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Rabbis on film 

01/03/2012

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Some claim to have had spiritual experiences at movies, but I doubt that anyone with a spiritual crisis would seek advice from a film director rather than a rabbi. Still, rabbis have had rough going at the cinema, with screenwriters and film-makers often taking rabbis to task for being hypocritical, mean, or just plain useless. Here is a recent history of rabbis on film: 

The Frisco Kid (1979)

In this comedy, Gene Wilder plays a rabbi from a Polish shtetl who is sent to be the new spiritual leader of a new congregation in Gold Rush-era San Francisco. After landing in New York, he finds he has to make the cross-country trip on land. He finds a surprising guide in the form of a train robber played by Harrison Ford (in between his Han Solo and Indy roles). This is one of the last times a rabbi is sympathetically portrayed in an American film, and even here Rabbi Avram is a naïve, spineless rube for the first three-quarters of the film.

The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick (1988)

Talk about plans backfiring... Max wants a bike for his bar mitzvah; his helicopter parents get him a piano instead. But his fellow piano student is a cute Christian girl. D'oh! Max turns for guidance to his rabbi, played by Saul Rubinek (now Artie on Warehouse 13). Just this once, we have a rabbi who uses humor- and respect for his charge- to steer a young Jewish man on his way. Oh, did I mention this is a Canadian film?

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

A classic of cynicism, this Woody Allen work is about a man who does something bad, then considers doing something worse to cover it up. Much of the cast (Martin Landau, Claire Bloom, Joanna Gleason, Jerry Orbach) and most of the characters are Jewish. But all you need to know about the rabbi in this movie is that he's blind.

Pi (1998)

Darren Aronofsky, who would go on to direct The Wrestler and The Black Swan, first directed this thriller about, well, math. Our hero cobbles together a supercomputer in his apartment to calculate pi to the last digit. We expect rapacious stock-market players to pounce on him, to learn the algorithm of making fast fortunes. But equally ravenous kabbalistic rabbis also descend on him, desperate to know the secrets of the universe. One even tells him: "Who do you think you are? You are only a vessel from our God. You are carrying a delivery that was meant for us!"

Keeping the Faith (2000)

Ben Stiller plays Rabbi Jake, and Ed Norton plays Father Brian- and both are in love with their childhood friend, Anna, played by Jenna Elfman. Now, Brian can't have her because, well, he's a priest and he can't have anyone. But Jake can't, either, because she's not Jewish. And how would that look, the congregation's young hip rabbi dating a non-Jewish woman? In the end Anna and Jake fall in love and he finds out that she had been taking conversion classes all along.

The Holy Land (2001)

In this Israeli piece, a young yeshiva student is having a, well, hard time focusing on his studies due to his rampaging adolescent hormones. So what does his rabbi tell him to do? To get it out of his system, of course, by visiting a prostitute. We can just imagine the student's next letter home: "Dear folks, I love school and I am learning a lot! Please send more money for my extracurricular activities fee."

Stolen Summer (2002)

A Catholic boy decides to amend his errant ways and prove himself to his priest by bringing another kid to Jesus. To make his challenge extra-worthy, he sets his sights on a terminally ill rabbi's son. When the rabbi, played by Kevin Pollak, finds out about his son's new friend, he is unable at first to rebuff the friend's influence on his own kid. For instance, when his son crosses himself and says Grace at the dinner table, the rabbi-father does not explain why Jews don't do that and remind him of the "HaMotzi." No, he simply tells his son, basically, to "cut that out." Another teaching moment down the drain.

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

A mistaken-identity caper, in which a man is unwittingly caught between two crime bosses. One of whom, played by Ben Kingsley, is called… "The Rabbi." Why? Because he's a rabbi. Now, while we all know that some mobsters were Jews (Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky), how many were rabbis? Yet, this is a rabbi who finds nothing amiss about ordering a sandwich from the kosher deli while also ordering executions.

A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers revisit the world of their childhoods in this story of a studious professor, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who lets everyone walk all over him- his kids, his boss, his students, his wife, her boyfriend… He realizes he needs spiritual guidance. So he turns to one rabbi and another, each of whom is only capable of ladling out anecdotes and platitudes. Eventually, one rabbi is able to actually connect with the professor's pothead son… and does it not through Jewish values, parables, or scriptures, but through Jefferson Airplane lyrics. 

The Rabbi's Cat (2011)

This animation is based on a graphic-novel series. In Medieval Algeria, the rabbi's cat swallows his other pet, a parrot, and gains the power of speech. Even coming at an understanding of the universe from the point of view of an animal, the cat is able to debate religion and philosophy with his owner in a way the good-natured scholar cannot always refute.

Religion has usually fared poorly at the hands of movie-makers. But rabbis in particular seem the target of Hollywood, especially in the last decade or so. They are shown as out-of-touch and ineffectual, self-involved and self-righteous. Rabbis seem to need a PR push in Hollywood; maybe they could find some struggling Jewish screenwriter and give him a grant to write about a great rabbi, maybe from the book " The Greatest Rabbis Hall of Fame."

For the future, maybe they need to figure out which kids in their classes are most likely to grow up to be screenwriters and just give them good grades. 

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