Monday, January 19, 2009

The Movie Tart

So I'm rather profligate in my movie attendance, I must say. Friends have learned that it's usually a shorter answer to ask me what I have not seen than what I have. This weekend, I've seen two films... the first is Defiance, and the second is The Wrestler.

Defiance is filmmaker Edward Zwick's telling of the story of the 4 Bielski brothers (Tuvia, Zus, Aseal, and Aron), who had lived as farmers and sometime smugglers in Belarus. The story gives us little background information, as we're presumed to know the political environment of the times - it was in the midst of the Second World War, and it was arguably the worst time in history to be a Jew. When their parents were murdered (this is the only spoiler, I promise, and you must admit, it's small!), the four brothers decided not to be passive attendants of fate, but rather, to take off into the forest in an attempt to live.

Although I know that it is a fascinating story, perhaps I was expecting too much, because I didn't find the film much better than any fictional adventure story. Was it Daniel Craig, I wonder? Has he become too much associated with James Bond to take the Bond character out of his Tuvia? Of course, I haven't seen Craig's Bond, so that wouldn't likely be the case here... I just didn't find him altogether believable. He was stoic, his blue eyes were very blue, but I found him kind of... wooden.

Liev Schreiber, on the other hand, gave a fabulous performance. His Zus was nuanced and believable, his rage at murdering Nazis and collaborating neighbours all too real. Jamie Bell, too, was terrific as Aseal, the third brother. If you saw him in Billy Elliott, be assured that he's grown up now! (And if you haven't seen him in Billy Elliott, why the heck haven't you? It's a fabulous movie!) He doesn't have such a big part in this film, but he does get a couple of incredibly good scenes.

And speaking of scenes - a couple I could've done well without... OK, so we all know that Daniel Craig is gonna be the big hero in this film... but did they have to show him riding before a couple of hundred frightened forest refugees on a white horse? The only thing missing was the shining armour.

Then there's the scene of a group of women bathing in a brook - it's spring, getting warmer, and they're standing in the brook in undergarments (mostly slips, I think), laughing and chatting. Now, remember, they've been hiding in the woods for months, with very little to eat. One of the women pats her own derriere, and laughing, says, "I'm a skeleton!" Now, I'd never recommend anorexia as a way to make your character more believable - but nobody in this film looked undernourished in the least, certainly not the woman who made that remark! It felt gratuitous to me - it added nothing to plot progression and seemed quite discordant with everything else that had been going on.

Still, it's probably a film worth seeing, if only to encourage you to look up more information about the Bielski brothers.

On to Sunday night... The Wrestler. This one was made by Darren Aronofsky, who'd had a moderately interesting career up to 2006, when he produced Blood Diamond (except for Leo Di Caprio's appalling accent, that was quite a film). I'm not generally a wrestling fan - certainly not the 'wrestling as entertainment' genre. I don't understand the people who participate in this sport, and I most definitely don't understand the audiences who scream for more violence and blood as they watch. But let's move on.

Mickey Rourke has had a fairly long career, not especially distinguished, I don't think, but he seems to have worked steadily over the past couple of decades. He's made a couple of decent films (A Prayer for the Dying and 9 1/2 Weeks. You can check out his entire oeuvre at, but he wasn't what I would've called a great actor.

The Wrestler has caused me to rethink my opinion here. His character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is a middle-age wrestler who also works part-time at a grocery store. He lives alone in a trailer that looks as if it was put together from spare parts, and he has a young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom he really has no relationship. Through the movie, there are heartbreaking and feeble attempts to develop a relationship with Stephanie (his daughter) and with Pam/Cassidy (the stripper with a heart of... well, not gold... played by Marisa Tomei).

This guy is broken in a thousand different ways, and the punishment he willingly inflicts on his battered self, just because here, at least, there is validation of his existence from others, is incredible. As played by Rourke, the character is wounded, sad, even gentle. He's polite - he's incredibly polite, in fact. He's kind. We don't get to hear how he wound up in the position in which we meet him - one of his former opponents has done markedly better, with a car dealership in Albuquerque - but we do get to see where he goes.

I didn't like some of the wrestling scenes - they are incredibly violent, and seeing someone smash another's face into the supports around a wrestling ring, complete with the ensuing blood, just doesn't do it for me. The film made it pretty clear that these really were staged scenes, but still, the sound of flesh slamming into canvas is hard to take. I know it's part of the whole wrestling as entertainment thing, but it's not my thing. Still, the movie is about much more than that.

Some of the music is very jarring - it's the loud 80s metal stuff, which I didn't much care for even during the loud 80s! Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for this film, though, which has earned a Golden Globe, and it's the song with which we close out the film. I've never been to a movie where almost everyone there stayed to watch the credits, because, I think, we were all listening to this song, and to how well Springsteen has captured the spirt of this man. If you go to (and why wouldn't you, after all?!) and scroll down the page a bit, you'll see a video on the left-hand side of the page, a brief clip of Mickey Rourke explaining how Springsteen came to write this song for the film. You'll also get a very brief couple of clips from the film, but even in those clips, you can see the strength and sadness of the character he plays.

This is definitely a film worth seeing. In fact, it's worth seeing again - so if you want some company for it, let me know.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Question of the Week

The question of the week, from Christians, Jews, and those who subscribe to no faith tradition, has been, "Why are you a Jew?"  There are several ways to understand this, and it's been put in several different forms, with nuances that tell me there's more to the question than just those 5 words.

Why are you a Jew (why did you convert?)?  Why are you (still) a Jew (given all the mess in the Middle East)?  Why are you a Jew (how can you be when Israel does such awful things?)?  Why are you a Jew (because it must be so embarrassing when international opinion is against you)? I've discovered some amazing things about friends in the past couple of weeks - I have discovered that some truly want to understand what's really going on between Israel and Palestine before coming down on one side or the other.  I love and respect those people with all my heart.  I have also discovered that some people, who I thought were friends and who I thought were reasonable, are in fact more enchanted by their own rhetoric, even when that means demeaning me on a personal level because I disagree with their position.

So, why am I a Jew?  I mean, what sensible woman, who is not converting for marriage, would choose to be a part of a people around whom so very many rumours abound?  There's the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, for one - we control banking, and Hollywood, and I believe, the diamond business.  Never mind how Jews got into those fields - let's talk about the issue of CONTROLLING them.  If I'm part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy (WWJC), then where's MY share, darn it?!  I mean, I rent, I don't own.  Don't have a car.  Don't earn bags of money.  Don't go to Florida regularly (I have been ONCE - before I was a Jew!).  Don't go to Israel regularly (see "don't earn bags of money"), though I'd love to go again (I have been ONCE - whoops - before I was a Jew!).  Why choose to be part of a people who are reviled, misunderstood, and treated with a pretty solid amount of distrust?

The answer in its smallest particle is that being Jewish is my heart.  It just is.  

The longer answer, however, might come from someone else.  Take a look at this:

I am a Jew because I believe that the Jew is a necessity to the world.  I am a Jew because I recognize the role of my nation to be that of the servant of God in ministering to mankind's greatest wants.  I am a Jew because I understand and acknowledge that my people has no other logical reason for its existence on the stage of history in the face of tempests, changing scenes, "wars, alarums, and excursions," - in the face of all ethnological law and historic experience, except as that conservative principle without which progress becomes unreal and evanescent and civilization unstable.

Speak to [the Jew], and he will say he has traveled far, he has endured many a storm, has undergone much ill-treatment, has been hurled in the dust ten thousand times.  As him why he has suffered to much, and with a ring of pride in his voice, he will say because he is a Jew - the Jew of history, the centuried pilgrim of the ages, the Jew, as his prophet pictured he would be, "despised and rejected of en, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," "esteemed stricken, smitten, and afflicted" by peoples whose transgression of all laws of justice wounded him, whose iniquitous persecutions bruised him, who thought that by his sufferings, his stripes, they were healed.  As him why he was a Jew, to suffer to in the past.  His eyes will light up with the deathless fire of Faith as pointing to his scroll, he will say: "This is why I am, why I was, and why I will be, a Jew."

You ask me why I am a Jew?  I reply by asking you but one question.  Is the world to-day contented, happy, truthful, honorable?  It is not.  Therefore, I am a Jew.  And I remain one to try and make it so.

You can likely tell by the language of the text above that it wasn't written yesterday.  In fact, it was written by a man named Pereira Mendes, a Sephardic Jew, an English educator and rabbi.  He didn't even live to be 70 - he was 66 when he died in 1893.  This article was written in 1887 and published in The National Review.  One hundred and twenty-two years ago.  What has changed since then?  Well, the murder of 6 million Jews in the space of just a couple of short years hadn't happened - and probably wasn't even imagined by most people.  So little has changed, it seems.

Mendes also wrote, ..."I exist to achieve Universal Peace, Universal Brotherhood, Universal Happiness... How shall I accomplish this?  By means of this scroll.  It teaches purity of personal life, purity of social life, a simple religious life of being at One, an At-one-ment with God.  We believe in the religion of deed, - 'to learn to do well, seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.'  We do not say we alone hold the keys of Heaven, or that you must believe as we do to be saved.  The righteous of all have a portion in the world to come; all the sheep need not enter the pasture by the same gate."

Why am I a Jew?  I couldn't be anything else!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Finding a Shabbat Frame of Mind

There are 39 Shabbat prohibitions, things that observant Jews are told we must not do on Shabbat. They are, briefly, Carrying, Burning, Extinguishing, Finishing, Writing, Erasing, Cooking, Washing, Sewing, Tearing, Knotting, Untying, Shaping, Plowing, Planting, Reaping, Harvesting, Threshing, Winnowing, Selecting, Sifting, Grinding, Kneading, Combing, Spinning, Dyeing, Chain-stitching, Warping, Weaving, Unraveling, Building, Demolishing, Trapping, Shearing, Slaughtering, Skinning, Tanning, Smoothing, aaaaaaaaaand... Marking. ( And if you read this list quickly, you may think that it must be very easy to be observant about the Sabbath, because, really, how many of us practice shearing, slaughtering, skinning, or tanning these days? And what on earth is smoothing?

In fact, as you will see if you read the list at the Orthodox Union website offered above, it's not that easy at all. We come from a rabbinic tradition - as times change, our sages, rabbis, and learned scholars have all offered interpretations of words, laws, and traditions that were first described centuries ago. So we know (if we read the definitions at!) that carrying, for instance, "absolutely forbids all carrying in the street. Even such trivial things as a key or a handkerchief must be left at home. Certainly pocketbooks, purses, wallets and key-chains may not be carried. The only thing one may carry outdoors are things that are actually worn." It's ok to carry something in your private home, but not outside.

Wow. Then there's burning. This actually means, "making a fire or causing anything to burn.
Even throwing a toothpick into a fire is considered a violation of the Sabbath under this category.
This is another category of work mentioned specifically in the Torah, as we find (Ex. 35:3), "You shall not light a fire at home on the Sabbath day." Not only that, but also this!

Obviously, this category forbids such acts as striking a match or turning on a stove.It also prohibits smoking on the Sabbath.
An automobile engine works by burning gasoline. Turning on the ignition and stepping on the accelerator causes it to burn. It is therefore forbidden to drive a car on the Sabbath.
Heating a piece of metal so that it glows is also in the category of burning.(Note 11) When an electric light is turned on, its filament is heated white hot, producing light. This is therefore forbidden on the Sabbath.

In general, any use of electricity violates the spirit of the Sabbath, since it involves extracting energy from nature. According to many authorities, electricity has the same status as fire with regard to the Sabbath. In any case, the practice of all observant Jews is to avoid turning any electrical appliance on or off. Since a telephone also works by electricity, it also should not be used.

Does this mean that no matter how much I try, I will never be, as they say, Shomer Shabbat? Good ol' Wikipedia tells us that "...the shomer Shabbat is expected to conform to the prohibitions against certain forms of work. The observant Jew does not cook, spend money, write, turn on or off electrical devices, or do other activities prohibited on Shabbat. In addition, a variety of positive Sabbath commandments are expected to be fulfilled, such as Sabbath meals and prayers."

This looks worse and worse!! Does this mean, then, that the tallit I made, every single stitch a prayer, would violate the Shabbat prohibitions if I were to have worked on it from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday? Yup, that's precisely what it does mean. Wow.

So... will I never be a good enough Jew?

Well, if the Shabbat prohibitions were the only measurement of a 'good Jew,' then I think that most of us could fall solidly into the mire with me! But I don't think that they're the only way to be a 'good Jew.'

What is a good Jew, anyhow? The way I understand it, it's someone who tries to observe the mitzvot, someone who practices tikkun olam, someone who honours the Sabbath and keeps it holy... and there's where we get back to those 39 prohibitions.

The prohibitions were created as a way for Jews to honour the God who gave us the Sabbath (that's why the commandment is written that way!). Initially, alone in the world, Jews had a day of rest on the 7th day. Other people didn't (we can call that another gift of the Jews to the world, that whole 7th day of rest thing!). So we wanted to honour that day. And I love that idea. In fact, Shabbat is probably my most favourite day of the week, because it truly is a day that I know it's perfectly ok to concentrate on relationship - my relationship with God, my relationships with the people I love, and I try to do that. I try not to do mundane work, and I even make time to read Torah, and to learn - because that's ok on Shabbat! (But if it's ok for me to learn Torah on Shabbat, why is it not ok for me to write on Shabbat, about something I have learned from Torah?!)

It's all very confusing. But I think what it boils down to is that if Shabbat is a gift to us from God, then what we do with it is our gift to God. Think about this for a moment. We can give a gift to God? How on earth can we give a gift to the Almighty?!

We can, actually. We can practice kavanah, intentionality, in all that we do. So we can be more conscious (and conscientious) of our prayers. We can be more attentive to the people we encounter and the way we relate to them. We can be more conscious of the beauty around us and take time to praise it.

And we can try to keep these Shabbat prohibitions - because rather than just a list of rules, if we consider them as a list of things we don't have to do because it's Shabbat, we might just find that we get a little better at honouring the Sabbath and keeping it holy.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'll give you some international outrage...

... at least, I would like to. Truly.

I've just read an article in today's Globe & Mail, which you might also like to read, at this link:(

Briefly, it concerns the horrific plight of a 14-year-old Afghani girl whose mother and brother performed an abortion on her with a razor blade. Rest assured that my outrage has nothing at all to do with abortion. No, it's about what they did to her. She is a 14-year-old who was raped and became pregnant, and at 5 months, two of the people who are supposed to love her best did this to her.

The girl is in an American hospital, airlifted there from Kabul, in critical condition. Her mother and brother, as well as the man who raped her, have been arrested. When her father (who wasn't arrested) brought her to the hospital, he told staff that she had been bitten (in the abdomen...) by a dog. They took one look at her and knew that he was lying.

So in Afganistan, it is more shameful for a child (because at 14, she is still a child!) to be pregnant as a result of rape than it is to be the rapist! Abortion is illegal there, so this poor girl was doubly traumatised to begin with - first the rape, then the horror of the pregnancy. One can only guess what home life was like when it became evident that she was pregnant.

So. To get to 'international outrage.' The Globe & Mail has closed comments on this article, even before a single comment was published. Where is the international outrage for the girl who was raped and further brutalised by her own family? Where is the international outrage at a society where a rapist could go unpunished, while his victim was further assaulted with a razor blade?!

No, we save our international outrage lately and hurl abuse at Israel, at Jews, and at those who support them, because Israel has responded to an assault begun by a terrorist group. Sure, that makes sense. I have to listen to people who insist that they "know what you think," even though they do not, because they have not asked me. For the record, I wish the United States would butt the heck out of Israel. Seriously. They should keep their money - they could spend it on education! Lord knows, they need it. Or health care. Or starvation in sub-Saharan Africa (which I was also told I obviously don't care about, because I support Israel).

And yes, I wish that those who are involved in this mess would find a way to peace. I know that the way is not with war - but neither is it with sitting there waiting to be annihilated. So, also for the record, I continue to support Israel's right to defend itself from Hamas. Golda Meir, former Prime Minster of Israel, said once, "There will be peace in the Middle East when Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate Jews." I don't think things have changed much since then.


Monday, January 12, 2009

It's not anti-semitism, stupid...

It's been an interesting couple of weeks. All hell has broken out once more in the Gaza Strip, and depending on where you get your news, Israel might be saint or sinner in this issue. I stand where I've stood for as long as I can remember - with Israel. I stand with Israel in that Israel has a right to be an independent country. I stand with Israel and say that Israel has the absolute right (and indeed, responsibility) to defend itself when it's hammered with thousands of missiles courtesy of Hamas.

I wonder how people can stand with Hamas, a terrorist group by any definition, whose express desire is to destroy Israel, and a group that is supported by a frightening number of its religious leaders. Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi delivered a sermon on Friday, January 9th, in which he said, ""I address my first message to the aggressor Jews, those arrogant plunderers, who act arrogantly toward the servants of Allah in the land of Allah. In the past, the Jews spread corruption in the land twice, and Allah punished them both times, by setting as masters upon them people who tormented them, humiliated them, and made them bow their heads." Further on in the same address, broadcast by Al Jazeera TV, he said, "We Wait for the Revenge of Allah to Descend Upon Them [i.e. the Jews] – And, Allah Willing, It Will Be By Our Own Hands," and just in case you weren't sure what he felt, there's this: "Oh Allah, take your enemies, the enemies of Islam. Oh Allah, take the Jews, the treacherous aggressors. Oh Allah, take this profligate, cunning, arrogant band of people. Oh Allah, they have spread much tyranny and corruption in the land. Pour Your wrath upon them, oh our God. Lie in wait for them. Oh Allah, You annihilated the people of Thamoud at the hand of a tyrant, and You annihilated the people of 'Aad with a fierce, icy gale. Oh Allah, You annihilated the people Thamoud at the hand of a tyrant, You annihilated the people of 'Aad with a fierce, icy gale, and You destroyed the Pharaoh and his soldiers – oh Allah, take this oppressive, tyrannical band of people. Oh Allah, take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one." ( I just don't see any other way to understand this, as a Jew, and as a human being. The point here is not merely a Palestinian state - the point is to annihilate Jews. And if you still can doubt that, check out this little video... what a piece of work..

This is difficult for me, because I do get heated when the subject is raised. I try to maintain some objectivity, but it's doubly challenging because the majority of mainstream news here shows crying Palestinian children and women, for instance... but they don't say that the Palestinians use children and other civilians as human shields. They don't tell you that part of the reason that there are more Palestinian dead is that the Palestinians typically set up armaments in civilian buildings - so that when Israel retaliates, who is going to die? Civilians, of course.

We see on the news here so very much rhetoric about how dreadful Israel is, how terribly it's behaving - but I don't recall a single news report on the almost-daily shelling of Sderot, a small city in southern Israel... Sderot has the distinction of being the only city in the world that has a bomb shelter in a playground. It's not for PR purposes that they need that - it's because Sderot is so close to the border that when a missile is fired by Hamas, their citizens have 15 seconds to make it to a bomb shelter. That includes children. And old people. And everyone in between. See how far you could get in 15 seconds.

All around me, I hear people who have formed their opinions based on 3-minute sound bytes on the evening news. Some of these people are very close to me, and when I hear them declaim observations such as "Israel should just get out of Gaza. They're being bullies!" my heart aches. They might not see it this way, but they are talking about me when they say that. They have not heard what it's like for Israelis, and when they are challenged, dismiss the idea as "Israeli propaganda." It's as if, because Israel has not sustained as many civilian deaths, they must surely be the evil side of this story! What if we had said that during WW II? Who would've been the bad guys? The Americans, for sure... but that would ignore the fact that Nazi Germany had been the aggressor, and the equally important fact that the Allied Forces had better armaments, better training, etc.

Whether you have made up your mind about this or not, I urge you to check out some alternative media... besides the links above, you should check out and A former friend of mine tells me dismissively that these are "pro-Israeli sites" and disdainfully asks why he should bother... well, because the other information you have is most definitely pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas, and it's just not possible to form an educated opinion when you have only one source.