271: Jewish Stories Share Universal Wisdom on Repairing the World

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T
he Jewish High Holidays continue this week as we approach the fast of Yom Kippur, the most important day in the Jewish calendar. All this week, we’ll continue to share memorable stories for this season. And, because our goal at ReadTheSpirit is “spiritual connection,” we’re starting this week with three recommendations of great Jewish-themed stories that we all can enjoy.

“JELLYFISH,”
A VISUAL POEM
ABOUT JOYOUS SURPRISES

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    If you’ve never seen a contemporary Israeli movie, then “Jellyfish” is a wonderful starting point. It’s visual poetry, a weaving together of the stories of a half dozen Israeli women and a few of the men in their lives. While there’s very little explicitly religious in the film, it’s a deeply spiritual look at what connects us in a joyous and life-giving way — and what can divide us and leave us drifting like jellyfish in the sea.
    As soon as I finished the film for the first time, I went back to the DVD menu and started it again. That may sound strange, but this film’s poetry calls out to you like a favorite refrain you want to keep singing. The cycle of stories swirls like the waves that wash ashore along the coast of Israel. Visual symbols rise, fall, transform themselves, then rise and fall again — from the film’s opening seconds until its closing scene.
    This film is artfully written, directed and edited by husband and wife team Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen. If you’re not familiar with current Israeli movies, you may be surprised that there’s nothing here involving Israel’s national monuments, nothing here about Middle East conflict, nothing here about tension between Jewish religious or political movements. Rather, this is a delightfully universal story, half drama and half comedy.

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    For instance, you have to chuckle when a weary, stressed-out, middle-aged son tries to explain to his frail mother why he has hired a woman to take care of her during the day, while he is working.
    The tough old Mom doesn’t want this new caregiver moving into her apartment. Moreover, she’s got a whole lot of unfinished business with her son that she’s still eager to pursue and doesn’t want this new buffer in the household keeping her from pursuing it.
    “Get rid of her!” she shouts at her son. “Save the money for your children!”
    He sighs. “Mom, I don’t have children.”
    She snaps: “And why not?!”
    Sounds like an almost universal story, doesn’t it? Sometimes, for all our hard work in caring for other people — we just can win and life smacks us like a speeding bus full in the face. And, just when the movie’s plot is heading in that direction — a speeding vehicle actually does smack someone in the face. Those are the falling waves in the film. The moments when we’ve all got to roll our eyes and sigh sadly.
    It’s the rising waves you’ll love. Those uplifting waves are the survivors of such sad moments — and the unlikely people who help others to survive.
    What the film keeps telling us is that, along with all the debris that washes up in our lives, the waves also can bring us unexpected surprises as they ceaselessly roll toward us.
    “Why go on living?” one character asks at one point.
    Then she answers her own question: “Maybe because I’ll meet someone who’ll save me.”
    And, without spoiling any of the surprises in this joyous little film, I can say this: The people who wash up on shore to save us may not look like anything we expect.
    Feeling blue or anxious about the future? Go get a copy of “Jellyfish,” sit back — and plan to watch this film more than once.

HOLOCAUST LESSON
ABOUT THE POWER OF
SPIRITUAL RE-CONNECTION

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    The memory of the Holocaust, the vow to work toward healing our broken world and the founding of Israel are central pillars of modern Judaism. “Jellyfish” is all about that central pillar of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). The next two recommendations involve both the Holocaust and the amazing power that can come from fearlessly, tirelessly working toward that goal of repairing the world.
    “The Rape of Europa,” a 2006 documentary just released on DVD, is fascinating simply as a historical investigation into Nazi and Soviet looting of Europe’s cultural heritage — and efforts by a host of art historians and other volunteers to sort out the mess after the war.
    It’s a great choice for high school and college classes, because it explores so many important themes: the role of art in holding together our sense of community, the destructive nature of war, the moral choices political and military leaders face in conflicts and the different cultures that spread across Europe in the wake of the war years. Teachers and group leaders could take the discussion in several directions after viewing this gripping story.

    But I’m more interested here in two spiritual lessons from the film.
    One is the power of individuals to produce enormous evil and enormous good. A very small handful of top Nazi officials, spurred by Adolf Hitler’s own obsessive desire to control Europe’s masterpieces, were behind the industrial-scale looting and vast destruction that have forever scarred many of the world’s storehouses of cultural treasures. Of course, the Holocaust is a scar that we must never forget. It was industrial-sized genocide that involved thousands upon thousands of willing executioners. But in this other crime against human culture, it really was just a few men whose obsession with masterpieces left enduring wounds on our world.

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    The film also illustrates the capacity of individuals to risk their lives on behalf of enormous good. We should continue to celebrate the example of Rose Valland, a bespectacled clerk in a Nazi art depot in France. Rose risked her life every day of the war by keeping a secret diary of the thousands of looted artworks, including every detail she could find and record about the source and the eventual destination of each piece. Valland’s records became an essential road map in sorting out the mess after the war.
    And, finally, the film celebrates the human importance of restoring and repairing the damage done to these cultural artifacts. These aren’t merely “priceless artworks.” They are symbols of community.
    Toward the end of the film, we follow one dedicated historian from eastern Europe, a Christian, who has devoted himself to finding descendants to receive Nazi-confiscated artworks still left in European archives. We follow him, in the final scenes, as he delivers a set of Torah crowns to a family in the U.S.
    Torah crowns often are exquisitely handmade silver ornaments with bells resembling a ruler’s crown that fit over the top handles of a Torah scroll as the scroll is stored and displayed.
    As the crowns are delivered to their rightful heirs, decades after the war, we see an American Jewish community honoring this gift with a celebration of worship, music and dancing. The Christian historian from eastern Europe has completed one more delivery in his lifetime of trying to make such deliveries, and he tells us:
    “When you hear these objects ring again — I’m not Jewish, but I get tears in my eyes and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not about research or art history or the silver content. It’s that life is created from it again — that they ring again in people’s hearts.”
    If you’re a teacher of a class or small group grappling with the importance of culture and the fine arts, show your class this film and they’ll never forget those last scenes.

FINALLY, A STORY
SO AMAZING
YOU MAY SCARCELY BELIEVE …

Angel_girl
    (NOTE TO READERS: This entry on “Angel Girl” was written months before The New Republic exposed the Rosenblats’ story as a fabrication. They are, indeed, Holocaust survivors but their specific love story was fabricated. See ReadTheSpirit story No. 340 for more on the outcome of this whole story.)

    Except, we know that this story is, indeed, true.
    And now you can read it to children to help them imagine that such things may be possible somewhere in the world, even today. The book is “Angel Girl,” and the cover may look grim — but the story itself will bring tears of joy.
    This is the true story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, Jews caught up in the Holocaust. When Herman arrived at a death camp, he was just a boy, but his captors judged him strong enough to work as a slave laborer. His duties and his life in the camp actually were even more horrific than depicted in the new children’s book. Laurie Friedman and Ofra Amit, who created the book, wisely softened some of these terrors for young readers.
    What saved Herman was a little girl who began showing up near the barbed wire fence surrounding his camp, tossing him apples and bits of food. These secret meetings went on for months. Eventually, Herman was transferred, but the brave little girl had kept him alive.
    After the war, Herman moved to the U.S. and tried to rebuild a life after the devastation the Holocaust had caused to his family and his entire community. One day, friends tried to cheer him by arranging a blind date.
    In telling his story to reporters a few years ago, Herman said he thought this idea was a dumb. He didn’t want to go. “A blind date? Never! You never know who you are going to meet,” Herman told his friends.
    But, he went. He had a good time. And, afterward, as he and his date began sharing their stories, he was bowled over to hear her telling him that, during World War II, her Jewish identity was carefully concealed even though she lived not far from a death camp. Nevertheless, she wanted to help other Jews and, even as a little girl, she would bravely approach the barbed wire of the camp and toss apples and bits of food to a starving little boy.
    Herman was speechless. Then, he found the words to propose marriage — that night. On the spot. He had found his “angel girl” — and did not want to lose her again.
    As the High Holidays unfold, may we all be fortunate enough to find opportunities to become the angel that someone needs — perhaps not far from where we live right now.

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   (Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

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