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by Christa Cannon

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Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof

Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof
Rosh Hashanah began at sunset yesterday and will continue until tomorrow. This is the Jewish New Year, or literally "Head of the Year." To start this year off well, let's eat some apples dipped in honey and have a small discussion on Judaism in film!

I'm not going to go into who's Jewish and what they directed/starred/produced/ etc. I'd just like to take a few films, some not as obvious as others, where Judaism is a central theme. If I may.

First, I have to start with one of my favourites: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. This is a movie not timid about potentially scaring away its audience. Not only is it a story set in Russia during major upheavals, but it's a musical! The story shows Tevye and his family trying to cope with tradition in a world turning upside down. In the midst of political turmoil, Tevye deals with his daughters and their new ways of seeking husbands--by *gasp* falling in love! One of them even falls in love, and elopes, with a man of a different religion. This provides one of the more heartbreaking moments of the film. They had asked the big-hearted, humourous, and forgiving Tevye for permission to marry, and were denied. When Tevye finds out they eloped, he denies his beloved daughter and tells the rest of the family to consider her dead. He's already had to say goodbye to another daughter, who followed her fiance to Siberia when he was arrested for helping the revolution. By the end, when all the Jews are forced out of their villages in Russia, he mutters a "God be with you" to his disowned daughter and her husband, knowing they will probably never see each other again. Needless to say, Tevye & Friends have tried to deal with a changing world, and have tried to get along with those of another faith...but his country wouldn't have it. As the rabbi said when asked if there was a blessing for the tsar: "May God bless and keep the Tsar...far away from us!" One of Tevye's best lines, and he has many: "I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?"

Okay, let's get a bit light-hearted after that. THE GREAT DICTATOR came out in 1940 and was Charlie Chaplin's first talkie. He later said he would never have poked fun of the Nazis if he had known the full extent of their atrocities. However, at the time, it seemed just a humourous coincidence that Chaplin looked a bit like Hitler, so he made a movie where the dictator Adenoid Hynkel had a doppelganger--a poor Jewish barber. Chaplin played both roles, and this became his most commercially successful film. Even though it was filmed in the late 1930s, well before the world knew what was truly going on in
He wanted the whole world in his hands.

He wanted the whole world in his hands.
WWII Germany, the portrayal of the plight of the Jews and the storm troopers are almost scarily accurate. Chaplin was determined that this satire should be filmed, "for Hitler must be laughed at ." The movie was almost not released, but since Chaplin was independent of major studios and had invested $1.5 million of his own money, he was able to release it in the autumn of 1940. Jewish audiences, especially, were moved by the Jewish characters and the film became a great morale booster--especially when shown in London during the Battle of Britain. Hitler banned it in Germany and all occupied countries, but he eventually watched it twice. His reaction to the film was not recorded and when Chaplin found out Hitler had screened it, he said, "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it." Another interesting tidbit: Chaplin considered Hitler one of the greatest actors he had ever seen. And Hitler assumed Chaplin was a Jew.

Another somewhat light-hearted movie is Roberto Benigni's modern classic LA VITA E BELLA, or LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Giosue narrates the movie, and tells us from the beginning that "this is a simple story... but not an easy one to tell." The first half of the movie shows a Jewish man, Guido, trying to win and woo Dora, a beautiful non-Jewish woman. His sense of humour wins the day, and the woman, but in a few years, he finds he needs that same quality to protect their son Giosue when they find themselves in a concentration camp. Guido convinces Giosue that this is all a game, and the first person to reach a thousand points wins a tank. For instance, if you complain of hunger, you lose points. If you're quiet and hide from the guards, you earn points. Guido was able to keep this charade up until the very last moment, making his son laugh even when the Nazis were taking him (Guido) away to get shot just before the Americans liberate the camp. Giosue survived, and is convinced he has won the game when he sees an American tank headed his way. The look on his face would make anyone cry--he's so delighted with "his" tank, and you know he hasn't quite figured out that he has witnessed his father's murder. By the way, the number on Guido's prison camp uniform is the same number on Charlie Chaplin's uniform in THE GREAT DICTATOR. There are very few people who are able to make us laugh at something as tragic as the Holocaust. But in doing so, Benigni has shown us another way to remember and honour the victims.

Since we began with a musical, let's end with one, too: CABARET, number 63 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. Directed by the
Leben und leben lassen...live and let live.

Leben und leben lassen...live and let live.
fabulous Bob Fosse, the movie version of this Broadway musical changed Sally Bowles's character from a Brit to an American, to better suit the film's undeniable star: Liza Minnelli. That's not the only change, either. Many songs are missing in the film version. Fosse decided to only keep the songs in the Kit Kat Club. All you non-musical fans might find it a bit easier, not having to watch people bursting out into song and dance in order to advance the plot or express their emotions. Though the main plot centers on Sally and her friends, this film is set in 1930s Berlin and the Nazis are slowly but surely rising to power. In fact, the only song not performed at the club is "Tomorrow Belongs to Me", sung by a Nazi youth in a biergarten. With lyrics like "Oh, Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the sign your children have waited to see. The morning will come when the world is mine! Tomorrow belongs to me," it was written by Kander and Ebb in the traditional German style. The songwriters, though Jewish themselves, have been accused of anti-Semitism, since many people think this is a Nazi anthem. There are so many chilling moments in this musical, but to me, the most chilling is when the EmCee (played to marvelous creepiness by Joel Grey) sings "If You Could See Her" with one of the Kit Kat girls dressed as a gorilla. He sings of her virtues, and how he wishes we could see her as he does. We all chuckle to see him dance around tenderly with the gorilla, while telling us, "Mein damen und herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies...and gentlemen. Is it a crime to fall in love? Can we ever tell where the heart truly leads us? All we are asking is eine bisschen Verstandnis-- a little understanding. Why can't the world leben und leben lassen...live and let live?" He knows society moans seeing them together, and he knows being with her is not exactly a small problem...and then he sings, so tenderly, so beautifully, "But if you could see her through my eyes...she wouldn't look Jewish at all." By the end of the movie, when he's reprising his famous "Wilkommen" song, all you want to do is curl up into a ball and cry.

Though many of these films are heartbreaking, it's nice to see some that make you smile--and sometimes even laugh out loud. As Tevye has noted, the Jews are God's chosen people, and they have struggled through many centuries of intolerance and hostility. Film is just one of many ways we choose to honour and respect what they have been through. Without it, can any one of us honestly say that we understand? Film has given us an opportunity to step into another person's shoes, to go through the good times and the bad.

Just another reason I love film.

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Cannon Fodder
Every other Thursday

Stream-of-conscious ruminations on whatever pops into Christa's head.

Other Columns
Other columns by Christa Cannon:

Summer Madhouse...oh, I mean "Magic."

The Perils of Errol

Deja Vu...

Steeee-rrrrike Two!

Wait...this isn't a comedy?

All Columns

Christa Cannon
Christa would prefer to live in a world where everyone breaks out into song and dance. Um, and also one in which she is rich and very famous.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Christa Cannon by clicking here.

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