Philip Roth Remembered

July 7, 2018

I discovered Philip Roth at age 17. In retrospect, it was the ideal age for a young Jewish man growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey to discover this “pre-eminent figure [of] 20th-century literature”.

I owe Roth a great debt. He showed me that the lives of Jewish men in suburban New Jersey could embody both romance and the “larger than life” elements that make stories big and give meaning to our existence. In his first book, Goodbye Columbus, consisting of a novella plus five short stories, the lead story (“Columbus”) runs only 97 pages in the paperback edition that I have carried with me through numerous households and two countries (see image below). The story charts a doomed summer romance between Neil Klugman, a lower middle class young man who works in the Newark library, and Brenda Patimkin, an over-indulged upper middle class sculpted beauty who lives in suburban Short Hills and studies at Radcliffe College (Harvard University).

Roth wrote in 1989 for the novella’s 30th anniversary edition, that he was both “unapologetic and critically freewheeling about the class of Jews whose customs and beliefs had shaped his boyhood society,” highlighting “the mundane household dramas of his Jewish New Jersey”. Roth was thrilled and amazed:

that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan – about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.

Although the book was published in 1959, I didn’t discover it until much later, around the same time that the movie version (1969) was released, starring Richard Benjamin as Neil and Ali McGraw at Brenda. As a long-time writer and lecturer on Jewish film, I frequently use Goodbye Columbus (the movie) as one of my best examples. Set in a totally insider Jewish environment, the film neatly captures the same feeling – the American-Jewish suburban experience – as the book, although sadly updated the action to the Bronx and Westchester from my beloved New Jersey. It does, however, present – satirically, mostly lovingly, and never less than critically – a good range of Jewish suburban characters. Two scenes stand out in my memory: Neil’s first dinner at Brenda’s house (click here for a 2’26” YouTube clip) and the infamous and frequently criticised over-the-top Jewish wedding scene (short YouTube clip here).

In my last year of high school I produced a “term paper” that analysed Roth’s first four novels: Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go, When She Was Good and Portnoy’s Complaint. The second and third novels are far from Roth’s best, and – despite widespread critical acclaim – I never warmed to “Portnoy”, which became a truly terrible film. My term paper accurately predicted that Roth would become one of America’s great modern novelists; my then English teacher disagreed. Other than our New Jersey Jewish upbringing, Roth and I shared one other salient fact: both of our fathers worked for the Metropolitan Life Insurance company, now known as MetLife.

Roth has continued to play an important role in my literary and personal life since those high school experiences – he has his own category in my writing blog – although has been far from the lodestar role he played at age 17. My favourite Roth books are his “political” novels: American Pastoral (which became an under-released film that never made it to Australia), I Married a Communist, The Human Stain (read my review of the 2004 film here) and The Plot Against America, a frightening book which has taken on unexpected new meaning in the age of Trump.

Roth also played a role, albeit indirectly, in my own romantic life choices. I was introduced to my wife some years ago by a Jewish yoga teacher from New Jersey whose father taught English to … yes, Philip Roth … at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey. In more recent years, I reviewed The Humbling (2010) for the Australian Jewish News, and have closely tracked the adaptation of Roth’s books into films, most recently reviewing the film adaptation of Indignation (2016).

I am not the only person so affected by Roth’s writing. Nathaniel Rich –  almost a generation younger than me – writes that:

I felt an immediate intimacy with the novel’s author, Philip Roth. Though two generations separated us, I felt that he spoke directly to me or, in some mystical, incoherent sense, spoke from somewhere inside my brain. I had read novels that frightened and delighted me, made me laugh, made me question—Roth’s writing did all that, but it also elicited a spookier response. I had never before read a writer who knew me. It was a shock to discover that others felt the same way—including many who were not Jewish teenage boys.

More on Roth

Very few authors have a whole journal devoted to their work. Philip Roth does, published by Purdue University Press since 2005. Wikipedia has produced a full bibliography of Roth’s work. The New York Times has provided a “starter kit” of what Roth novels to read – although I don’t agree with their choices: no reference to The Plot Against America – seriously? What’s fascinating is how Roth reached so many non-Jews, such as ABC Radio presenter Sarah Kanowski, interviewed about Roth’s legacy on Late Night Live in May. For more analysis of Goodbye Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s original review of the book in the July 1959 edition of Commentary, and Elaine Blair’s rethinking of the book’s ending in The Paris Review, April 2017.

(Image above: the cover of my original copy of Goodbye Columbus, 1968 Bantam paperback edition)


The Forward’s ‘Top 50’ Jews in American Life

November 29, 2015

Here’s further proof that Australia and the USA – despite being linked by the English language and a long and deep friendship – are worlds apart in social, political and artistic cultures. “The Forward” – possibly the oldest and still the best Jewish newspaper in the USA (originally published in Yiddish as “The Jewish Daily Forward”, and read religiously by my grandfather Sol) back in the 1930s – has just published its list of the 50 Jews in the USA making the most impact in 2015.

The article is entitled “Loud, Proud, And at The Heart of America”. Author Jane Eisner points out that, “This is a year when American Jews are deeply, loudly and passionately embedded in some of the most pressing political and social issues in the nation.” Jews seem to be everywhere on the cultural cutting edge, “from the debate over a nuclear deal with Iran, to the emergence of transgender identity in synagogues and on screen, to the groundbreaking acceptance of marriage equality.”

Politics: Presidential wanna-be (Vermont Senator) Bernie Sanders, as well as New York Senator Chuck Schumer (uncle of Amy, more on her later) and Congressman Jerry Nadler (New York City – whose district we lived in during our 2011 residence).

Culture: TV show “Transparent” director Jill Soloway and actor Jeffrey Tambor. And number one on the list: actress and comedienne Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”, and one of “Time” magazine’s “top 100”).

And so the list goes. Fascinating, yes.

But from the perspective of Jews who live outside of the USA, how many of them are “household names” here in Australia (or anywhere else outside of North America), even in the Jewish community? Remarkably, astonishingly, few. Check out the list yourself. Of the 50 (see the complete list below), I only count 12 that I can name with assurance – AND I think I am tied in to US culture and politics.

The ones I recognise are Amy Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Michael Dell (computers), Sheldon Adelson (casino magnate, Jewish philanthropist and conservative activist), Ben Lerner (post-modern novelist), Jill Soloway, Jeffrey Tambour, Jon Stewart (TV host), Sarah Koenig (NPR’s “Serial” podcast), Jerrold Nadler, Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein (California Senator).

Top 5
• Amy Schumer
• Marina Rustow
• Bernie Sanders
• Mendy Reiner
• Evan Wolfson

Activism
• Shoshana Roberts
• Nicholas Lowinger
• Emma Sulkowitcz
• Alan Gross
• Ruth Messinger
• Ruby Sklar (and Rachel)

Business
• Michael Dell
• Paul Singer
• Justin Hartfield

Community
• Eli Broad
• Haim Saban
• Tom Sosnik
• Sheldon Adelson
• Alisa Doctoroff

Culture
• Jill Soloway
• Hari Nef
• Billy Eichner
• Shulem Deen
• Nicole Eisenman
• Ben Lerner
• Jeffrey Tambor
• Zalmen Mlotek
• Carolyn Hessel
• Jon Stewart
• Ike Barinholtz
• Sarah Koenig

Food
• Alon Shaya
• Yehuda Sichel
• Leah Koenig

Media
• Lori Adelman
• Sarah Maslin Nir

Politics
• Jerrold Nadler
• Charles Schumer
• Ann Lewis
• Dianne Feinstein
• Wendy Sherman
• Leon Rodriguez

Religion
• Bethany Mandel
• Deborah Waxman
• Capers Funnye
• Naftuli Moster

Science
• Evelyn Witkin
• Gary Cohen
• Tom Frieden

Sports
• Dustin Fleischer

(Amy Schumer’s image from the article appears below.)

Amy Schumer image The Forward


Nostra Aetate 50th Anniversary Celebrations in Sydney

November 5, 2015

For the Jewish community, there are few post World War II events more significant than the 1965 Nostra Aetate, the Vatican’s declaration on the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions.  (The phrase is Latin, and in English simply means “In our time”.)

As the Australian Catholic Church’s official website notes, the:

Document transformed the Church’s attitude towards believers from other religions.  For the first time in history, the Church spoke positively about other religions. The Declaration is widely considered a “watershed” in the relations between Catholics and believers from other religions. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have called it the Magna Carta of the Church’s new attitude and approach to other religions. It continues to inspire and to guide Catholics in forging relationships of mutual respect and collaboration.

Last Wednesday, 28 October 2015, I attended the Sydney evening celebration of this event at Sydney’s Great Synagogue, with the keynote speakers Rabbi Dr Ben Elton (Chief Minister of the Synagogue) and The Most Reverend Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, moderated by Professor Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.

One item of note that the press coverage of the event has not picked up on was Professor Craven’s announcement that the Australian Catholic University was planning to establish a Professorial Chair of Jewish-Christian relations.  To my knowledge, this would be a first in Australia, although the model is well-established in the USA, where it has proved to be very valuable at times of communal religious stress.  When the film “The Passion of the Christ” (Mel Gibson, 2004 – and the subject of my PhD thesis) was released, the attendant controversies caused widespread fractures between the Jewish community and certain parts of the Christian communities in the USA, especially the Catholic Church.  A number of the university-based centres for Jewish-Christian relations around the country (such as at Boston College, a Catholic university) provided excellent counterbalances at the time.

The Sydney 50th anniversary event was hosted by the Australian Catholic University, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Sydney Jewish Museum.  Three images below:

(The event’s flyer)

Nostra Aetate event Sydney flyerThe official 50th anniversary document, with Jeremy Spinak (NSW Jewish Board of Deputies), Peter Wertheim (Executive Council of Australian Jewry), Archbishop Fisher and Rabbi Dr Elton:

Nostra Aetate photo2

Archbishop Fisher, Rabbi Dr Elton and other attendees:

Nostra Aetate photo1(The two photos were taken by Giovanni Portelli, Catholic Communications, Archdiocese of Sydney, and were sourced from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies website page about the event.)

Thanksgivukkah

November 27, 2013

This year, the American holiday of Thanksgiving – established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November since FDR mandated that in 1939 – and the Jewish holiday of Chanukah fall on the same day.  According to Chabad.Org’s “brief history” of the two holidays, this has happened three times in history: 1888, 1899 and 1918. (There are two “Texas only” exceptions that I will ignore; not many Jews in Texas). The confluence is projected to happen again in 2070, assuming that the Thanksgiving celebratory day remains the same.

And it now has a formal name:  “Thanksgivukkah”, which is a variation of the “Chrismukkah” that was popularised by the American television program The O.C. during its first season in 2003.

This is more than a footnote in history.  Wikipedia has an extensive, carefully written and well-research web page on “Thanksgivukkah” (complete with 61 references and five additional external links).  A Google search on the name comes up with more than 4.5 million hits. For those who do not know, Thanksgiving has always been a favourite holiday for American Jews:  seen as a secular Sukkot-like celebration, American Jews have warmly embraced Thanksgiving, giving them a “holiday season” opportunity to participate as “Americans” so close to the overwhelming (and off-putting, for many) Christmas.

There are also lots of cute images that illustrate this “new” holiday.  Here is one of my favourites, from The Los Angeles Jewish Journal
Jewish Journal Thanksgivukkah
Reform Judaism magazine encapsulates it thus:
Reform Judaism Thanksgivukkah dreidel


Jewish Identity in the USA – the Pew Research Survey results

October 4, 2013

The Jewish social scientist in me is thrilled about the release of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which was released on 1 October 2013.

The report confirms many things that we already knew – or thought we knew – but also gives an-depth additional information in areas that we may have expected but had no idea.

Some examples:

Yes, Jews are “among the most liberal, Democratic groups” in the US, with 70% either Democrat-identified or leaning, compared to 49% of Americans in total.   The survey results are thus consistent with exit polls that show that 69% of Jews voted for Barack Obama at the last (2012) election.  (Hey, count me as one of those.)  If you are Jewish but don’t claim any religious identity, the figure goes up to 78%.  Of American religious groups, only African-American Protestants vote Democratic in greater numbers:  85%. A massive 80% of Jews with post-graduate degrees identify themselves as Democrats.  But yet, there is also a strong correlation between Jewish religiosity and conservative political views.  In other words, the most of a religious Jew you are, the most likely you are to vote Republican:  while 77% of Reform Jews vote Democratic, this drops to 64% of Conservative Jews and then to 36% of Orthodox Jews (see p. 97).  We knew all of this before, but the confirmation is important.

All of this brings to mind the old saying I recall that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans” – first coined by the late author Milton Himmelfarb (1918-2006), which you can find reprinted in his book Jews and Gentiles, and is repeated in his New York Times obituary, dated January 15, 2006.

Other notes:

Intermarriage:  Iintermarriage rates have risen over the last five decades.  Among Jews who have married since 2000, almost 60% have a non-Jewish spouse. Among those who got married in the 1980s, about 40% have a non-Jewish spouse. Among Jews who got married before 1970, just 17% have a non-Jewish spouse.  However, the growth rate of intermarriage seems to have slowly substantially – see graphic – with no apparent change since 2000, and little change since 1995.  They conclude as follows:

It is not clear whether being intermarried tends to make U.S. Jews less religious, or being less religious tends to make U.S. Jews more inclined to intermarry, or some of both. Whatever the causal connection, the survey finds a strong association between secular Jews and religious intermarriage. In some ways, the association seems to be circular or reinforcing, especially when child rearing is added into the picture.”

Denominational identification:  Reform Judaism is the largest identified group of Jews – with 35%.  The percentages of Conservative Jews are much smaller than I had thought.  Although Orthodox Jews make up only 10% of American Jews, they caution that Orthodox Jews:

Are much younger, on average, and tend to have much larger families than the overall Jewish population. This suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow. In the past, high fertility in the U.S. Orthodox community has been at least partially offset by a low retention rate: Roughly half of the survey respondents who were raised as Orthodox Jews say they are no longer O Orthodox. But the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining.

They also discuss “switching of denominations”, something I have not thought that much about, and observe the phenomenon that in general when Jews switch denominational identification, it tends to be to the less religious or less-traditional one:

Approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Much less switching is reported in the opposite direction. For example, just 7% of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4% of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox.

The former Soviet Union: Another interesting fact about the demographics of the American Jewish population – the large numbers from the former Soviet Union:  “Jews from the former Soviet Union and their offspring account for roughly one-tenth of the U.S. Jewish population; 5% … were born in the former Soviet Union, and an additional 6% … were born in the U.S.”  I am not certain what this actually means, as the impact clearly is not what it has been in Israel, but it is a demographic change that needs noting.

Education:  Jews are twice as likely than other Americans to have a college degree (58% versus 29%) and almost three times as likely to have a post-graduate degree (28% versus 10%).

Discrimination:  Although Jews overwhelmingly believe that other groups face more discrimination than they do, I was surprised by the relatively large number who say that Jews face this issue: 43%, with 15% saying “that in the past year they personally have been called offensive names or snubbed in a social setting because they are Jewish”.

Numbers:  total number of Jews in the USA, both adults and children – 6.7 to 7.0 million, more than I expected.

This massive report (all 212 pages) is available for free download now at http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/10/jewish-american-survey-full-report.pdf (approximately 2.6mg).


Australian Jews and Film

June 10, 2010

My article on “Australian Jews in Film” has just been published by the Italy-based online film journal “JG Cinema”.

Here is the abstract for the article:

The Australian Jewish community has not made nearly the same impact on film and media as have Jews in the USA for a host of cultural, institutional, social, historical and demographic factors.  Prior to 1996, there were only fourteen Australian feature films that included Jewish characters or themes, six of them made prior to 1935, and all of those six produced by non-Jews.  Despite an historical lack of involvement in film-making, the Australian Jewish community is acutely film-conscious, with one of the world’s most successful Jewish film festivals.  Increasingly, Australian Jewish film-makers have been telling their stories through documentaries, although some dramatic features and animations are appearing.  Controversies in the Australian Jewish community are not unusual, although the community usually is uncomfortable about “airing its dirty linen” in front of non-Jews.  It is particularly significant that the Australian Jewish communal leadership did not respond as intensely to the 2004 release of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ in the way that happened in the USA.  But the 2008 local film Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger did cause a mini-controversy regarding how Australian film critics review Australian films.

The complete article is available to read here.


Books that made me cry 1

November 14, 2009

It has been years, and I mean many many years since reading a passage in a book made me cry.

But it happened this week.

The book is Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures of Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon (who is author of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, amongst others).

I bought the book in Sydney airport on Thursday November 12 – the 11th anniversary of my father’s death (“Yahrzeit”, in the Jewish tradition).    So it was particularly fitting that I opened the Chabon book to the last chapter to the following passage:

My oldest child became a bat mitzvah in an afternoon Sabbath service. She read from the Torah in flawless Hebrew, taught us something about what she had just read in poignant English, and was blessed by a woman of readily apparent holiness. And then she was on her way: a daughter of Commandments.

Now, everyone knows – sorry, Maimonides – that there really is only one Commandment and that, sooner or later, we all obey it.  Toward the end of every Sabbath service, those in mourning or observing the anniversary of a parent’s death rise for the ancient Kaddish, and as the parent of that day’s bar or bat mitzvah, you can sit there beaming, proud, filled with love and knowing – knowing – that if you have done your job properly, it will not be long before your child will be getting up from a pew somewhere to take note in Aramaic of your own utter absence from the world.

Anyone who has had a child recently bar- or bat-mitzvahed (as I have) and has lost a parent (or two), cannot be moved by this.  I was.

(My full review of the book coming up in the Australian Jewish News soon.)


Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting

May 5, 2009

With the publication last month (April 2009) of Jeffrey Shandler’s book, Jews, God and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (more on this another time), it is a good moment to re-publish my review of Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler (Jewish Museum, New York & Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2003), which appeared in the Australian Jewish News in late 2003.

In all of my years of writing film reviews for the Australian Jewish News, I thought I had seen just about every possible book that could be written on Jewish film.  I am thrilled that I was wrong, because Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler is without doubt the most interesting, accessible, complete and – indeed – entertaining Jewish film book of them all.  The thesis may not be as original as Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood or as encyclopaedic as Patricia Erens’ The Jew in American Cinema or Lester Friedman’s Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, but Entertaining America is truly unique in its scope.

Hoberman (film critic for The Village Voice and author of a noted book on Yiddish film) and Shandler (a Rutgers University professor and expert on Holocaust film, amongst other topics) have put together a book which operates as lavishly illustrated social and film history (more than 400 pictures in 334 pages), coffee table enjoyment with the capacity to dip in and dip out for even a moment or two and academic rigour with contributions from eleven other scholars and film writers.  The book also simultaneously acts as a catalogue of the 2003 “Entertaining America” exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum and the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.  (Click here for the online version of the exhibition.)

This is a book which takes popular culture seriously, but appreciates its role in society.  Why are we Jews so desperately interested in our own screen images and how has this portrayal changed over the course of the last 100 years?  After a few articles on the early nickelodeons, this book gallops through the Hollywood moguls (Gabler territory), Jewish radio (the first time I have seen this seriously discussed in a book), individual stars, Jewish characters and themes, Jewish television (a particularly wonderful article on Seinfeld) and a 35-page “timeline”.  This is the first book (and may be the last) which has complete articles on Theda Bara, the Marx brothers, Betty Boop, Superman, Anne Frank, Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Howard Stern and Gertrude Berg & the Goldbergs on radio, TV & stage.  Shandler has an article about how Chabad has effectively used electronic communications media to disseminate its messages, and Hoberman has compiled a “Bill Clinton Hollywood President chronology”, charting Clinton’s engagement with (predominantly Jewish and liberal) Hollywood figures.

Aside from great pictures and excellent writing, Entertaining America is so successful in part because of its sense of fun.  These people are having a good time, and they want to share it with us, the readers.  There are extensive surprises; here are a few of my favourites: a reproduction of The Jazz Singer 1927 original souvenir program; The Jazz Singer chronology from 1886 when Al Jolson was born to 1998, when the original film placed ninetieth on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best American movies; Deborah Dash Moore’s articulate re-counting of bringing the book Exodus to screen; (my) discovery of former screenwriter/producer Dori Carter’s Hollywood novel entitled Beautiful WASPs Having Sex (I promptly searched out a remaindered copy in a Boston book warehouse); the map of nickelodeon theatres on New York’s Lower East Side in 1910; and a delightful article by Susan Wender about Marilyn Monroe’s Jewish conversion – including a copy of her July 1st 1956 Certificate of Conversion, duly witnessed by husband and playwright Arthur Miller.  (The original appeared in the Jewish Museum exhibition.)

The view of this book, of course, is unashamedly American (hey, they invented Hollywood, so who can blame them?), but only a few topics and personalities will be unfamiliar to readers in Australia and elsewhere.  With its extraodinary research and archival treasures, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting is a breathtaking and inspiring achievement.  This book does the almost impossible:  it is capable of being assigned as a required text for university courses on Jewish film, of sitting comfortably on film critics’ bookshelves or in the lounge rooms of Jewish households around the world.


The Human Stain

April 24, 2009

Film review of The Human Stain, originally published in the Australian Jewish News, March 5, 2004

Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise and Wentworth Miller

Noted American-Jewish author Philip Roth’s novels have had a mixed result when adapted to the screen (see my post about this topic):  Goodbye Columbus became the most successful Jewish-theme films of the 1960s (and remains fascinating to this day for its insightful and humorous portrayal of suburban Jewish life), but Portnoy’s Complaint was a classic case of a book that never should have been adapted to the screen. So it is with interest (concern?) that I approached the latest adaptation: Roth’s best-seller The Human Stain, directed by Robert Benton and written by Nicholas Meyer.

The Human Stain is not a perfect novel, but arguably one of Roth’s most fascinating creations and one of the most absorbing modern American novels on the nature of personal identity.  The lead character is Coleman Silk, a professor of classics at a New England college who carries a wounding secret:  he is an African-American, but “reinvented” himself in the late 1940s (well before it was fashionable to do so) as Jewish.  In doing so, the light-skinned Silk turned his back on his family and rejected not only his race and his roots but his whole young life.

The book (and film) picks up the story in 1998, during the Clinton Presidential impeachment hearings.  Coleman Silk – who has had a very successful academic career at Athena College, rising to the position of Dean of the College – is accused of racism for referring to two absent (and totally unseen) students as “spooks”.  To this charge, Silk only responds with anger, and not the (hoped for) contrition.  Silk, now at age 70, later commences an affair with Faunia Farley, an illiterate cleaner at the college who is half his age.  This passionate relationship comes with its own trials, shadowed by the recent death of Faunia’s two children and her half-crazed violent husband Lester, who stalks her.  The story is told by Nathan Zuckerman (a character from a number of other Roth books), a withdrawn and emotionally damaged Jewish writer (with a passing resemblance to Roth himself) who befriends Coleman Silk and discovers his secrets.

 There is a lot of plot in The Human Stain, what with extensive flashbacks to Coleman’s early life in the navy and in university, backgrounding his decision to “become” Jewish – neatly turning the question of Jewish assimilation 180 degrees: Jews want to become Anglos, but the blacks are so desperate they want to become Jewish.  In all of this, Meyer’s script is outstanding, and one of the best complex adaptations I have seen.  He has kept the main story both in feel and in action, and stripped the book of inconsequentials.

Benton is also an excellent director, and The Human Stain (the film) looks exactly like I had imagined it should:  shot in and around Williams College and Williamstown, Massachusetts, the absolutely perfect setting for Athena College.  The supporting cast are also extraordinary.  Ed Harris plays the redneck Lester Farley with the controlled menace and believable madness.  Gary Sinise – who I would not have picked for an introspective Jewish writer – did end up convincing me, mostly because I felt his pain.  In his first film role, Wentworth Miller reportedly felt his role of the young Coleman very strongly, as he comes from mixed black and white parentage.  Anna Deavere Smith is scintillating as Coleman’s mother.

But I am still troubling over the headlining actors of The Human Stain:  Anthony Hopkins as the older Coleman, and Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farley.  Hopkins can play crazy, or British butlers or academics, or industrialists, or even Richard Nixon, but an American black man masquerading as Jewish stretched my credibility.  Kidman was a great Virginia Wolff and a convincing Cold Mountain preacher’s daughter (also see my review of her in the film Australia), but has skin too fine and a bearing too regal to become the down-on-her-luck Faunia. Hopkins and Kidman act superbly in The Human Stain, but that’s just what it is: acting, not inhabiting their roles in the true sense that they were written.

The Human Stain is a wonderful and at times moving film marred by odd casting choices.  That, of course, is the point of the story: in modern America, we can reinvent ourselves, be who we want to be, but it does cost us in the end.


Film review of “Jakob the Liar” (1999 USA)

April 5, 2009

Film review of Jacob the Liar, by Don Perlgut, originally published in the Australian Jewish News, November 19, 1999.

(The 1974 original East German version of this film is about to have its first ever screenings in Australia’s German film festival.  I published the review of the American re-make – starring Robin Williams – in 1999.  As it is not available on the website of the Australian Jewish News, I re-print it below.)

Directed by Peter Kassovitz
Written by Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin
Starring Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Liev Schreiber and Mathieu Kassovitz

I desperately wanted to like Jakob the Liar, the new feature film about the Holocaust.  It is the biggest budget “Jewish” film of the year.  I have been a fan of Robin Williams for some time.  It is also directed (and co-written) Peter Kassovitz, a Budapest-born, Paris-based Jewish film director who survived the war hidden by a Catholic family.  (Miraculously, both of his parents survived the camps.)  Kassovitz has done a number of French films, including Stirn and Stern; a comedy about a Jewish family and an antisemite during the Nazi occupation of France. A nd he is the father of Mathieu, the young actor/director, who has made two of the most interesting French Jewish films in recent years – Hate and Café Au Lait; and who appears in a minor role in “Jakob“.

Jakob the Liar has a wonderful pedigree: it is based on a semi-autobiographical book by the late Jurek Becker, has an all-star cast, has production design by Australian Luciana Arrighi (Howard’s End, My Brilliant Career) and its heart in the right place.  It was also shot on location in Budapest and Poland.

The story takes place in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, whose inhabitants have been depleted by transports, disease, degradation and hunger.  Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) had previously owned a (now closed) café, and by accident overhears a forbidden radio news bulletin that indicates that the Soviets are beating the Germans and approaching.  When he tells a couple of friends – mostly as a way of discouraging one from committing suicide, now an epidemic in the ghetto – the rumour soon spreads that Jakob owns a forbidden radio.  So Jakob is caught in a bind: he is an instrument of hope in a situation which is almost totally hopeless, but his words inspire power, at times dangerously so.

Aside from Williams, the cast includes Alan Arkin as theatrical actor Frankfurter, Bob Balaban (Deconstructing Harry) as Kowalski the barber, Armin-Mueller Stahl as Kirschbaum the doctor, Liev Schreiber as Mischa – a young boxer formerly managed by Jakob and now in love with Frankfurter’s daughter, Rosa, played by Nina Siemaszko.  This is a cast loaded with significance. German-born Mueller-Stahl has often played both Jews (Shine, Avalon) as well as Nazis and tormentors (Colonel Redl, Angry Harvest). Schreiber gave a stellar performance as a Jewish husband in the just-released A Walk on the Moon.  And Nina Siemaszko’s late father – like book author Becker – survived the Sachsenahausen concentration camp.

In feel and approach, Jakob the Liar fits somewhere between Life is Beautiful and Schindler’s List, two films with which it will inevitably be compared.  But it lacks the fable-like quality which gave Life is Beautiful such resonance, and misses the emotionally mythical film-making which Spielberg brought to “Schindler“. It is hard to pin down where Jakob the Liar misses out.  Robin Williams is a notoriously difficult actor to direct, and the role of Jakob Heym (“life”?) the reluctant hero never quite fits him.  It also takes quite a bit of time for the film to get moving.

There are scenes in Jakob the Liar of unspeakable sadness and brutality, and this is certainly not a film for the faint-hearted.  It is also undeniably moving in parts, for the story it tells is ultimately one of Jewish survival through crushing adversity.  And the final scenes should bring tears to everyone.  The characters are full of depth and contain the sort of ambiguities that Hollywood rarely allows.  Although everyone speaks English, the European sensibility is high.  But for me Jakob the Liar never reached the plateau of creating a universal story on a “larger than life” canvas, and emotionally did not grip me until the very end – much too long of a wait.