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‘Noah’ and the Jews

 
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Russell Crowe plays the title character in the biblical film epic “Noah.”

It is easy to think back to a time, not too long ago, when filmmakers, especially Jewish ones, shied away from a discussion of anything Jewish that might be apparent in their work. And so it was a special moment when I joined seven rabbis at a special screening of “Noah” in New York two weeks ago. The rabbis represented several Jewish organizations and a few Manhattan synagogues, and the group was invited not only to screen “Noah” but to chat with director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel afterward.

Such opportunities are singular, as most directors who tackle Jewish or biblical themes rarely open themselves up to questioning or even encourage discussion of their work with Jewish authorities. This was different. It seemed that both Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel had seen their creation of “Noah” as an exercise in Jewish learning, a process that began years ago when a teenaged Mr. Aronofsky wrote a poem about Noah for a class assignment.

My first contact with the film project began a year ago, when I was invited to Brooklyn, along with a handful of Jewish educators, to begin a conversation with the filmmakers about their story and to visit the set, a magnificent four-story recreation in a Williamsburg armory, of Noah’s Ark, envisioned and built by Mark Friedberg. (Mr. Friedberg, kvelling, joined us for the Manhattan screening.) Mr. Aronofsky had called us in to get feedback on his interpretation of the Noah story. He explained that he and Mr. Handel had done extensive text study, culling from a variety of Jewish sources, including the Zohar. Now, a year later, he assembled this interdenominational group of rabbis to screen the movie and provide feedback. Their response was quite positive. The rabbis questioned the writers on a variety of issues and story points, asking how they had come up with their interpretations of text. They were pleased to note that these readings of the fixed Genesis text had some basis. Mr. Aronofsky was happy to refer to the film as his and Mr. Handel’s midrash on the Noah story.

Jewish tradition has a long history of encouraging interpretation of the “p’shat,” the literal text. Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel have done so, drawing from a rich mix of rabbinic literature. In contrast, some Christian and Muslim scholars and clergy have had trouble with the film, because it changes the Noah story’s fixed literal reading. Because of this initial reaction, Paramount, the film’s distributor, has chosen to alter its advertising, now saying that the film was “inspired” by the Bible story.

Mr. Aronofsky was proud to describe his Jewish upbringing and share with us how important it was for him to make this motion picture. As a youth, he had planned to backpack across Europe, beginning in Israel, where he volunteered on a kibbutz. His expectations for helping Israeli agriculture were dashed when he found himself on an assembly line at the kibbutz’s plastic factory. In an online interview on his website, aronofsky.net, he noted, “So I ran away after two days. And if you have no money and you’re walking around the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a backpack, you get brought into religious sects that introduce you to mysticism, that show you the beauty and magic of religion, to bring you back into the fold.”

Mr. Aronofsky was affected by that experience and it found its way into his first narrative film. Text, interpretation, and choice of words are important ingredients in that film, “Pi,” made in 1998, a movie that would garner the young director a variety of awards and national attention. The film was about Max, a “numbers theorist,” who begins to make stock calculations based on his computer’s suggestions. He and his mentor, Sol, struggle with issues of mathematical logic, which only gets more complicated when Lenny introduces new questions related to gematria (a form of mystical mathematics that involves assigning numeric values to Hebrew letters). After “Pi,” Aronofsky made a series of strong, not always popular films, which included “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.” Most recently, he directed the highly acclaimed “The Wrestler” and “The Black Swan.” “Noah” marked a return to struggling with Jewish text.

“Noah” spends a great deal of time developing the character of the man who was chosen by the Creator to live through the catastrophic flood. Noah was righteous for his time, but as most commentators agree, he was an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Russell Crowe is excellent as Noah; he and Jennifer Connelly, as his wife, Naama, bring us a sense of a real couple struggling with intense difficulties. Anthony Hopkins, as always, is strong in his role as the sage Methuselah. But the real star of “Noah” is Emma Watson, who as Ila shows a broad swath of emotion as the late addition to the family. The film had a $150 million budget, and it seems that little expense was spared. I can attest that the moviemakers did their very best to make this story look as real as they could. They did an awesome job of giving us their interpretation of what happened in those four short chapters in B’reishit- the Book of Genesis.

Mr. Aronofsky chose to pull together a variety of stories in this epic film to best position it for popular consumption. There are the love stories, there are battles waged between the forces for evil and goodness, there are the sacrifices made to save the future, and there even are “Watchers,” Transformer-like characters who aid Noah in fulfilling his mission. There is even a moment when we see an Abraham story element introduced. Mr. Aronofsky was quick to say he inserted it “as a way to characterize God … that he is going to wipe out humanity … his creation. We were trying to put that in human terms.” There are enough moral questions and theological issues detailed onscreen to allow for great post-viewing discussions and Bible study. We even are treated to a refresher course on Creation and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. “Noah” is pure enjoyment, though because of some of the brutality, it is not for the very young.

In our post-screening discussion, Mr. Aronofsky told us that he regretted calling Noah’s protectors “Watchers” rather than “Nephilim,” the term used in Genesis 6:4. “We thought it was too esoteric a term, but it is not,” he said. One of the attendees, Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, showed me the reference to the Nephilim. It is at the end of parashat B’reishit, just before the Noah story. Rabbi Marans noted that the rabbis struggled with the question of who exactly the Nephilim — “who cohabitated with the daughters of man” — could be. Were they fallen angels? Some commentators thought so and Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Handel provide their own interpretation of these “Watchers,” these Nephilim, in their film.

Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel invite you to delve into their midrash and challenge them. If you are ready for a fine biblical film epic, go see “Noah”!

Eric Goldman is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University. His most recent book is “The American Jewish Story through the Cinema” (University of Texas Press).

 
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Topol and Yehoram Gaon and me

Our film reviewer meets two legends of Israeli cinema

It is not every week that two legends of the Israeli cinema come to town.

Last Monday, Topol was at Town Hall in Manhattan for “Raising the Roof,” the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene’s tribute to fifty years of “Fiddler on the Roof,” honoring lyricist Sheldon Harnick. (The Jewish Standard ran a preview of this performance on May 16. The Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, lives in Teaneck.)

The 78 year-old Topol is known for his portrayal of Tevye in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation of the stage classic. On stage on Monday, Topol sang an a cappella version of “If I Were a Rich Man.” The rendition held the audience spellbound. It was absolutely brilliant.

 

‘The Last Sentence’

In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3, we read that there is a season (zman) and a time (eyt) for every experience.

In 1954 Pete Seeger took these words, in part as a protest against nuclear weapons testing, and adapted them into a song that the Byrds made into a hit, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a decade later. Some commentators thought that the season — the “zman” — was a fixed period, and the “eyt” was the moment that is appropriate for an action. Kohelet goes on to lay out a time for every purpose under heaven, including “a time for silence and a time for speaking.”

Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell just as easily could have called his film “Silence or Protest” instead of “The Last Sentence.” At what point do you remain silent and when do you speak out? Is there a “zman” or an “eyt” that effects how you make your choices? In America, this issue was raised when protestors first questioned America’s role in Vietnam. Some saw these protests as un-American.

 

Rockets fall, but the show must go on!

The 31st annual Jerusalem Film Festival

The moment I heard the siren go off outside the seminar room in Tel Aviv, I knew that my visit to Israel would be altered dramatically.

Etgar Keret, the writer and film director, changed his prepared talk and started instead by reading one of his short stories, “Pastrami,” about how in the midst of a rocket attack, he and his wife pulled off to the side of the road and comforted their frightened child by playing a game. By doing this, he reassured all of us. Later that afternoon I learned that that there had been red alerts all across the country, including Jerusalem, and I understood that my plans for the next week were now in flux.

I was to attend the opening of the 31st annual Jerusalem Film Festival at Sultan’s Pool last Thursday, preceded and followed by a variety of fun receptions that make Oscar parties pale in comparison — well, maybe I am exaggerating a bit! The annual festival opening is an event to which I always look forward, with hundreds in attendance at this incredible open-air film screening, just below the walls of the Old City.

 

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‘Wish I Was Here’

How could a Standard reader help but root for Zach Braff’s continued success?

He’s a nice Jewish guy from South Orange, who had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Ohab Shalom and then went out into the world and defied showbiz odds by becoming the star of “Scrubs,” a hit TV show that ran for nine years, from 2001 to 2010. I wasn’t surprised that Mr. Braff, now 39, managed to get backing for a small indie film he had written in 2004, while “Scrubs” was at the height of its hipness mojo.

A lot of hit sit-com actors manage to get somebody to back a vanity film when they are hot. But Mr. Braff pleasantly surprised me, as well as almost all other critics, with 2004’s “Garden State,” the first film that he wrote and directed. This tale of a young actor (played by Mr. Braff) returning to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral wasn’t a perfect film, but its failings were those, it seemed, of a young first-time director.

 

Rockets fall, but the show must go on!

The 31st annual Jerusalem Film Festival

The moment I heard the siren go off outside the seminar room in Tel Aviv, I knew that my visit to Israel would be altered dramatically.

Etgar Keret, the writer and film director, changed his prepared talk and started instead by reading one of his short stories, “Pastrami,” about how in the midst of a rocket attack, he and his wife pulled off to the side of the road and comforted their frightened child by playing a game. By doing this, he reassured all of us. Later that afternoon I learned that that there had been red alerts all across the country, including Jerusalem, and I understood that my plans for the next week were now in flux.

I was to attend the opening of the 31st annual Jerusalem Film Festival at Sultan’s Pool last Thursday, preceded and followed by a variety of fun receptions that make Oscar parties pale in comparison — well, maybe I am exaggerating a bit! The annual festival opening is an event to which I always look forward, with hundreds in attendance at this incredible open-air film screening, just below the walls of the Old City.

 

Topol and Yehoram Gaon and me

Our film reviewer meets two legends of Israeli cinema

It is not every week that two legends of the Israeli cinema come to town.

Last Monday, Topol was at Town Hall in Manhattan for “Raising the Roof,” the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene’s tribute to fifty years of “Fiddler on the Roof,” honoring lyricist Sheldon Harnick. (The Jewish Standard ran a preview of this performance on May 16. The Folksbiene’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, lives in Teaneck.)

The 78 year-old Topol is known for his portrayal of Tevye in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation of the stage classic. On stage on Monday, Topol sang an a cappella version of “If I Were a Rich Man.” The rendition held the audience spellbound. It was absolutely brilliant.

 
 
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