Hollywood's Jews need to see Israel's 'Footnote,' Oscar or no
American Jews, in general, should go to see this film about wrongheaded comfort zones, in order to break out of one of their own: the mistaken sense of kinship with the Jewish state and the Jews who live there.
In an age of films imagining all, baring all, demolishing all, in this decade of cinematic Holocaust and Jewish-Arab confrontation and IDF agonistes, in this season of obsession with Iran, why should Hollywood's Jews go to see a picture about an abrasively dysfunctional relationship between professors of Talmud strait-jacketed in thick sweaters and inhibition?
Because they need to.
Not because "Footnote," the story of a Cold War between a scholar father and son, may become the first Israeli film ever to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. And not just because it has brilliant, often startling things to say about the ills of fame and bureaucracy, alienation and envy.
Hollywood's Jews, and American Jews in general, should go to see this film about wrongheaded comfort zones, in order to break out of one of their own: the mistaken sense of kinship with the Jewish state and the Jews who live there.
Simply put, we don’t understand each other, American Jews and Israelis. We dance around the fact, we shy away from truly examining it, but we are, as communities and as individuals, in many, many respects, total strangers.
When Hollywood, and American Jews in general, imagine Israelis, the image often ranges from adoration to lampoon, from a race of intimidating, if wounded and well-meaning, assassins, to a hybrid of Yiddish/Pale of Settlement mercantile cliches. Whether it is the Mossad of Steven Spielberg or the Mossad of Zohan, the Ari Canaan of Exodus or the Ari Gold of Entourage ("I teach my son never to let people just take things from him. It’s my Israeli blood.") there is little room left for real people – actual Israelis – to take form.
At the heart of "Footnote" is a five-minute segment, a riotously tragic, hilarious and yet horrible meeting in an office of the Ministry of Education, that says more about life as it is actually lived in Israel, than all the miles-to-the-moon of celluloid Hollywood has labored to lavish on it.
Not that Israelis, on the whole, look at Americans any more perceptively. All too frequently, if they bother to look at all, it is with the myopia of a vast cultural disconnect. The human cartoons range from the gullible, disposable American philanthropist of "Sallah Shabati" (Israel's first Oscar nominee, in 1964) to the comedy sketch televised this week portraying Birthright Israel participants as sweetly loutish, cluelessly hyper insta-Zionists.
Why can't we see one another? For one thing, we're scared to look. Somewhere inside, our unspoken sense tells us that blindness is good for the relationship. After all, what if a key factor helping preserve the bonds between American Jews and Israel, is the breathtaking extent to which the two peoples cannot grok one another?
In a stark variation on the concept of two countries divided by a common language, American Jews and Israelis are two peoples unified by their lack of that shared tongue, their inability to truly read the other, grasp the other, know how the other ticks, lives, hates and loves, relates to family, assesses threat, matures too early in some ways and never in others.
The gulf in outlook is so pronounced as to be all but invisible, as each side struggles to fathom the other, nobly, at times unknowingly, fumbling even simple communication – much like the classic summer-romance couple in a remote resort, finding attraction and perhaps safety in the shortfall of real conversation.
Israelis, after all, sense that American Jews cannot begin to grasp what it feels like to be under the security pressures they feel for themselves and their children, the profound, unending freights and terrors of the threshold of catastrophe. And they're right.
Just as American Jews sense that Israelis cannot begin to comprehend and value the importance of the workings of democracy, of freedoms of opportunity and religion and self-determination for non-Jew as well as Jew, women as well as men, Reform and Conservative and secular as well as Orthodox, and, behind and before all else, Palestinian as well as Israeli.
That is why, for American Jews, it takes a certain courage to watch a film like "Footnote." It means taking a large step toward trying to gain a sense, at long last, of the family from which American Jews are, through no fault of their own, estranged: Israelis out of uniform, neither heroic nor heinous, real people who speak zip-file words formed and rumbling deep in the throat, pained and painful people who read and often think in a direction literally opposite to that of their American cousins.
Both in Israel and the States, the go-to headlines will cast this as a big screen square-off between geopolitical arch-enemies Israel and Iran.
But if Joseph Cedar, director of the underdog "Footnote," comes home with an Oscar at the end of next month, it will be in part the surprise outcome of a coming-of-age in Hollywood, and perhaps in the wider American Jewish community: seeing Israelis for the first time, not for what American Jews need them to be, but for what they are.