Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An Endnote to Joseph Cedar's Footnote

Footnote is a splendid film. The critical acclaim it's received is well-deserved. The acting is superb. And the narrative tension is thoroughly compelling. Its provocative argument surely inspires every viewer to revisit his/her own relationship with his/her parent or child.

Weeks after seeing the film, one scene still remains clear in my mind: An elite group of renowned academics and dignitaries, responsible for the bestowal of Israel's most coveted prize, holds a committee meeting in a room so cramped that everyone seated must rise to allow enough room for the door to open. The portrait is at once uproariously funny and at the same time offers a poignant metaphor - perhaps for the place of academia in the Israeli imagination.
I quibble only with the most basic assumption of the plotline. As an American and as a grandchild of immigrants to this country, I grew up believing deeply in an ethos wherein a father always hoped that his child would surpass him. The notion of "creating for our children opportunities that we never had" seemed ubiquitous. It was always the implicit, if not explicit, dream of the post-war generation that its heirs would live less trying, more comfortable and more prosperous lives. The idea that a father could be competitive with his son, let alone jealous of him, seems quite foreign.

I don't believe either that this ethos is a strictly American one. It strikes me that it is a very Jewish one as well. As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, Judaism is the only civilization whose golden age is in the future. The Haggadah's end note, like Yom Kippur's, is "Next year in Jerusalem." This message is not consigned to our liturgy; I believe it holds a place in the heart and mind of every Jewish parent.
One doesn't need to be an expert on Freud to recognize that tensions between children and parents abound. But for me, Cedar's character goes too far. I can accept that the film portrays an extreme case of paternal jealousy. But I would prefer to believe that this is the rare exception rather than a representative model of the rule. If, as a people, we are not intent on making better lives for our children, then it is we who have betrayed our past.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Purpose of a New Haggadah

Why write a new Haggadah?

More than 7,000 versions of the Haggadah have appeared over the course of our history. In a contest of most-oft-printed Jewish texts, it is hard to imagine what might even run a close second. Given this, one must surely believe one has something either radically new or profoundly important to contribute if one is going to be so bold as to attempt the feat of adding value to a saturated field.

Jonathan Safran Foer's New American Haggadah is this year's most notable attempt. And the justification for this attempt as he describes it in The New York Times' Week in Review is beautifully written and well-put. He writes: "Our grandparents were immigrants to America, but natives to Judaism. We are the opposite: fluent in “American Idol,” but unschooled in Jewish heroes. And so we act like immigrants around Judaism: cautious, rejecting, self-conscious, and feigning (or achieving) indifference. In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent."

If only the content of his guidebook were as compelling as his case for writing it.

It would be almost impossible to add to Leon Wieseltier's outstanding critique of the Haggadah in the current issue of The Jewish Review of Books. (I referenced the piece in my recent Shabbat Hagadol sermon on the Haggadah's wicked child.) In a word, the Haggadah does not live up to its billing.

If one is searching for a Haggadah that speaks to the contemporary moment while remaining steeped in and faithful to our tradition, one would be hard-pressed to do better than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Haggadah whose only shortcoming seems to be its unimaginative title.

But returning to Safran Foer's argument, we are surely on the verge of a critical juncture if we have not already passed it. I applaud him for spending his time and deploying his talents on the project of enlivening the dialogue around Jewish ideas. Any attempt to engage Jews and reconnect them to their tradition should be supported and encouraged. If the genre of the New Haggadah is an entry point for unlearned Jews, then by all means - let us write more Haggadot.