Jewish Education Through Films

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Since my children had to be strongly encouraged to attend Jewish Sunday schools, many moons ago, I argued that movies should be used for Jewish education for both the young and the old. Movies engender experiences that have a stronger staying power than lectures, not to mention classes in Hebrew. If properly chosen, they have a powerful affective and normative content — while also entertaining. That is, they are enticing rather than off-putting. Other faiths could, of course, equally benefit from a curriculum composed of carefully selected films and discussions of their messages.

Over the years, I shared this idea with various Jewish educators who approvingly nodded their heads, but nothing happened — until I ran into Carole Zawatsky, the CEO of Edlavitch DCJCC. She embraced the idea, but felt that calling the endeavor a Jewish film club was off the mark. We settled on calling the endeavor Jewish Identity Through Film. Next, I gained the support of Ilya Tovbis, the JCC film and music director, after he learned that I did not plan to use the dialogues to promote a particular viewpoint.

I am putting together a curriculum composed of dialogues on seven movies, with a plan to discuss each film at the DCJCC this fall. I tried to avoid familiar movies, such as Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, because I assume that the discussion to follow the movies would be most engaging if those present saw the movie together for the first time.

I plan to start with Sarah’s Key, which depicts the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942. It provides a sense of the Holocaust through the experience of one family. It allows one to ask: What are the lessons of the Holocaust? Are they universal (the evil of hate and prejudice), or was it an extraordinary tragedy, such that universalizing it deludes its special meaning for Jews? And when we say Never Again, what does this actually entail?

Ida is set in Poland in 1962. A young woman is on the verge of taking vows as a Catholic nun. Orphaned as an infant during the German occupation of World War II, she meets her aunt — who tells her that her parents were Jewish. The movie leads one to reflect on the ways millions of lost Jews, from the Inquisition days on, struggle with their identity — and what we expect of them.

Sunshine follows five generations of a Hungarian Jewish family. As the sons go to extremes to win acceptance by Hungarian society, in an attempt to assimilate, they are rejected. However, in today’s USA, full assimilation seems possible. Is it to be condemned? Accepted as a matter of individual choice? Countered with intensive Jewish education?

The Attack tells us about Dr. Amin Jaafari, an Arab surgeon who has a promising career among the Israelis in Tel Aviv. This changes after a devastating terrorist suicide bombing carried out by his wife. Amin resolves to find out what led her to become a terrorist, which leads him to explore what life is like in the West Bank. This is a good introduction to a discussion of what Israel is and should be doing in the West Bank.

In the Land of Pomegranates finds a peace advocate taking a group of young Jewish Israelis and Palestinians to a retreat for several days, seeking a dialogue. The movie reveals the difficulties in forging such give-and-takes. It leads one to wonder: How can one build bridges between the two people?

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is the story of a woman who seeks a divorce in a rabbinical court, which proves to be very challenging. It raises questions about the role Orthodox Jews play in Israel, as well as their effects on Jews everywhere. It makes one wonder: What can be done to move forward, rather than merely expressing outrage?

Exodus is set at the founding of the state of Israel. The action begins on a ship filled with Jewish immigrants bound for Israel who are detained in Cyprus by the British. The Haganah succeeds in getting the passengers back on the ship, only to have the harbor blocked by the British. They nevertheless find a way to Israel. I was reluctant to choose this movie because it has been around for a very long time. I was surprised not to be able to find another movie that would allow me to lead to a discussion of the Zionist project.

I hope that, if these films have the effects I am looking for, other Jewish communities will add this (or some other such series) to their educational endeavors. Other faiths may follow.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University. He is the author of My Brother’s Keeper and, most recently, Reclaiming Patriotism (UVA 2019). He can be reached at etzioni@gwu.edu.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at the George Washington University.

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