Friday, December 18, 2009

In touch "with their Zionist sides," American Jews confess nationalist bloodlust following screening of Tarantino's gory Jewish revenge fantasy

‘Inglourious Basterds’ at JTS
(JTA) -- By Ami Eden --

There are many wonderful things to say about the Jewish Theological Seminary, but let’s face it -- it’s not exactly where all the hipsters meet. Honestly, how many times do you find yourself saying: I’m going to a really cool event at JTS tonight.

Important. Interesting. I’ll even give you provocative (sometimes). But, cool?

So I had no choice but to RSVP yes when I received the following press release last week:

"A screening with Quentin Tarantino of his newest film, Inglourious Basterds, followed by a panel discussion addressing “Jewish Persecution and the Fantasy of Revenge,” will take place on Wednesday, December 16, at The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), 3080 Broadway (at 122nd Street), New York City.

"Panelists will include Lawrence Bender, producer, Inglourious Basterds; Professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of JTS; Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky, JTS; and Rabbi Jack Moline, Agudas Achim Congregation, Alexandria, Virginia."

How did it go? Well, Eisen announced at the start of the screening that Tarantino would be arriving later in the evening. After the film ended and the panel discussion began, however, Bender broke the news that the director had made the cross-country flight from L.A., but was sick and had lost his voice, so he wouldn’t be coming after all.

I’m not complaining, just needed to mention it. The truth is, the seminary’s big night still turned out to be pretty important, interesting, provocative and, yes, even kind of cool.

In a weird sort of way, the expectation of seeing Tarantino in the room when the lights came on somehow created enough energy and buzz to overcome any disappointment over his not showing up. And, of course, Bender -- an Oscar-winning producer with plenty to say from a Jewish perspective -- was a good get in his own right.

Or maybe I was too distracted to be disappointed. By what? The man and woman sitting in the press row next to me who started hugging and smooching during the ending credits (Heeb?). In general, the crowd was definitely into the film, laughing as the Basterds made a bloody mess of Nazi after Nazi and giving the film a round of applause at the end.

The panelists sounded just about as one-sided as the crowd did when it came to the central question: Is it OK for Jews to take pleasure in fantastical acts of Jewish-on-Nazi brutality?

Bender echoed several thoughts from a phone interview a few days prior to the screening, in which he told JTA how moved he was when he first read the finished script last year.

“He said to me, ‘You're the first Jewish person to read it. How do you react as a Jewish person?,” Bender recalled in the phone interview. "I told Quentin that as a fan and as his producing partner and as a memeber of the tribe, I couldn’t be more thrilled, this was like a dream for me. I told him, ‘Quentin you are about to make your Bar Mitzvah movie, you are going to be officially let into the tribe.’”

Unlike “Munich” and “Defiance” that soften their Jewish tough guys with self-doubt and moral questioning, Tarntino’s band of Basterds exhibit not an ounce of guilt -- only pleasure -- when scalping their Nazi prey.

Bender dismissed any suggestion that the film’s unmitigated embrace of revenge could lead to real-life acts of violence. “We're getting to live out a fantasy of revenge, getting do what every Jew probably dreamed of,” Bender said. “There might be some people on the extremes who would act a certain way, but they would do that anyway. The greater good is served by rejoicing in the fantasy of the worst bad guys being killed.”

Bender’s embrace of the film should come as no surprise -- after all, he produced it.

What about the three rabbi/professor types on the panel? In theory, you could have expected at least one of them could to get morally bent out of shape over the film, not to mention the audience’s joyous reaction. Pretty quickly, however, they all essentially came down in a similar place.

Yes, Eisen kicked off the panel by citing Rabbi Irwin Kula, who suggested that people walk out of the film feeling great, yet wake up the next morning saying, “Shit, I’m Jewish, I’m not supposed to feel that way.”

But Kalmanofsky quickly put that argument to bed, noting that Jewish texts have always embraced revenge fantasies, from the destruction of the Egyptians in Exodus and Haman & Co. in Megillat Esther. And Moline -- echoing the message of one of his Yom Kippur sermons from earlier this year -- also praised the film, describing it as a way of helping American Jews shed some of their Holocaust baggage and getting more comfortable with their Zionist sides.

Back in September, Moline told his congregants: “To my surprise, my complete and utter surprise, there was something cathartic and deeply satisfying watching this revenge fantasy play out. It was as if something I did not dare admit -- my secret blood lust to do unto them what they did unto us -- was being acknowledged, permitted and validated. I was liberated from victim hood.”...MORE...LINK

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