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

Four Oscar Contenders, One Overwhelming Moral Message

A couple of weeks ago, I announced my Jos-car nominations in this space, looking at the year’s best films from a Jewish lens. I followed up with an analysis of “La La Land,” a film often called escapist that is in truth aspirational and transcendent, much like Judaism itself.

Now let’s take a look at four other acclaimed films that could not be more timely: “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Loving,” and “Fences.”

The Academy Awards’ diversity problem was somewhat alleviated, as six African American actors received nominations this week, and several films addressing institutional racism both past and present were recognized with major nominations.

In films like “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Loving,” and “Fences,” we confront the significant social obstacles faced by a young gay African American coming of age in Miami, three extraordinarily qualified female scientists-of-color in 1960’s Virginia, an interracial couple in 1960’s Virginia (Virginia evidently, wasn’t for Lovers until later) and a hall-of-fame caliber black baseball player from Pittsburgh (Virginia gets a reprieve here) who was denied a chance to fulfill his dreams.

In some cases, these protagonists prevail over the overwhelming odds, and in others, their tragic predicament overwhelms them.  There is biblical precedent for this.

This week’s Torah portion of Va-era funnels us through the experience of Israelite slaves struggling to surmount the burdens of unremitting servitude, which, in the words of the Ostrovtzer Rebbe, left the Israelites depressed, drained of their desire for hope and freedom.  They were beaten down, body and soul.  This early 20th-century rebbe understood the ravages of suffering.  He rejected nearly all of life’s pleasures – and fasted for forty years.  The Ten Plagues, seven of which are found in this portion, were intended to instill confidence, lifting the spirits of the Israelites every bit as much as they knocked the Egyptians down to size.

Racism has crushed the American spirit in a similar manner, rendering us numb and helpless as we grope to address a problem that just never seems to go away.  Time never has been able to heal the searing pain from that wound.  The pain exists on all sides.  The wrongs can never totally be righted.

In this new era, where the KKK shows up to rally in support of the Attorney General nominee and the “Small-Caps kkk” is now being accepted in polite company, we need to remind ourselves that the rights gained by the Lovings and their contemporaries are fragile indeed.

At a time when proven facts are being portrayed as annoying nuisances and the Trump Administration is doubling down on the fraudulent claim of mass voter fraud, these Oscar nominees are proving to be a protective barrier for the American conscience, the only wall we really need to be constructing right now.

If an inquiry is needed into voting irregularities, as President Trump now suggests, then the investigator’s eye should be focusing on voter suppression and the fraying Voting Rights Act, rather than on spreading falsehoods about undocumented immigrants.

For that landmark 1965 legislation is all that separates us from a return to the days of rampant discrimination. Take a look at this nearly impossible Louisiana literacy test from 1964, which prevented legions of minorities from being able to vote.  Literacy tests, along with poll taxes and other forms of extra-legal intimidation, were used to deny voting rights to African Americans.  A number of these tests can be found online.  I’ll bet not even the whiz kids of “Hidden Figures” could have passed them.  See how you do.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in his landmark address to a conference on religion and race, we read in Genesis that God created different kinds of plants and different kinds of animals. But strikingly, the Creation account does not say that God created different kinds of human beings, of different colors and races; rather it proclaims that God created one single person. From a single human being all are descended, and all humans have been created in God’s image.

The pervasive need to address racial discrimination may be an inconvenient truth to some, but, from a Jewish perspective, an overwhelming moral case can be made for vigilance.  And it’s a case that cannot be muddled by bogus investigations and “alternative facts.”  President Trump likely doesn’t realize it, but the fight we are waging is for him and his children – and his grandchildren too.

Like our ancestors in Egypt, Americans and Jews have lots of emotional scars to overcome.  But the schadenfreude of watching enemies succumb to vermin, frogs and cattle disease will not be nearly enough to save our national soul.  There will be no true victory until all parties can dance together on the shores of the Red Sea.

This quartet of acclaimed films celebrates the indomitable spirit of wounded warriors of an interminable struggle. “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Loving” leave us heartbroken but resolute.  While none of these four movies may be “Best Picture” this year, they are all by far the most indispensable.

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." 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 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. 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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