Friday, June 13, 2008

Is "The Zohan" Good for the Jews?

Last weekend, during that brief window between Shabbat and Shavuot, I took Dan to see the latest Adam Sandler flick, “You Don't Mess With The Zohan,” which, for a lover of Israel and devotee of hummus, was a must see. Before I give you my take, here’s the “view from the front,” an e-mail from my sister Lisa, who, as many of you know, lives in Israel, in Mitzpe Yericho.

(Before I go on, let me take this opportunity to wish Mazal Tov to my niece, Lisa’s daughter Luz, who will be married (God willing) this July at a fantastic theme-park duplicating life from the time of Abraham called Genesis Land).

So here is Lisa’s take:

Dear JJ

I wanted to write you a letter about this movie we just saw. I was interested in knowing if you would put it in your newsletter.

The movie is called "don’t mess with the Zohan." At first, from the trailer it looked like another "eskimo lemon" type of movie; a classic comedy where everybody is quite stupid, but in the end, the good guys win, as it were. In those movies, too, there is lots of "typical" Israeli stuff, but nobody brushes their teeth with hummus.... But the Zohan movie is a lot more problematic than just a bit of overdone shtick. There are two issues which I believe your readers should hear from an Israeli, since it is so seductive to look at a movie like this and say, "cool! We are on the map!" and reminisce about the silly and often inappropriate things that well meaning sabras do when in contact with Americans.

One issue is like this. Even "the Producers" waited till Hitler was good and dead, and there was no more war going on. To mock a situation where Israeli Jews are in mortal danger just by going to work or school is to make it all seem trivial. I suddenly realized, while watching the movie, that probably most of the Americans watching it would conclude that it is all a big joke. That really, we are such incredible super heroes that feel no pain, that this is all a show for the CNN crews, etc. (I can tell you for sure that there is no Israeli equivalent of Pallywood). It is the result of a tragic lack of understanding of the situation that someone can do such a trivial comedy about life here. I do recall a long and serious debate about "the producers," but I don't see that such a thing will happen here....

The other issue is that the movie promotes a certain kind of resolution, which is very typical of American resolutions, but precisely the kind of conclusion that can only bring on more tragedy. It is so typically American, at least in Hollywood, that if one takes someone to bed, then all is well. It is also evidently very American to see the resolution of any ethnic, racial or religious problem as "let's get married." In actual fact, the "melting pot" approach is the opposite of respecting a person's traditions and roots. It slices and dices too many rich ways of life, and insists that the "best" way to be, is like "us." It may be that the American audience will lap up this ending, but I can only hope that there are a few out there, who think that immediate gratification of one's urges is NOT a sign of a mature resolution to a problem.

I am the last to put down a good comedy.

But this is just NOT funny!

Love, L

OK. First thing: She’s the only one who gets away with calling me JJ!

Dear Lisa,

Thanks for your review!

I agree with you that “Zohan” hardly presents a realistic view of what is going on now in your neck of the woods and is insensitive to the real suffering that takes place there. It’s interesting to note that the script was first written several years ago, before the Second Intifada, and they had to can it for a while because of 9/11. For some reason they decided that the time was now right for its release. At the time this film was conceived, the Pollyanna-ish ending fit right into the last embers of the Oslo years, accentuated by the failed Clinton efforts at Camp David and Sharem el-Sheik. But that doesn’t mean Hollywood is now less of a sucker for glib happy endings. Zohan has a plot that, in places, is exactly the same as last year’s short film, “West Bank Story” (right down to the hummus stand), which won an Oscar.

So yes, Hollywood is delusional. But I already knew that. They still think the Lakers will beat our Celtics, for crying out loud!

But don’t confuse Hollywood with the rest of the country, or even with Hollywood itself. As I saw in Washington at AIPAC last week, Americans now relate to the Israeli experience as never before. What was said quietly by some right after 9/11, “We’re all Israelis now,” is being echoed by the vast majority of Americans and Israel’s support has never been higher because of it. We heard from residents of Sderot and nearby communities and their plight was highlighted, pointedly, during the session attended by over half of Congress. We also heard of the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands. As a recent article in the Jerusalem Post proclaimed, American support for Israel is at an all-time high, with a poll showing that 76% agree that Israel is a "vital ally" of the US, 71% saying the US should support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and 60% willing to identify themselves as supporters of Israel in that conflict.

With the exception of the far left, people are fully aware that the Israeli “melting pot” is more like a cauldron that would be shattered to bits long before its contents have had time to melt. Neither is a melting pot the goal. When I saw politician after politician echoing the “Two State” mantra, it wasn’t because they think those states of Arabs and Jews will all “learn to live like good Christians” next to each other. It’s because the alternative, one state, will lead inexorably to something either non democratic or not Jewish.

Incidentally, at a lunch I attended, Natan Sharansky gave rabbis a copy of his new book, "Defending Identity", in which he makes the claim that Identity and Democracy go hand in hand. I feel that it is vitally important, for the Jewish people and for the world, that Israel stay both democratic and Jewish (“Jewish” as defined broadly, with “halakhic” being a factor, but not the only factor). I’m looking forward to reading Sharansky’s book this summer.

While the Zohan character clearly has identity issues and could use a good therapist, I hesitate to over analyze this film. Suffice to say that while Americans may be making light of the lot of Israelis, we aren’t nearly as good at it as the Israelis themselves. At the bottom of this week'sShabbat-O-Gram, there is a link to a TV ad that mocks Ahmadinejad that is right out of Chaplin and Mel Brooks. My favorite Israel TV program, Eretz Nehederet, mocks Israeli culture with a wicked precision that Saturday Night Live could only dream of (though they did quite a number on Hillary). During my rabbinical school year in Israel, lo those many years ago, we saw Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and I couldn’t help but sense the irony of seeing this spoof of Jesus, in Jerusalem no less, and hearing the audience convulsing in laughter. That movie, like “Zohan” was spoofed extremism - that scene with all the liberation army’s “rescue” is one of my favorites:

Reg: [arriving at Brian's crucifixion] Hello, Sibling Brian.

Brian: Thank God you've come, Reg.

Reg: Well, I think I should point out first, Brian, in all fairness, we are not, in fact, the rescue committee. However, I have been asked to read the following prepared statement on behalf of the movement. "We the People's Front of Judea, brackets, officials, end brackets, do hereby convey our sincere fraternal and sisterly greetings to you, Brian, on this, the occasion of your martyrdom.”

Brian: What?

Reg: "Your death will stand as a landmark in the continuing struggle to liberate the parent land from the hands of the Roman imperialist aggressors, excluding those concerned with drainage, medicine, roads, housing, education, viniculture and any other Romans contributing to the welfare of Jews of both sexes and hermaphrodites. Signed, on behalf of the P. F. J., etc. " And I'd just like to add, on a personal note, my own admiration, for what you're doing for us, Brian, on what must be, after all, for you a very difficult time.

“Zohan” not only spoofs the extremist threat to Israel, but, like “Munich,” it shows how the hard-nosed Israeli soldier hates to kill. In demonstrating the purity of arms that is so crucial to the IDF mindset, I think the movie shows Israelis in the most positive, peace-loving light.

I also think Zohan works as a spoof of the macho Israeli male, much like “Blazing Saddles” or “The Frisco Kid” spoofs the American cowboy. Yes, we realize that Israelis don’t brush their teeth with hummus (though it’s something I wouldn’t mind doing from time to time). Adam Sandler often throws absurdities into his films. While there are certainly some objectionable caricatures, I’d have more reason to be upset were I an Arab, actually (for mistaking Neosporin for an explosive), a supporter of gay rights or a PETA activist (the scene where they are kicking a cat like a soccer ball I’m sure got a rise out of them). Sandler’s shift from Macho Male to Borscht Belt Borat (“The Producers” meets “Shampoo”) was mildly offensive, but nothing to scream about.

So yes, it’s not realistic and yes, falling in love with the Palestinian hairdresser across the street will not solve the problems of the world. But in responding to the big question that we must ask of everything at all times, “Is it good for the Jews?” I’d have to give a qualified “yes,” based on the tourism dollars that will be generated by the Tel Aviv beach scenes alone. It’s good. Not as good as Abu Shukri’s hummus, to be sure. But harmless.

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