Fashion: Functionality or Art? – Isaac Mizrahi, The Jewish Museum

In August of last year, I was able to catch the Isaac Mizrahi exhibit at The Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue during its last weekend. The previous month, I’d gone to see the Manus x Machina exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was very impressive. Assuming I would see something just as beautiful and fascinating, I was pretty excited to catch the Mizrahi exhibit before it closed.

I was somewhat disappointed. I think it’s because my expectations were high after seeing what the Met had to offer. The dresses on display at the Met were impressive, intricate, attractive, and, for the most part, they were outfits that I could picture people wearing in real situations. Mizrahi’s outfits bordered on the impractical or the odd, the sort of things you see in runway fashion shows but would laugh about if you saw on an actual person in the street.

Then there were things like this:

Unusual outfits at the Isaac Mizrahi exhibit at the Jewish Museum in August, 2016
Unusual outfits at the Isaac Mizrahi exhibit at the Jewish Museum in August, 2016

I was pretty put off by the whole experience. I found the most interesting parts of the exhibit to be the wall of cloth scraps in the featured image above and the chandeliers in the museum lobby. On the other hand, the exhibit made me re-evaluate my understanding of fashion. Does fashion need to be functional, or can it be art? Can it be both at the same time? Or one or the other?

Isaac Mizrahi Fashion Exhibit at the Jewish Museum - 2016//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsI suppose clothing can be art, rather than something that’s worn regularly or even occasionally. Even so, Mizrahi’s work didn’t appeal to me, but that’s a matter of personal preference. He’s obviously very talented.

Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, by Julia Phillips Cohen – Reaction Essay

Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era Book Cover

In Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, Julia Phillips Cohen examines the ways in which the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire engaged in image management and identity construction through media, philanthropy and by engaging in patriotic behaviors. Cohen’s goal is to use the Ottoman Jewish example to show that the concept of imperial citizenship emerged earlier than what had been suggested by earlier works. Using newspapers, letters, consular reports, photographs, and postcards, Cohen creates a narrative that shows how the Jewish community conceptualized their place in the Ottoman Empire and how that self-image changed over time.

Cohen argues that prior to her work on the Jewish community’s relationship with the Ottoman state, previous scholarship had created a distorted narrative by relying on a narrow group of Jewish chroniclers who were sympathetic to the Ottoman state. Throughout her work, she gives examples of how the trope of a special relationship existing between the empire and the Jewish community was used to create and maintain an image of loyalty and patriotism, but shouldn’t be taken at face-value, because it oversimplifies a complex and constantly changing dynamic that reflected contemporary issues and needs.

Becoming Ottomans has a narrow focus on the Jewish community, but the narrative Cohen has produced can be used as a basic model for understanding how minority communities and their relationship to the state apparatus changed over time. Initially, Cohen states that the Jewish community was not even included in the imperial government’s considerations, but that oversight does not seem to have been malicious. There were simply too few total Jews and too few in positions of power for the government to have given them any consideration. It is also probably the Jews did not figure into imperial decisions very often because the Ottomans’ primary problem was Christian Europe.

With effort, the Jews were able to make their presence felt and gain recognition for their patriotism and loyalty to the state. Jewish attempts to appear patriotic was initially a response to a fear of being considered “inside outsiders”, a potential threat to the empire. This is an important concept that touches on the tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the empire and shows that despite official rhetoric about equality, there was always a sense of the empire belonging to Muslims. Cohen did an excellent job of exploring this idea by showing how Jews attempted to adopt the language and symbols of Islam in an effort to fit in. By the end of Cohen’s narrative, Ottoman Jews in other countries identified with the empire, so the constant efforts of the community’s elite to mold Jews into citizens with a sense of loyalty to the empire were successful.

The final chapter of Cohen’s book, dealing with “Contest and Conflict,” was confusing and spent too much time describing competition between Jewish clubs, almost obscuring the more important conflict between pro and anti-Zionists, which has greater implications for later Middle Eastern history. I also felt like Cohen should have spent more time discussing the impact of the Sephardic cooption of the Ottoman Jewish narrative on the Mizrahi, but that may have taken her too far outside the scope of her intended argument. I also received the impression that she intended this book to be consumed by scholars familiar with Jewish history, since she failed to explain issues she brought up that would not be readily comprehended by someone unfamiliar with Judaism. A good example is the problem of the Turkish ice cream seller and eating meat. If one did not understand kosher dietary laws, the entire conflict would make no sense.

Jesus in Modern Scholarship

This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate course about a year ago called “Jesus the Jew”.


 

In The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders presents a very detailed examination of the evidence available for Jesus’ life. Of the three sources used for this paper, it is the most complete and the most scholarly in nature. F. E. Peters’ unpublished chapters on Jesus are very similar to Sanders’ work, though written in a more conversational way and with more emphasis on Jesus as the Gospels portray him, and on how Jesus viewed himself. Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is written for a mainstream audience and relegates complex arguments about sources to the endnotes, but it also presents a scholarly view of Jesus with an emphasis on social unrest.

Sanders is very clear about the evidence relating to Jesus. He writes that “the more or less contemporary documents, apart from those in the New Testament, shed virtually no light on Jesus’ life or death, though they reveal a lot about the social and political climate.”[1] He is probably referring to Philo, who did not mention Jesus, and Josephus, who was born after Jesus was crucified. Sanders explains that using the New Testament as a source is problematic because it was not written as a history; it was intended to be a theological document and though historians can glean information from it, as Sanders, Peters and Aslan all do, it is impossible to know whether the information is accurate or not.

A good example of this is the contradictory reasons given to explain why Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee rather than in Bethlehem.[2] The device used to reconcile this apparent scriptural contradiction is a census that required people to travel to the hometown of their ancestor of forty-two generations. Sanders describes this method as being the result of a difference between how history is thought of today and salvation history, which required Jesus to be placed in a narrative that met traditional models or types based on scriptural precedents. Aslan also points out the obvious inaccuracy of the census but explains it as the inability of writers at the time to think of history scientifically because they were attempting to reveal truths, rather than facts.[3] Regardless, the point is that the New Testament is not a document that is meant to convey factual history; it is a theological document.

Sanders relies heavily on Josephus and also references Philo as a source of information to describe the historic and social setting that Jesus acted in. Sanders writes in detail about the problems of using the New Testament and explains how it was formed, starting out orally and evolving into pericopes that could be rearranged into stories depending on the author’s needs. Because of these issues, he believes that understanding Jesus can best be done by understanding the social and historical setting of first century Palestine. Aslan is also heavily invested in exploring the social setting of Palestine to try to understand how it may have influenced Jesus as a man. He also uses Philo as source for information about Judaism and Palestine, but does not mention him within the text of the book itself. Rather, he uses extensive endnotes to mention his sources. He seems to rely more heavily on Josephus and does not engage in the sort of literary critique of the New Testament that Sanders does, perhaps because his book was written for a less scholarly audience. Peters uses the same sources, but also references post-Biblical literature like the Book of Enoch.

The limited number of resources available results in all three authors having very similar arguments and conclusions about Jesus. Sanders presents Jesus as a man who had very little impact in his own society based on Jesus’ lack of a major following and Rome’s inaction in terms of suppressing him and his movement. Aslan mentions that the authorities were highly sensitive to any hint of sedition, but Sanders points out that, despite Josephus’ narrative of steadily increasing social unrest, this was just a plot device he used to build up to the revolt in 66 CE. Aslan’s interpretation implies that Jesus’ activities were more notable than Sanders believes they were, though Aslan also acknowledges the routine nature of Jesus’ crucifixion. All three authors agree that Jesus was crucified for political ideas that undermined Rome’s position, though Peters seems to place more blame on the Jews than either Aslan or Sanders.

Both Aslan and Sanders express similar ideas about the purpose of Jesus’ mission. Aslan writes that Jesus was not interested in gentiles, at least not during his ministry. He was solely concerned with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).[4] Sanders is more specific and explains that Jesus was also concerned with Jews of a specific social class: poor, rural Jews like himself. He also examines the symbolism of Jesus’ use of terminology like “the Twelve” and “the kingdom” to try to discover what Jesus thought he was going to accomplish. We’re left with an image of a devout Jew that felt he was attempting to bring about a new Jewish kingdom of God on Earth that would appear soon after his death. According to Sanders and Aslan, Jesus was not trying to establish a heavenly kingdom and he did not anticipate the dissolution of the physical universe. He was attempting to recreate the golden age of Jewish sovereignty, which may be why he symbolically referred to his primary disciples as “the Twelve,” referencing the twelve tribes of Israel. Peters’ work seems to imply a more apocalyptic meaning (in the Christian sense) in Jesus’ message, but that may simply be due to the unfinished nature of his unpublished work.

Sanders spends the majority of his book whittling away at source material to try to find a believable middle-ground that describes who Jesus might have been and what he might have thought about his role in society. Aslan, on the other hand, spends more time focusing on the social conflict between the Jews and Rome and between different Jewish groups. Peters puts more emphasis on the content of the Synoptic Gospels and Jesus’ role as a messiah with a scriptural basis, but all provide similar images of a historical figure based on the limited sources available. Who Jesus was as a person is likely lost forever, buried in layers of theology, revision, addition, and interpretation by later writers. Most of what can be known about Jesus, barring a new discovery, is already available and all that is left to academia is creative interpretation.

 

 

Bibliography

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Kindle Edition. New York: Random House, 2013.

Peters, F. E. “Chapters 1-5 concerning Jesus.” Unpublished Work. New York, 2012.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Kindle Edition. New York: Penguin, 1995.

 

[1] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1995), 3.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random house, 2013), Kindle Location 682-688.

[4] Quoted in Zealot…. The translation is the author’s own.

50th Annual Celebrate Israel Parade

My wife and I went to the 50th annual Celebrate Israel Parade on 5th Avenue on the 1st. It was a lot of fun. I was particularly struck by the amount of pride and patriotism that the participants displayed. It stands in stark contrast to the attitude Americans seem to have about America.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but the Philippines National Day parade is held on the same day, one street over, every year. We missed out. Next year we’ll do a double-header and catch two parades in one afternoon.

We didn’t stay for the entire Celebrate Israel Parade. It runs from 11 AM until 4 PM. We were there until about 1:30 and then took a walk through Central Park before heading uptown to a nice a Indian food dinner in the neighborhood. It’s amazing how many cultures one can partake of in a single afternoon in this city!

Please check out the rest of my photos of the parade in full resolution in my Flickr Gallery: 50th Annual Israel Day Parade – 2014

Happy Chanukah!

A Hanukkah poster hanging in the lobby of my mother's apartment building.
A Hanukkah poster hanging in the lobby of my mother’s apartment building.

This is a bit delayed, it being the fourth night of Chanukah, but better late than never!

I saw this poster hanging in the lobby of my mother’s apartment building when we went to visit her for Thanksgiving. I wasn’t aware there were enough Jewish tenants living there for the management to recognize the holiday. Maybe they put up signs for every major religious holiday? Regardless, it was very well done and a nice gesture.

Chanukah is a commemoration of the reconquest of Jerusalem by the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple to God. The oil they had available to light the menorah in the Temple was only enough for one day, but they lit it anyway, while they got to work making more, which was an eight-day process of pressing and purifying. According to tradition, the oil vessel miraculously refilled itself every night allowing them to keep the menorah burning for all eight nights. That’s why Jews today light a menorah each night of the holiday, in commemoration of not just the rededication but the miracle of the oil.

Chabad Succah in Union Square for Sukkot

My wife and I were downtown last Thursday to get some supplies from Petco. After shopping, we were cutting across Union Square to get to a subway entrance that’s closer to the L train when we saw a booth set up. My first thought was that it was the beginnings of the Christmas market. I mean, it’s early, but why not? The month ends in a -ber, right? And it seems like stores start selling Christmas stuff earlier and earlier each year. But, when we got closer, I realized it was a booth for Sukkot. I thought the evergreen branches hanging off the roof were Christmas decorations, but nope. That’s part of the temporary structure. The roof is supposed to not be completely covered. The entire construction is supposed to be non-permanent, because it symbolizes the temporary dwellings of the Hebrews in the desert during the Mosaic diaspora period (between Egypt and Canaan / Israel).

Chabad Succot Booth 2013
Chabad Succot Booth 2013
Another view of the Chabad Succot booth for 2013.
Another view of the Chabad Succot booth for 2013.
Some guy painting over the decorations
Not sure who this guy is. Looked Japanese with a beard. He was painting over the words “Shabbat Shalom” on the door.

The decorations on the outside of the structure were nice. I didn’t realize how extravagant people can get with these things. If you’re wondering, “succah” is the name of the temporary dwelling. It’s just the Hebrew word for it, and during Sukkot Jewish people usually eat in their succah, unless it’s raining. For more info on Sukkot, click here.

Comparing Antonin Brtko and Oskar Schindler: Holocaust in Film

Tono Brtko, from The Shop on Main Street*, and Oskar Schindler, from Schindler’s List, are both main characters in Holocaust films that, while similar, have very different impacts on the Jewish communities they interact with.  The Shop on Main Street takes place in a small town in Slovakia during 1942, at a time when the fascist government is cracking down on Jewish residents. Schindler’s List** takes place in the latter years of World War II in and around Kraków, Poland. Both characters are non-Jews that are placed in positions of power over Jewish people, one as a shop manager and the other as a factory owner. The roles are similar, but because of the different motivations that guide Tono and Schindler’s actions, their relationships with Jews lead to very different results.

Antonin "Tono" Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová
Antonin “Tono” Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová

The more complicated of the two characters by far is Tono Brtko. The Shop on Main Street is a highly symbolic film and endless meaning can be read into Tono’s actions, but it is fairly safe to say that Tono represents the Slovakian nation. He is “Mr. Everyman Slovakia” and his behavior in the film can be seen as a critique of how the average Slovakian citizen treated his or her Jewish neighbors. In the film, all of those Jewish neighbors are represented by Mrs. Lautmann, a widow that runs a bankrupt button shop on Main Street.

Tono’s relationship with Mrs. Lautmann is essentially predatory. Throughout the film, he acts only in his own interest. Tono’s only purpose in interacting with Mrs. Lautmann is to satisfy his greed. As part of the Aryanization process in Slovakia, Jewish people were required to turn over their businesses to Aryan managers. This is depicted in the film and, because of his brother-in-law’s position, Tono is appointed Arisator of Mrs. Lautmann’s button shop. The idea of stealing the wealth of another person and not having to work for it put Tono in good spirits, which were dashed when he realized Mrs. Lautmann’s store was bankrupt and had nothing to offer him. The only reason he continued to have anything to do with her was because the Jewish community offered him a salary to look after Mrs. Lautmann and her shop. So, Tono was only interested in Mrs. Lautmann when there was an apparent means of profiting from her situation.

Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List
Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List

Oskar Schindler, in Schindler’s List, is easier to understand. He is the hero of the story and a hero of the Jewish people. His development as a character follows a path similar to Tono’s, but there is a key difference. Unlike Schindler, Tono never has a change of heart. He never wants to help Jewish people because it is the right thing to do. Instead, he is only interested in profit. Schindler is depicted as being far more altruistic. At the beginning of the movie, Schindler is a cold, calculating business man who sees an opportunity to make massive profit off of cheap Jewish slave-labor during wartime conditions. This is similar to Tono’s desire to become wealthy through the acquisition of Mrs. Lautmann’s shop. In both cases, they are stealing the labor of others and converting it into personal profit, but when Schindler comes to understand the brutality of the Nazis, he empathizes with the Jews and expends all of his wealth in an effort to save as many of them as he can.

At the end of The Shop on Main Street, Tono attempts to hide Mrs. Lautmann from fascist soldiers approaching the button shop. It is possible that he does this because, in that moment of crisis, he realizes he actually cares about Mrs. Lautmann and feels guilty about what is going on, but it is more likely that Tono acted out of self-interested fear for his own well-being and a desire to avoid being considered a “Jew-lover.” In contrast, Schindler takes much greater risks than Tono in an effort to save people.

At the end of the two movies, both Tono and Schindler are broke, but while Tono ultimately has nothing to show for his efforts except a town empty of Jews, Schindler has saved over a thousand lives. If Tono had come to the same conclusion as Schindler, he could have saved Mrs. Lautmann, but because he was only thinking of how to profit from her, he caused her death. In the end, Tono and Schindler really aren’t that alike after all. They start out in similar circumstances, profiting from the labor of others, but their motivations and desires set them widely apart.

*For more on The Shop on Main Street, see this post:

The Shop on Main Street: The Holocaust in Film

**For more on Schindler’s List, see these posts:

Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film

Criticism of Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film

Au Revoir Les Enfantes: Holocaust in Film

Jean Bonnet (aka Jean Kippelstein, left) and Julien Quentin (right).
Jean Bonnet (aka Jean Kippelstein, left) and Julien Quentin (right).

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a 1987 film directed by Louis Malle. The film is a biographical war drama that focuses on events at a French boarding school run by priests during World War II. The film follows the developing relationship between two students, Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet, who is actually named Jean Kippelstein. Father Jean, the school’s principal, has been hiding Jewish children in the school to save their lives. As the story develops, Julien realizes that Jean isn’t like everyone else. To hide his identity and excuse the fact that he doesn’t know the Catholic prayers, Jean Bonnet claims to be Protestant, but Julien discovers the truth. Instead of driving a wedge between them, this shared secret brings them closer together.

Based on a true story, this film demonstrates the level of common knowledge of Jews in France and how they were seen by their French neighbors. The relationship in France between Jews and non-Jews is presented as being complex, rather than black and white. This can best be seen in the restaurant scene, where an older man is sitting alone and Vichy government officials come in and ask him for his papers. When the official discovers the old man is a Jew the official begins to harass him. Some of the restaurant’s patrons express feelings similar to the official’s, but the majority believe the official’s actions are a disgrace and an affront to human dignity, including Julien’s mother.

But, how much did the average French person really know about Jews? When Julien asks his brother to explain what makes a person Jewish, his response is that a Jew is a person who doesn’t eat pork. When Julien asks why everyone hates the Jews, his brother tells him it is because Jewish people are smarter than non-Jews, and because they killed Christ, which Julien dismisses as an obvious lie, since the Romans were responsible for crucifying Christ.  Perhaps this scene is meant to convey the idea that there really aren’t any significant differences between Jews and non-Jews, since Julien continues his friendship with Jean. It is interesting that Jean was at the top of his class, along with Julien, and they manage to develop a strong friendship, while their less intelligent peers are still spouting stereotypes and comparing Jews to Communists and Germans. Perhaps the message here is that a little intelligence and thought leads to peaceful coexistence.

Jean spends most of the film trying to blend in with his classmates, for obvious reasons, but throughout the film he’s shown as being slightly different. He stands out, not necessarily because he looks different, but because of his demeanor. He carries himself differently from the other students. In many scenes he appears to be hunched over slightly, or he walks differently. It almost looks like he’s physically struggling with the mental burden of staying hidden. He does tell Julien that he is afraid all the time. Jean’s desperate need to fit in causes him to attempt to take communion, perhaps to prove to his friend that he is not so different from him, or perhaps because he feared that since Julien noticed that he is Jewish, he should redouble his efforts to appear Protestant. That could also explain why he hid during choir practice, to avoid revealing his unfamiliarity with Christian hymns.

The scene I found most interesting in the film was when Jean was removed from the classroom, because of how his classmates reacted. After the schoolyard repetition of stereotypes and expressions of dislike for Jews, the students did not react violently when they discovered that Jean was Jewish. When the priest came in and asked the boys to say a prayer for their classmates, there wasn’t any rowdiness. In other scenes that involve prayer, there is rough-housing, mocking or laughter. But in this scene, there is solidarity, and later, the non-Jewish students are proud that Negus was able to avoid capture, implying that familiarity dispels ignorance and breeds acceptance and friendship. I wonder if, when producing this scene, the director was specifically thinking of laïcité, the French conception of secularism, which states that religion doesn’t matter because the French are French first.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is an interesting film that depicts the French response to German occupation and fascist doctrine regarding the Jewish community. Some collaborated, some resisted, some were apathetic and some profited from exposing Jews in hiding. But, the film also shows that understanding and familiarity are important tools to overcoming stereotypes. The acting in the film is excellent and the director’s portrayal of Jean Bonnet and his classmates expresses the emotions and ideas buried in the story of Julien of Jean’s friendship excellently.

Criticism of Schindler’s List: Holocaust in Film

Oskar Schindler from Schindler's List
Oskar Schindler from Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List, a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, was released in 1993 in the United States. The movie is loosely based on a book of the same title by Thomas Keneally, which in turn is based on the testimony of the true events surrounding Oskar Schindler. In Schindler’s List, Schindler is a German industrialist who uses World War II as an opportunity to reap massive profits. To accomplish this, he develops relationships with German military officers that he later exploits to secure a cheap Jewish labor force from the nearby Kraków ghetto, and later, when they are moved, from the Płaszów labor/concentration camp. About halfway through the movie, Schindler begins to care about the lives of Jews, especially those that work at his factory, so he uses his status as a Nazi industrialist to turn his factory into a refuge for Jews, eventually bankrupting himself to save the lives of approximately 1,100 Jewish people.[1]

Schindler’s List is number eight of the top two hundred and fifty movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database. In 1994, Schindler’s List won seven Oscar’s, including Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Cinematography; Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Original Score; Best Picture; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published. The film won seventy other awards and was nominated for an additional twenty-four.[2] The film has been heaped with praise and positive reviews, but not everyone is pleased with the movie. It has also received a fair share of criticism and having researched negative reviews for recurring themes and patterns, this paper will present and explore the most commonly cited reasons why people did not enjoy the movie. Complaints about Schindler’s List are not as varied as those for Life is Beautiful. People are primarily disappointed by the directorial style, bad acting and the way characters and groups of people are portrayed in the movie. All of these issues are interconnected and perhaps the real issue behind all of the complaints is that this movie is presented in a way that pretends to be historically accurate instead of entertainment, which is misleading and manipulative.[3]
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The most common refrain among negative reviews is that Steven Spielberg, director of popular entertainment flicks like Jurassic Park, The Goonies and Back to the Future, should have stuck to directing “kid’s movies”, because he was out of his depth when it came to creating a proper film about the Holocaust.[4] Many reviewers did not elaborate, simply calling the movie shallow, simple and predictable, but others cited specific complaints regarding Spielberg’s style.

The girl in the red dress from Schindler's List
The girl in the red dress from Schindler’s List

The first complaint was that Spielberg’s use of black and white to mimic historical footage is problematic in two ways: first, it creates an association in the viewer’s mind with historical documentary footage, in an attempt to more easily elicit emotional responses to violence portrayed in the movie; and second, it gives the viewer the impression that what they’re watching is historically accurate, which isn’t necessarily the case. Also regarding color choice, Spielberg was criticized for what is one of the most memorable scenes in the film: the girl with the red dress. Some reviewers found this use of color as symbolism to be too heavy handed an approach and wondered why Spielberg couldn’t be more subtle and allow the viewer to make these connections in a different way, instead of “bludgeoning” the audience into getting his message.[5]

Other aspects of the movie were also considered to be manipulative and contrived. For example, in the scene where Stern is mistakenly put on the train, what was the point of the train starting to move out of the station while they were still searching? In a realistic situation, wouldn’t the Nazi military official run directly to the front of the train and tell the conductor to wait while they find Stern? Instead, the train is stopped at the last moment, after they find Stern, artificially building suspense to get a quick reaction from the audience, rather than to progress the storyline. Other reviewers complained that the music is used in a manipulative way as well, starting before the action, to let you know how you should feel about what is about to happen. Essentially, Spielberg presents his material in a highly dramatized way that is intended to take the audience for an emotional journey, rather than an intellectual one, and tricks the viewer into thinking they’ve learned something historical, when in reality they’ve simply watched a fictional recreation of a fictional recreation of historical events.[6]

Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth from Schindler's List
Left: Evil (aka Amon Goeth); Right: Good (aka Oskar Schindler).

Also problematic is the way the characters are depicted in the film, which ties in with complaints about Spielberg oversimplifying a complicated topic and manipulating his audience. In his presentation of the story, Spielberg takes a complex, morally ambiguous Schindler and turns him into an absolute hero. He then props up Goeth as an ultimate evil, giving the audience an easy good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy so they can enjoy the movie without having to strain themselves intellectually and ponder the deeper questions that a story like Schindler’s poses. For example, how is it that a man many would call morally bankrupt was able to pull off something as grand as saving the lives of over one-thousand people while other people one would label “good” sat back and did nothing? Or worse, contributed to the Nazi extermination effort? What causes a man like Goeth to be compassionate to his friends and perhaps his family, while being casually violent and indifferent to the suffering of the Jews? What causes that sort of emotional and mental disconnect? None of these questions are adequately addressed. There is no gray area in this movie, just black and white, like the choice of filming color.[7]
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By presenting Schindler as an absolute saint and Goeth as an absolute evil, Spielberg deprives the audience of the ability to understand the Holocaust. Goeth was a bad guy, but he wasn’t the ultimate evil, and he wasn’t the only evil. He didn’t do bad things because that’s what Nazis do and the Holocaust wasn’t caused by someone who, as Goeth is depicted in this film, went mad. It was a bureaucratized, systematized, planned and scheduled genocidal extermination of an entire population of people, characterized by dehumanization and casual violence. At the outbreak of World War II, Germany was the most educated and cultured country in Europe, so what is it about Jews that makes Goeth so angry he discharges his weapon into a pile of dead bodies? Why does he casually shoot at Jews from his balcony in Plaszow? These are issues that should have been addressed in a movie that Spielberg presents as epitomizing the Holocaust by sending the movie to schools around the country, as if it were documentary and instructional rather than entertainment.[8]

Also, why does Schindler’s List have so little to say about the Jews themselves? Isn’t this movie about the Holocaust and the destruction of 6 million Jews? Why are the roles afforded to Jews in the movie so passive and two-dimensional? The only significantly complex Jewish character in the film is Stern, and he serves only a supporting role to Schindler’s character development. By denying the Jewish victims of the Holocaust an active role in their own survival, it instead becomes a story about Schindler’s redemption, a sort of good guy vs. bad guy fairy tale.[9]

The last major complaint about the movie ties into the simplified portrayal of Schindler and Goeth: it just wasn’t historically accurate. All of the other problems are tied to this complaint about historical accuracy, and that’s probably because the Holocaust was such a defining moment in history, especially for the Jewish people. It should be translated into film in a way that respects the actual events, and like I previously mentioned, the conversion of Schindler into a savior figure and the role of Goeth as the evil arch-nemesis reduces this complicated event into a fable. Schindler was a much more ambiguous person and he wasn’t exactly a saint. When asked why he felt the need to help the Jewish people, he didn’t say it was because he suddenly realized that all people are equal, he said that if you see a dog that is going to be crushed by a car, wouldn’t you help it?[10] Schindler still considered the Jews to be something less than human.

Schindler’s List is certainly an outstanding achievement that is not without value as an entertaining film that can potentially introduce people to the subject of the Holocaust that otherwise would never have known anything about it, but it has deep flaws. What some people consider to be the greatest Holocaust movie of all time, others feel is a shallow movie that turns a real tragedy into a fairy tale between good and evil, black and white. But perhaps the most serious problem with this film is that it poses as a historically accurate educational tool, making the defining movie about the Holocaust a Hero story about a Nazi instead of a film depicting the dehumanization, suffering and death of millions of Jews. And that’s not even counting the disservice it does to the millions of non-Jews who died in the Holocaust that it doesn’t even mention.
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[1] IMDb, “Schindler’s List (1993),” 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] IMDb, “Reviews & Ratings for Schindler’s List,” 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “Oskar Schindler (1908-1974),” 2013.

 

References

Flixster, Inc. 2013. “Schindler’s List Reviews.” Rotten Tomatoes by Flixster. May 6. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/schindlers_list/reviews/#.

IMDb. 2013. “Reviews & Ratings for Schindler’s List.” Internet Movie Database. June 15. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108052/reviews?filter=chrono.

—. 2013. “Schindler’s List (1993).” Internet Movie Database. June 16. Accessed June 16, 2013. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108052/?ref_=sr_1.

The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. 2013. “Oskar Schindler (1908-1974).” Jewish Virtual Library. June 18. Accessed June 18, 2013. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/schindler.html.

Israeli School of U.P.K. Black Jewish Supremacist Extremist Group

Israelite U.P.K. School Demonstration in Times Square
Israelite U.P.K. School Demonstration in Times Square

Last Saturday my wife and I were in Times Square, heading to Olive Garden to have a nice dinner for our anniversary.  We got off the train at 42nd street and walked through Times Square to do a little site seeing first.  I was surprised to see what looked like a hate group preaching in the middle of Times Square.

When we were there, I didn’t really pay too much attention to them, other than to stop and take the above photo and note that they were yelling loudly about black people being oppressed.   When I got home, I looked them up on Wikipedia and found the following information:

Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK) is a non-profit organization based in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, United States. The group is part of the Hebrew Israelism movement, which regards American blacks as descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled ISUPK an “extremist” and “black supremacist” group.

I zoomed in on the info boards they had set up and saw some things I didn’t expect:

Christianity Board Crop-Closeup
Christianity Board Crop-Closeup

They apparently consider Jesus to be the anti-Christ.  I’m no expert on Jewish theology, but I think that’s a harder line than the average Jew would take, fears of antisemitism aside.

Islam Board Crop-Closeup
Islam Board Crop-Closeup

Islam wasn’t spared either; not that anyone thinks to spare Islam these days when there’s an opportunity for criticism.  The ISUPK has apparently equated the Ka’aba (the square structure in the photo) with an idol.  They’ve gone so far as to tag the ‘black stone’ as a “clitoris”.  If you’re not aware, Muslims believe that Abraham visited Hagar and his son by her, Ishmael, and helped them construct a home near a spring which came up out of the ground when struck by Ishmael’s feet as a baby.  That’s the black square structure.  Or, at least, the rebuilt and maintained representation of it.  Muslims pray facing this structure, regardless of where they are in the world and perform a pilgrimage, but not because they worship the structure.  It’s just a symbol; it’s the focal point that unites all Muslims.  Islam as a religion is big on the concept of unity, though you couldn’t guess it considering some of modern day politics.

The black stone which the ISUPK referred to as a “clitoris” is a black stone said to have fallen from Heaven to show Adam and Eve where to build an altar for sacrifice to God.  It was, according to tradition, placed in the Ka’ba by the Prophet Muhammad.  Muslims attempt to touch it or kiss it on one of their seven circuits around the Ka’aba during the Hajj, or pilgrimage.

Neither the Ka’aba nor the black stone are idols in the sense that they’re worshipped.  They’re merely focal points for the religion.  I’d put good money on Jesus Christ not being the anti-Christ as well.