‘Inglourious Basterds’ at JTS


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," films that soften their Jewish tough guys with self-doubt and moral questioning, Tarantino’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 to 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 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 to 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.”

Someone passed a copy of the sermon along to Bender, who loved it and reached out to Moline, eventually leading to the event this week at the seminary, the producer told JTA.

In the end, the night turned out to be less of a moral and theological debate about the permissibility of revenge, than a high-brow and entertaining infomercial for the benefits of revenge fantasies. No one was suggesting that scalping captured German soldiers and beating them with clubs would be kosher, but everyone seemed to agree that there was nothing treif about enjoying Tarantino’s film.

The most pointed question, in fact, came from the other direction: Why, Eisen asked Bender, did we even need the Brad Pitt character? It would have been much more fulfilling to just have a bunch of Jews dishing out the beatings all by themselves. Ultimately, Eisen said, the Jewish killers are faceless, it is the gentile G.I. and the SS colonel who get fleshed out.

At that point, a gentleman in the audience (the producer’s father) shouted out that we learn a bunch about the character of Shoshana — the French Jew who ends up with plenty of German blood on her hands as she seeks revenge for the killing of her family.

Fair enough, but Eisen’s point stands. As long as we’re imagining things, couldn’t we have had a Jewish-led Jewish killing squad?

Bender responded by noting that Tarantino didn’t make the movie for the Jews, he made it for himself.

Along those lines, it’s no coincidence that both Tarantino and Pitt’s Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine claim Native American ancestry. It turns out that Eisen — OK, me too, I asked Bender the same question a few days earlier — had it backwards: We’re lucky that Tarantino decided to let us in on his revenge fantasy.

Yes, lucky. Or, at the very least, it’s certainly not a dangerous thing. At least not for the JTS/Upper West Side types at the screening, who can tell the difference between Quentin Tarantino and Baruch Goldstein. The room would not have been laughing and cheering at a film depicting the wanton torture of captured Muslim terrorists or the burning down of a theater packed with civilian and non-civilian Palestinians.

The whole evening left me thinking about an opinion piece in The New York Times a few years back by author Kenneth Woodward, in which he explaining the cathartic benefits to Evangelical Christians of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ":

Unlike Mr. Gibson’s film, evangelical Protestantism is inherently non-visual. As spiritual descendants of the left wing of the Reformation, evangelicals are heirs to an iconoclastic tradition that produced the "stripping of the altars," as the historian Eamon Duffy nicely put it. That began in the late 16th century, when radical Protestants removed Christ’s body from the cross. To the Puritans, displays of the body of Jesus represented what they considered the idol worship of the Papists. To this day, evangelical sanctuaries can be identified by their lack of visual stimulation; it is rare to see statues or stained-glass windows with human figures. For evangelicals, the symbols are all in sermon and song: verbal icons. It’s a different sensibility.

For this reason, I think, evangelical audiences will be shocked by what they see. And, as Mr. Gibson has said repeatedly, he means to shock.  …

Were we a nation of Bible readers, not just Bible owners, I don’t think a film like Mr. Gibson’s would cause much fuss. While I do not think that "The Passion of the Christ" is anti-Semitic, I do think it presents Christians with a "teaching moment." But the lessons have more to do with forgotten Christian basics than with who killed Jesus.

Woodward’s piece provided a framework for understanding how Jews and Christians of goodwill could have such different reactions to “The Passion.” For Jews, it was about Mel Gibson and his Jewish problem, for Christians it was about Jesus and his suffering.

To my ear, Woodward and Moline are saying similar things — both films can be seen as vehicles for helping people reconnect with some neglected aspect of their religious tradition and consciousness.

The question I’m left with is not whether this is a dangerous thing — for the most part, at least in the American context, I don’t think it is. Instead, I’m wondering about the morality and wisdom of religious communities relying on and elevating the work of movie directors whose films consistently fetishize and glorify violence.

UPDATE: If that wasn’t enough for you, check out the report in the Times about the JTS event.

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