave meaning to his fight. And in doing so, he brings dignity and a touch of humanity to a world that had gone crazy.  He not only saves the equivalent of Private Ryan, but 1,500 of his buddies – and one thirsty baby.  That’s a good day’s work on the Western Front, just one day – April 6 – in no man’s land along the Aisne River.

2) From “Jojo Rabbit” (this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke appears before the final credits):

‘Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.’

Here is Rilke’s complete poem where that line appears:

“Go to the Limits of Your Longing”

Listen

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

I loved this film because it demonstrates how the innocence of childhood, seasoned with a mother’s love and a friend’s wisdom, can buoy the human spirit so that it can surmount even the darkest of times. It was, like “1917,” a strangely hopeful film plopped into the most hopeless of environments (the poem could easily have been uttered by Schofield in 1917 as he walked through the decimated town – always moving forward). In the end, Jojo sees that Hitler is not the playful sidekick he had imagined, and as he awakens to the monstrous truths around him, he is saved. The film left me hopeful that salvation is possible for anyone, and any society, that loses track of kindness and its own inherent goodness. Rilke, whose books were burned by the Nazis, could be born again in Germany.

3) From “Little Women”: “Life is too short to be angry at one’s sisters.” What a perfect tone for these unforgiving times. Even if your sister burns your manuscript – or tears your State of the Union speech in two – let the spirit of love and forgiveness fill your heart! If Jo can do it, anyone can!  Well, almost anyone.

4) From “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.” For this film I quote from the NYT review rather than from the movie itself:

Joan Didion, in an essay first published in 1973, described the Hollywood of that era as “the last extant stable society,” and Tarantino’s tableau confirms this view. Life isn’t perfect, but it is coherent. People know their place. They respect the rules and hierarchies.  Rick’s neighbors, Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, live higher up in the canyon (at the end of a gated driveway) and also on the status pyramid. They are regarded not with envy or resentment, but with awe.

Tarantino’s idea is that this moment in history is when everything went wrong, so he tries to reverse that history, much as he did with the Holocaust in “Inglorious Basterds.”  While there’s an element of foolishness in this fantasy, the ending grabs the moviegoer, crying out that while we can’t change what happened then, we can change the course of history now.

5) For “Marriage Story,” I choose this soliloquy by Laura Dern, who plays Scarlett Johansson’s divorce lawyer (and will almost certainly receive an Oscar for that performance).

“Let’s face it, the idea of a good father was only invented like 30 years ago. Before that, fathers were expected to be silent and absent and unreliable and selfish, and can all say we want them to be different. But on some basic level, we accept them. We love them for their fallibilities, but people absolutely don’t accept those same failings in mothers. We don’t accept it structurally and we don’t accept it spiritually. Because the basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, Mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there….God is in heaven. God is the father and God didn’t show up. So, you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be a (screw up) and it doesn’t matter. You will always be held to a different, higher standard. And it’s (messed) up, but that’s the way it is.”

 Years ago, I wrote something similar about the need for fathers to own up to their responsibilities.

The father who is present for his child is never remote, I’ve discovered, and the father who is remote is never present – even when he is in the same room.

“Marriage Story” is yet another depressing movie yearning valiantly for hope and salvation, which comes when the two principles overcome the barriers thrown at their relationship (by society and especially their lawyers). At the end, Scarlett no longer needs to feel suffocated and Adam Driver is able to accept responsibility. That allows both of them to be friends and better parents, and – just as she does with her son in “Jojo Rabbit” – Scarlett expresses her love and protectiveness by tying his shoes. These days, even the smallest gesture – tying a shoelace – can be redemptive.  Good thing he didn’t wear loafers.

6) And from “Parasite,” this bit of dialogue:

Dong-ik: Is that tent going to leak? Yeon-gyo: We ordered it from the U.S., it’ll be fine.

Yes, the U.S., that bastion of dysfunction, whose leader is “in love” with South Korea’s mortal enemy.  The U.S, once the last great hope for humanity, is now disentangling itself from strategic post war alliances – that U.S. That tent is absolutely going to leak – and it does. But it doesn’t really matter, because the climate induced deluge that follows renders the tent useless anyway. And what of the iron dome to protect Seoul from raining missiles? Without a stable U.S. to depend on, one that will not suggest that the best defense for Seoul would be for the entire city of nearly 10 million souls to be moved away from the border, an ally that will stage regular war games to put the northern dictator on notice – without that, tents are going to leak.  Underlying the satire of “Parasite” is the film’s true horror – that freedom itself is on life support, and that the class differences between the flooded out lower class and those living high and dry in their hilltop mansions are ultimately insignificant.   For the poor, the roof is leaking.  For the rich, that danged American-made tent has been recalled.  For the rich and poor of L.A., too, hope’s foundation is as flimsy as Tarantino’s imagination allows it to be, no matter whether you live in the Valley (like Brad Pitt’s character) or up in the hills with DiCaprio and Sharon Tate.  That’s not a lot to bank on.

We can only hope.  And in the meantime, like Tarantino blowing a kiss to his expecting Israeli wife who was watching the Golden Globes from their home in Tel Aviv, we can only turn to our loved ones and say, Todah, gveret.  I love you.” 

If anyone can manufacture hope from that, we can.

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 About.com'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: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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