AS PURIM BEGINS/VOTING ENDS: JEWS FOR “BASTERDS”?

28 Feb

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Over the past 20 years, the two closest collaborators of the writer-director Quentin Tarantino have been producer Lawrence Bender and studio chief Harvey Weinstein, both of whom are Jewish. The trio’s latest collaboration, the best picture nominated “Inglourious Basterds,” depicts the ultimate Jewish revenge-fantasy: a group of Jews kill Adolf Hitler (along with a bunch of other Nazis) before he has the opportunity to kill 6 million of them. And now, just in time for the Jewish festival of Purim (Sunday through Monday) and the close of Oscar voting (Tuesday), several rabbis from the Los Angeles area have strongly endorsed the film, arguing that it is a first-rate retelling of the story that inspired Purim.

The trend appears to trace back to Monday, November 30, 2009, when a private screening of “Basterds” was held for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California — a group composed of more than 300 rabbis from the region — followed by a Q&A with Tarantino, Bender, and actors Christoph Waltz (who plays “The Jew Hunter,” a sadistic Nazi colonel, in the film) and Eli Roth (who plays “The Bear Jew,” a sadistic Jewish warrior, in the film). The event was “sponsored” by the Jewish Journal, the Israeli Consulate, and the Southern California Board of Rabbis, and obviously appears to have had the full blessing and support of The Weinstein Company, which is distributing the film domestically.

Four days later, on December 4, 2009, Rabbi Mark S. Diamond — the Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California — wrote about the event and the film on “Bloggish,” a blog on the Jewish Journal Web site. He was also the first person to connect the film to Purim:

For me, “Inglourious Basterds” is a modern-day Midrash on the Purim story. With apologies to my traditional friends, I see the Biblical Book of Esther as an ancient Jewish fable of justice and revenge. To wit, what would happen if the tables were turned and we had power over our enemies? With all the merrymaking and child-centered focus of the Purim holiday, we tend to forget that the Jews of Shushan kill 75,000 of their foes toward the end of the narrative (Esther 9:16). Then they go out and have a big party to celebrate their success.

Then, on February 20, 2010, Rabbi Judith HaLevy of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue — who is also on the Board of Directors of the aforementioned Board of Rabbis of Southern California — introduced a screening of “Basterds” at her synagogue’s sanctuary, which hosts the the Malibu Film Society, a recently-established group of local cineastes (many of whom work in the film industry and some of whom are Academy members). HaLevy, with whom I spoke by phone on Saturday evening, told me that Roth was scheduled to attend the “Basterds” screening but had to cancel at the last moment.

One person who was in attendance that night was Dick Guttman, a Malibu resident and veteran publicist who has worked on Weinstein films in the past. Upon hearing HaLevy’s introduction to the film — in which she, too, connected it to Purim — she says Guttman urged her to put it into writing, suggesting that he could get it published in the Malibu Times or even on The Huffington Post. HaLevy told me she was happy to oblige and wrote a piece, entitled “Fantasy Time,” that did not end up being published anywhere but was provided to me by publicists working on the “Basterds” campaign:

This is the season of two great Jewish holidays in Malibu — the Academy Awards and the Festival of Purim. Who knew that “Inglourious Basterds,” a front-runner for top honors, is actually a classic retelling of the Purim tale? What do Nazi scalps have to do with the Purim carnival, with its rides and prizes, or children dressed as kings and queens delivering baskets of sweet-filled pastries called “hammentashen”?

It all depends on your fantasy. If you are a persecuted and oppressed people, subject to discrimination and harsh treatment for millennia, it is easy to imagine a fantasy of bloody revenge against your oppressors. The story does not have to be true to be deeply satisfying to the psyche.

The story of Purim takes place in Persia over 2,500 years ago. A foolish king (there have been so many) gives his advisor, Haman, the right to annihilate all the Jews in his kingdom, just because they are a people with their own beliefs. From this point onwards, the story moves into fantasy and farce. Esther, a beautiful Jewish maiden, takes top honors in a beauty contest and becomes Queen of Persia. Her Uncle Mordecai, watching her from outside the palace gates, overhears a plot and saves the king’s life, only to be challenged by the evil Haman. In a plot spin worthy of Moliere and Tarentino, the tables are turned. Esther saves her people, Mordecai is given the highest honors, and Haman hangs on the gallows built for Mordecai. Let’s eat!

The tale ends, however, on a darker note. In this age old revenge fantasy, once the Jews are saved, they wreak vengeance on their enemies. Not only are Haman’s ten sons hung from the gallows, but 75,000 Persians are killed in revenge. Of course, there is not a shred of evidence that this is true, but it’s a great fantasy for a people constantly forced to abandon their lands and wander in exile.

“Inglourious Basterds” is a midrash, or interpretation of this Jewish revenge story. Shoshana is our beautiful Queen Esther, and the Bear Jew clubbing his Nazi victims to death echoes the fantasy killing of 75,000 Persians so long ago. Neither story is true, but the fantasy satisfies a deep desire for the tables to be turned, the righteous to triumph, and the weak to become strong. “Inglourious Basterds” continues the tradition in fine form. Fantasy rocks! Let’s eat!

Then, last Tuesday, February 23, 2010, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, the Executive Rabbi at JconnectLA and Director at Jewlicious Festivals — who Tweeted throughout the “Basterds” screening & Q&A for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California — wrote a post on the Jewlicious blog entitled “An Oscar for Tarantino” in which he also discussed the Purim-”Basterds” connection:

With all the buzz in LA this week about the Oscar voting, here is my vote: “Inglorious Basterds” should win best picture and many other accolades for Quentin Tarantino and his brilliant cast. “Basterds” is the most intriguing movie about WWII and the Holocaust to be made in decades.

Writing about the film this week, a few days before the holiday of Purim, I am drawn to a parallel between “Basterds” and Purim. In the Purim story, Jewish salvation came not at the hands of politicians and power-brokers, but through a Jewish woman who had hidden her identity from everyone including her husband. In “Basterds,” it is also a Jewish woman, whose past and Jewish identity are a secret, and is being romanced by a Nazi poster-boy, who is the heroine.

“Basterds” is a film about WWII and the “face of Jewish revenge” portrayed by a band of American Jews scalping Nazis behind enemy lines. There is also the Jewish woman who plots to murder the entire Nazi leadership as revenge for her murdered family. None of these things actually happened, “Basterds” is a fairy tale.

The film is brilliant from every angle. It has drama, humor, romance, and suspense. The plot twists are compelling. The story, the photography, the script, the acting, and the drama all are detailed, textured, nuanced, colorful, and captivating.

I was apprehensive. I had never seen a Tarantino film, and heard there is a lot of violence. While “Basterds” has some pretty graphic violence, it is a WWII movie after all. The scalping made everyone cringe. Yet the violence pales in comparison to portrayals of mass murder by Nazi death squads or gas chambers.

The Jews are tough in this film. More James Bond than Woody Allen, more Mossad than Seinfeld. There are no sheep being led to the slaughter. The Nazis are brutal, interesting, grotesque — not unlike the real Nazis. The leader of the Basterds played by Brad Pitt brands Nazis with Swastikas on their foreheads so they cannot escape into regular life afterward. They cannot escape what they have done.

It is clear that Tarantino did a ton of research on his subject matter. He read up on the Nazi film industry, and the war, and real life WWII spy stuff. He digested all the previously exulted WWII movies and hints of them appear in the film

I enjoyed many parts of the film for their poetic justice, suspense, and dialogue — but this one I love to retell.

Winston Churchill, when hearing of the Germans plans to replace Jewish cinema with Nazi cinema, says “You say [Goebbels] wants to take on the Jews at their own game?”

If we cannot laugh we cannot heal. If we cannot dream we cannot move on. Tarantino’s film helps us heal, and move on, but that is not why he made it — he made it because it needed to be made.

If they would have murdered Hitler, millions would have been saved, but it was not the priority of the Allied forces. In fact, the only ones that made a serious attempt at it late in the war were fellow Germans.

The Allies tried to win the war the old-fashioned way, with infantry, tanks, planes and bombs, with propaganda, cloaks, daggers and brute force. I don’t know if this was Tarantino’s goal, but Basterds shows that redemption can come from average people doing extraordinary things. To stop an evil tyrant we cannot depend solely on conventional means, and conventional players, we need to act and hope that we are helped by the hand of God.

I should also mention two other articles about “Basterds” by prominent Jews, even though neither discuss the subject of Purim. Back on August 26, 2009, Rabbi Irwin Kula penned a piece for The Huffington Post entitled “‘Inglourious Basterds,’ Vengeance And Redemption” in which he described the film as “a fun, action-packed Jewish revenge fantasy.” He also wrote, “Lawrence Bender and Harvey and Bob Weinstein deserve great credit for having the courage to back this extraordinary film. Yet, it takes a gentile to go where no Holocaust story has gone before. Personally, I would give Tarantino an honorary membership in the Jewish people (no circumcision required, as he’s been hacking, slicing and ruminating about this Jewish vengeance orgy for over a decade) for bringing consciousness of feelings and desires that many Jews could never bring up in mixed company to the screen.” More recently, on February 18, 2010, Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who is now the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote his own piece on The Huffington Post entitled “‘Inglourious Basterds’ Should Be Recognized with An Academy Award.”

In addition to reaching out to rabbis, the folks behind “Basterds” have also reached out to Holocaust survivors and their families. On Thursday, February 4, 2010, they took out a full-page ad (copied below) in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times announcing a special screening of the film that night at the Museum of Tolerance and thanking Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper “for their continuing support of the movie.” (Hier, a member of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, had agreed to moderate a post-screening panel; Cooper was among the panelists.) Pete Hammond of the Los Angeles Times later reported that “the screening drew many elderly Holocaust survivors and/or family members.”

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Bender, meanwhile, has mentioned in many interviews that he particularly appreciated Tarantino’s revenge fantasy because he faced anti-Semitism as a young Jewish kid growing up in South Jersey. For instance, on August 18, 2009, he told the Jewish Journal, “I got pushed around for being Jewish. People would call me ‘Bender kike’ and throw me up against the lockers.” And he told me last Thursday that after reading the “Basterds” script for the first time, his first words to Tarantino were: “I thank you as a fan, I thank you as a producing partner, and I thank you as a member of the Jewish tribe for writing this script.”

Incidentally, while preparing for my interview with Bender, I came across an earlier interview in which he shared a piece of information that was certainly news to me: Waltz, who portrays one of the most sadistic Nazis in film history in “Basterds,” was actually married to American-born Jew; has a son who is in rabbinical school in Israel; and has a daughter who is an Orthodox Jew.

NOTE: I am told by a person close to Tarantino that he wasn’t at all familiar with the Purim story when he wrote “Basterds” but has thoroughly enjoyed reading several of the comparisons.

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