I recently watched three Jewish movies, and tried to see how I could relate them to each other.
Yentl, which I hadn’t seen before, was Barbra Streisand’s 1983 labor of love. Transporting the viewer back to 1904 Poland, we see how Yentl’s thirst for knowledge and intellectual stimulation spurs her to pretend she is a boy so that she can attend yeshiva and learn. The movie, unlike Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book, ends with Yentl leaving Poland for the United States after she reveals who she really is to Avigdor. Yentl and her fellow yeshiva buchers were as enthralled with the opportunity to explore ideas as were the protagonists in the 1981 film, The Chosen, Reuven and Danny. I had read Chaim Potok’s novel decades ago and remembered a fair amount, especially how Danny’s thirst for knowledge would take him from a Jewish college to Columbia University to pursue psychology. What I had forgotten was how it was set against the backdrop of World War II and the founding of the state of Israel; this was extremely important as it positions the two boys’ fathers in opposite corners…until the U.N. passes the Partition Plan and then the state becomes a fact. As an aside, I recently read this piece in The Forward from Jeremy Kagan, the director of The Chosen, on how making the movie significantly changed his life.
The third Jewish movie I watched was the 2021 film, Lansky, which told the story of Meyer Lansky. I had heard of him and of Bugsy Seigel, but had no idea how far their enterprise reached. The two friends started in the early 1900s and by the time World War II was taking place, they not only had power in their own spheres but in the larger world of crime. Learning that the U.S. Navy asked Meyer Lansky to get Lucky Luciano’s help monitoring the waterfront in New York for which Lansky got the government to commute Luciano’s 30-to-50 year sentence was incredibly surprising. Learning that Golda Meir sent emissaries to Lansky to fundraise money so that the Jews in Israel could get arms was less so – I had heard something similar from Myron Sugarman, author of The Chronicles of the Last Jewish Gangster: From Meyer to Myron, when he came to speak in Atlanta a few years ago. Still, it was fascinating to think about the lengths to which the Jewish leaders went to raise the funds they needed to ensure the state became fact.
What ties the first two together is the desire to learn, to understand, to find truth, and what ties the second two together is action, that is, the steps people take in order to help create a safe place for their people, a state where Jews can no longer be persecuted, a homeland.
It is not that I can tie this package of three together with a neat little bow, but they were an interesting mix to watch in short proximity of time to each other. While Yentl and The Chosen were fictional stories, the backdrops against which they are set are a part of history. Lansky used a fictive writer to frame what was largely a true story. Taken together, they all lead me to want to learn more about different periods in history. As a Jew, it is always interesting to see where we as a people fit in at any particular point in history.
I think I like this idea of taking a three-pack of movies which have a base similarity and finding ways to strengthen their connections. So, which three movies would you recommend I next put on my list? And why?