Reviews 
Herod's Tomb Unlikely Heroes
Into the Arms of Strangers A&E: Sodom & Gomorrah
Uprising God On Trial
Simon Wiesenthal bio Paper Clips
A Life Apart: Hasidism in America Constantine's Sword
The Scarlet and the Black The Counterfeiters
The Exodus Decoded Exodus Revealed
Mysteries of the Bible: Archenemy Shanghai Ghetto
One Night With the King Great People of the Bible
Defiance The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
The Cave Of Letters Holy Land Hardball
Cast a Giant Shadow Solomon & Sheba
The Hidden City of Petra Abraham: One Man, One God
A & E: Sampson & Delilah The Hidden Children
Empires: Kingdom of David Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State
A&E: Adam and Eve The Long Way Home
Trembling Before G-d The Jewish People: A Story of Survival
Footsteps of Goliath Escape From Sobibor
I'm Still Here Jews and Baseball
100 Voices  

These are DVDs (movies and documentaries) of Jewish interest, with my reviews of them, that I particularly liked. I found all of them at Netflix and many are (or were) available on instant play (watch directly on your computer).


100 Voices: A Journey Home

Hazzanut started in Poland. But Poland is now, essentially, Judenrein. 

Yet, Poland still has a Yiddish theater (without a single Jewish actor) and an annual Jewish Culture festival. The festival is quite well attended.

This film is the story of a number of well-known Jewish singers, cantors, giving a number of concerts in Poland. It starts with a charming history and perspective on Hazzanute, both as it was in Poland and as it came to the United States. It follows the five concerts (including Alberto Mizrachi).

New to me is the history of Poland under the nazis. The film goes to great lengths to show how Poland wasn't as "bad" as most of us think. Much of this information is new to me. Yet, for the apologetics, the film simply fails to admit that Polish monuments to those events virtually never mention "Jews," that, therefore, Poland still hasn't taken responsibility for itself.

That said, watching the film only for the music and for the interviews with the cantors, seeing how enthusiastic Poles are about our music, the film is remarkable.

Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story

Written by Ira Berkow, directed by Peter Miller, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story is more than just anecdotes and trivia about Jews and baseball, this is an engaging sociology of the relationship between baseball and Jews and Jews and baseball.

Chaim Potok understood the relation of baseball to Jews. He opens his first novel, The Chosen, with a school-yard baseball game, using that ball game to define his characters.

Ken Burns understood the relation of baseball to immigrants, all immigrants, in this Baseball series.

What is the key? The key is that athleticism, playing baseball, does not fit the stereotype goyim have of Jews (or, for that matter, that Jews have of Jews). While playing baseball, for the immigrant, shows they are "American," kal v'chomer for Jews. For Jews, playing baseball not only shows how "American" we are (and Potok's chassidic protagonist is quite explicit about this), it helps debunk the outsiders' stereotypical thinking (i.e., bigotry); there are extensive interviews with Hank Greenberg (1930's) and Sandy Koufax (1960's) and the two of them are also quite clear on this.

It is important. We fit in; we're not outsiders; we're not different; we're not strange. We're just the same as anyone else....

The serious sociology is discussed but is never pedantic or overbearing. It's just ... there and informative.

But, yes, there are lots of anecdotes and tidbits and trivia and generally really interesting stuff.

Jews have played baseball since the beginning of baseball in the mid-19th century. In 1886, a Jew of Dutch descent, Litman Emmanuel Pile played professional baseball for the Phillies (they were the "Athletics" from the very beginning). He was the home run leader of the professional leagues for the first three years of professional baseball. He set the first home run record, six.

In the 20th century, Barney Pelty was the first Jew with a baseball card. In short, many Jews played professional baseball but, to try to avoid anti-semitism, many, if not most, changed their names.

The Black Sox scandal, though this is unprovable, was allegedly masterminded by a Jew, leading Henry Ford to print the remark that baseball was characterized by "too much Jew." (What can one expect from Ford after all?)

But not all in baseball were hard core anti-semites. John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, actively sought out Jewish players, particularly sluggers. He saw them as ways to draw Jewish patrons, to help fill the stands of the Polo Grounds (he was also part owner of the Giants). He conceived Jewish players as a counterbalance to Babe Ruth's popularity (remember, the Giants and the Yankees shared the Polo Grounds for many years). His first Jewish slugger, Moses "Moe" Solomon was known as "the Rabbi of swat."

Giant Andy Cohen, a star second baseman, didn't change his name. We're shown the newspaper headline announcing it. But this also demonstrates that Jewish participation in pro ball was well known by the 1930's.

Did you know that the music to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was written by a Jew?

Hank Greenberg's influence on both Jews and non-Jews is discussed. Of course, the Rosh Ha'Shannah playoffs come up (setting the context for Sandy Koufax's Yom ha'Kippurim World Series later).

Even the All American Girls Professional Baseball League featured its Jewish players. And there is Moe Berg, a star catcher for the Giants. Moe was probably a spy for the OSS and the US Army, before there was an OSS. During the all star tour of Japan in the 30's, Moe, it seems, spent a lot of time with a movie camera. ... Well, the film provides the details ... Moe never admitted to any of it.

While blatant anti-semitism was pretty much gone by the 70's, all of the players interviewed demonstrate a strong consciousness of their roles as Jews in both sport and life. See this one, whether for the sociology or the trivia or both, it's a delight.

I'm Still Here

Against the background of archival photos and film, some of the 60 known teen aged diarists speak to us.

Anne Frank may be the best known of the teen diarists but there are many more. Some of the diarists wrote, like Anne, from hiding. Many did not make it to hiding. Many write to us from the camps. 

These "children" are articulate and penetrating.

Words fail. Faced by the events these young people lived and their words, our words must fail.

Footsteps of Goliath

This film immediately grabs your attention by showing several ossuaries from the late Second Temple clearly marked "Goliath," as if "Goliath" is a family name.

The film does not delve into the disparate Biblical accounts of the confrontation between Goliath and the Israelite champion (alternately David and Elchanan). It touches only briefly on the tactical differences between a heavily armored warrior (Goliath) and an unarmored, therefore, nimble light-infantryman (David or Elchanan).

Much of the film is devoted to analyzing the texts -- both the Masora and other texts -- to determine if the story actually claims Goliath was four cubits (c. 9' or three meters) or four amah (6'6" or two meters). Very interesting.

It also delves deeply into the Biblical references to re'phaim, giants and "men of renoun." These discussions are especially illuminating and, even absent the other points of interest, make this film a worthwhile 45 minutes.

Trembling Before G-d

This Israeli-made documentary examines the psychological torment experienced by homosexual men and women who also want to participate in the orthodox (frum) community.

The issue is that homosexuality is verboten min ha'Torah (Vayikra 18:22 and 20:13). However, these pasukim specifically use "zachar" (male) thereby explicitly not including the female (why Torah mentions only males is not explained in Torah but that is what Torah says; arguments can be made, from the very language of Torah itself that there is a pagan element to these proscriptions; arguments can be made that it is not the homosexual impulse that is avera but homosexual actions that are -- as a few chassidic Rabbis assert -- none of this, however, is relevant because of such intense partisanism on the issue of homosexuality). Indeed, it is not until the Shulchan Aruch that females are explicitly discussed. The Ari prescribes lashes for lesbian behavior, proof positive that this goes beyond Torah (because Torah invokes the death penalty for homosexuality).

"How can I be homosexual and religious (as Jews understand 'religious')?" is the cry of the people interviewed. And, as one interviewee notes, [the Rabbis found many, many ways around various things, ways to accommodate to many, many things, many ways to extend the Torah] if the Rabbis wanted to, they could find a way for these people, a way for them to participate in the community. But so many of the frum fit so very well into the "Anita Bryant" way of thinking ....

Even if the specific issue of homosexuality seems of little moment to you (though, from a Jewish perspective, the treatment of a person ("there shall be one law ...," how can it not?), the issue of how Torah is used and abused to attempt social engineering (and make no mistake about this, Torah is a social engineering document) is of ... some import to all of us.

One frumie does note that there is no minhag in the Jewish world of barring sinners from entering the congregation. If we did, he observes, it is unlikely that any shul could ever attain a minyon. 

There is an interesting discussion of R. Milgrom's discussion of this issue here. It is somewhat technical but still readable.

See this one.

The Jewish People: A Story of Survival

58 minutes, including opening and closing credits. Who can tell the story of the Jews in 58 minutes? What can 58 minutes offer me?

The short answer is "more than you might expect."

Firstly, this is not a "history" of the Jews, though it does go through our history. It attempts to answer the question "how did the Jews survive?" (It doesn't address, until much later, "why did they bother to survive as Jews?")

The history is necessarily superficial. The commentary by William Devers, Rabbi Lawerence Shiffman and Elie Wiesel, among a number of others (even appearances by Alan Dershowitz) is where the value of this film lies.

William Devers, the renown archaeologist starts by admitting the limitations of archaeology. Then, he makes a startlingly remark about the Babylonian captivity. He says that as an archaeologist, this should have been the end of the story but it wasn't.

Jodi Magness (University of North Carolina) offers the interesting and entirely accurate observation, when talking about the Persian conquest, that a people given religious freedom does not rebel. We did not rebel against the Persians (who insisted we rebuild our temple). We did not rebel against Alexander, who granted us autonomy. It is only when occupiers try to force us to become one of them that we get ... upset.

Later, Prof. Magness observes how Torah enabled survival after 70 CE. How we survived the two generations of Babylonian captivity, no one brings up. Too difficult to explain? Doesn't fit with theories?

Prof. Magness does hit on a theme that is constant throughout Jewish history, that of "community." The Hebrews/Israelites/Jews were -- as I have so often argued -- more than a simple religion. We were and are a community.

There is a good discussion of how the responses to diaspora lead to a communal reinvention. In this reinvention, the temple no longer played a central role. In fact, it played no role and is part and parcel of the Rabbis closing off prophesy.

Also quite interesting is the observation that Roman (Christian) law never outlawed Judaism. What it did was attempt to restrict the spread of Judaism. Hmmmm.....

58 minutes. It's not so long. But it's worth seeing.

The Long Way Home

Non-Jews and, indeed, Jews unfamiliar with the 1940's and 50's are often incredulous about the events of 1945-1948. They all just assume that Concentrationaires, on liberation, went to Israel or other western countries. They are stunned to learn that no one wanted them and that many were interned in the same concentration camps where they had formerly been inmates. They are equally surprised to learn that Dachau, for example, didn't close until the mid-1950's.

This film contains the story of European Jewry from 1945 through the re-creation of Israel. I suppose the producers intended to tell a story. What that story is escapes me, it is but a thin thread pointing toward emigration to Israel. If this is the story, it is a thin one.

Instead, the psychological portraits are compelling. Several American Army Rabbis are interviewed. Their reactions and consequent actions are fascinating. Interviews with survivors concentrate on their ordeals on reaching the United States where they were not accepted well; one explicitly talks of the attitude "you survived, you must have done something bad." Another mentions the "it's done, leave it in the past and move on, don't talk about it" environment prominent in the States (ever wonder why Servicemen are so reluctant to talk about their war experiences?-it was in the past, one doesn't talk about it...).

Particularly interesting is the attitudes of senior American field commanders. Patton's remarks could as easily have come from the pen of a hard-core nazi. George Marshall was little better and, as Secretary of State, only went along with Truman's recognition of Israel because he had to (or resign ... and he was too prideful a person to "quit").

Attlee, Bevin and other governments are quoted, much to the viewer's distress. One begins to understand that the U.S. (the State Department, certainly) and the post-war British government do certainly resent the nazis not finishing the job.

Forget the story the producers are telling. Watch this film for the vignettes, the interviews, watch it for the perspective it gives us about Western powers view of the survivors. 

Unlikely Heroes

We see it all the time, someone stops a robbery or runs into a burning building to save someone. Just ordinary people. They don't think of themselves as heroes and often deny the title when it is applied to them.

This film starts with the question so many have asked: How could they let this happen to themselves? How could they have gone like sheep to the slaughter?

The answer? "What do they know?" You ask this question only to show your own ignorance.

We are then treated to the biographies of seven "just ordinary" Jews and how they reacted to what was going on around them and rose to the occassion:

Put this on your "must see" list.

National Geographic: Herod's Lost Tomb

Ehud Netzer, who died recently at Herodian, spent a lifetime studying Herod, his building projects, his life and seeking the tomb.

Some time at the beginning and end of this film is devoted to the tomb and the evidence Netzer adduces that it is Herod's. The rest explains Herod's building projects and explores his life. Among the interesting features is how Masada was built and why the architectural wonder of the port at Caesarea was built (cement that could set underwater) and how it was probably destroyed.

Most important: the film makes clear why the Second Temple ("Herod's temple") was so valued by those who so completely despised its builder. I had not understood this before.

See it.

Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State

Superb six part documentary (with pretty much unnecessary re-enactments of conversations and meetings) details the history of Nazi Germany centering on the history of Auschwitz.

Starting with how the location was discovered, through its initial intended purpose as a POW camp, to its virtually accidental dedication to killing Jews, Auschwitz is thoroughly and completely documented.

Interview include survivors, of course, both Jewish and non-Jewish but also POWs, Red Army soldiers who liberated the camp. An utterly unrepentant SS guard is heavily featured. This ... person just doesn't get what he did wrong but refuses to allow deniers any traction (and he does finally admit that there were atrocities at Auschwitz).

The theft, by the guards, of Jewish money and goods is detailed. The allies excuses for not bombing the rail lines or crematoria are detailed. The reasoning behind Eichmann's attempt to sell a million Hungarian Jews to the allies are detailed. The attempts of the SS to dissociate themselves are detailed. The startling statistic: 8000 SS "served" at Auschwitz. 7000 survived the war. Fewer than 800 were prosecuted.

Empires: Kingdom of David

A four part, four hour series. As I wrote in my review for Netflix:

If you are looking for an "orthodox" interpretation of Biblical history or you have a vision of what Biblical history ought to look like, this series is not for you. 

If you are unwilling to be challenged, again, this series is not for you. 

The film features some big time heavy hitters in the world of Biblical scholarship: Devers, Richard Elliot Freidman, David Noel Friedman, Richard Schiffman, Richard Freund plus some A&E/PBS regulars (who are knowledgeable and thoughtful certainly but not in the same league as the "big boys"). 

The view of Biblical history presented substantially summarizes the current state of scholarship (at least as it was in 2003, when this series was filmed) and offers an interesting take on the evolution of the Bible and biblical religion. For those not threatened by divergent opinions, we get a good introduction to the history in Bible from the archaeological perspective and, while not unexceptional, it is certainly worth the viewing time.

We get a very comprehensible explanation of the contractual nature of the 10 Commandments from no less an authority than Richard Elliot Friedman and an explanation, from the textual criticism/archaeological point of view of the reason why monotheism causes the idea that if bad things happen, it must be your fault. Ideas worth grappling with.

We also get a nice discussion of how Job contradicts this world view.

One very interesting idea that is presented is just how revolutionary Ezra's public reading of the Torah was (and, therefore, remains). By publicly reading the Torah (whether final compilation occurred on his watch, as is the critical view, or not, per the traditional view), what Ezra did was to remove the possibility of hidden knowledge. Priestly rites, priestly rights and prerogatives were now, literally, "public domain." By promulgating Torah, Ezra ensures that everyone knows everything they need to know. (Bet the priests weren't too thrilled with that!)

A&E Biography: Adam and Eve

How do you make a 44 minute film out of the story of Adam and Eve? There just doesn't seem to be that much material in their story.

Admittedly, to fill the film out, there are several minutes of later Christian mythology and pseudographia discussions.

What I found interesting is how the commentators, two Rabbis from JTS and two professors of (Christian) theology relate Adam and Eve to us: we are Adam and Eve. Their story resonates because we see ourselves in them.

One of the Rabbis notes, early in the film, that Adam denies God by listening to the woman he loves. Yeah, Adam is us alright!

He also explains the version of the creation of Eve in which Eve is created separately. Adam needed a mate in order to be distinguished from God. God was alone; Adam was alone. God created alone; Adam worked the garden alone. Adam named the animals, a very important power in the ancient east. Knowing a name was to know the essence. God does not have sex; Adam does not have sex. Having a mate distinguishes Adam "create[d] in our image" from the real deal.

Possibly the most interesting observation comes from one of the theology professors. She notes that God does not appear to have much experience with small children (and that is precisely what Adam is, a small child). Telling a child "don't touch" is a virtual guarantee that their finger prints will be all over the "forbidden" object, just as soon as the child can get alone with the object.

A great film? No. But interesting enough to recommend.

A&E: David and Goliath

There are a number of issues with the Biblical recounting of David's encounter with Goliath. But this film uses "Goliath" to attract our attention. It is actually a bio of David and treats the battle with Goliath only briefly.

There are textual inaccuracies and omissions in this show, pretty obvious to anyone familiar with the texts at all. That said, we must ask just how important these errors are and the answer is that they are not really that important. This film examines David's character within the context of the Samuel narrative. 

It points out that there is more to this man than the great and beloved king; because of this, the well known stories are not given excessive attention. While not strongly emphasized, the underlying message is that David a typical potentate, ambitious and ruthless. The text does not, in fact, hide it -- this is what the commentators show us. The text, using typical near-Eastern court history techniques, actually tells us all of this. But David is also an ecstatic, (at least apparently) devoted to G-d. It is for this, not for his peccadilloes or for his political cunning and ruthlessness, that he is great. Overall, one of the better A&E Biblical specials.

Escape from Sobibor

A 1987 made for TV film, the first question one must have is how historically accurate is it? Certainly the film fails to detail how 90% of the survivors of the escape didn't survive the first year in the forest thanks to the Polish citizenry and Polish partisans.

The issue of how accurate the film is turns out to be easy to answer. Two of the survivors were on the film script team. The film is as accurate as a two hour presentation can make it.

Magnificently well done, we see the camp experience as nowhere else portrayed. Yet, when the first [Amalek] is killed, there is no sense of joy in the accomplishment. When the commandant is shown, near the end, close to tears, then, then there is a lightening of the spirit.

A reviewer at the Netflix web site states that every school child should see this film. I think this person is right.

Histories Mysteries: Sodom and Gomorrah

Starts with a rehash of the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Typical of popular TV, this part is fairly shallow and uninteresting.

The second part is a history of the archaeological efforts starting with Albright (1924) through the late 20th century. This part is interesting.

Finally, some genuinely interesting comments on the meaning of the Biblical story. Sodom and Gomorrah, undoubtedly long destroyed by the time Israel came into the land, therefore, before the Biblical story was actually written down. 

Sodom and Gomorrah become an "I told you so": "see what happens if you don't treat people properly!" The story of Sodom and Gomorrah turns out to be an oft repeated morality tale (there's another version in Judges 19:22 ff, using many of the same words and with an almost identical sequence of events) about the invioble law of hospitality (kind treatment of strangers, i.e., those without a local protector and that, therefore, includes the poor).

Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport

Chokes you up; moving.

We know about the parents who arranged for their children to be taken out of continental Europe. We can all imagine their anguish. I thought this film (it won the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 2001, by the way) would be about the mission to get the children to safety or about the parents.

Instead, the movie as about the children. Of course, they're no longer children, It is a series of intertwined interviews with several of the children who were "transported" and one of the escorts (the children had to be escorted but the escort had to return immediately or the children would be sent back). Thus, it is entirely from the children's point of view and, therefore, additionally attention-holding.

I learned some history:

I did not know that Kindertransport began only three weeks after Kristallnacht;

I did know that only about 10,000 children were saved while 1,500,000 were murdered. I did not know that only England, of all countries (considering the White Paper that was to be published in very next year), opened its doors to Jewish children;

Neville Chamberlain, that's "peace in our time" Neville, at the urging of British Jewish leaders, allowed unrestricted immigration of Jewish children. A few days after the meeting, the Quakers joined in urging this immigration;

As with all such things, the bureaucracy got involved. Only children under 17 were allowed in so there would be no competition for British jobs. A sponsor had to be found for each child, the sponsor also had to put up a fairly considerable bond (£50; the 2001 equivalent of over $1000);

The United States Senate considered a bill to allow Jewish children to immigrate. It was defeated because accepting children without their parents was "contrary to the laws of god." Indeed.

The perspective of the children is, if anything, more distressing to me than that of adult survivors. I don't know why. But there it is.

The children, talk about their separation anxiety. They demonstrate that they had remarkable insight into themselves and their situation (says one, "I was not a delight to have around"). There is, naturally, a degree of survivor guilt but none of the children are demonstrative about it. Many were aware, as they boarded the trains, that they would not see there parents again.

Many were reunited with their parents. Consider sending a seven year old away and getting a 16 year old back.

Against the question "Why didn't you leave?" that is so often asked, the children give us the details of how difficult everyone in the world made it (one of the children had applied for a US entry permit; it was granted 13 years later). At the same time, they are able to enunciate the measures the nazis took isolate the children, specifically, in German/Austria. Oddly, we're told how the nazis worked to keep the transports secret ... and why.

God on Trial -- Masterpiece Contemporary, 2008  

Questions without answers. If anything whatsoever can be said to come out of the Shoah, it is questions without answers. K’al v’chomer, for those who were there.

We have all heard stories of concentrationaires forming batai din and putting God on trial. There is no firm evidence of these trials actually occurred but it is truly hard to imagine that they didn’t. The Shoah dominated religious thinking, as well it should have, for decades (that it does not continue to do so is only symptomatic of our failure to deal with it and the repetitions, the "ethnic cleansings," we continue to witness, only prove that we have neither dealt with it nor learned from it).

“God on Trial” is screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce’s construction of how one such trial might have gone.

A new “shipment” arrives a day early, adding unexpectedly to the overcrowding in an Auschwitz barracks. One of the victims, a prisoner already in the barracks and now facing "selection" to make room for the new arrivals, begins arguing that God needs to be called to account for what is happening to them: “He should be here, not us.”

While the instigator is non-religious, most of the remaining inmates, religious and secular, agree to the formation of a biet din for the purpose of suing God. And, so three to serve as dayanim are found.

The initial charge is to be murder. But that is argued down (good thing as a beit din for a capital crime requires a “full beit din,” 23 dayanim).

Why is there evil in the world? Doesn’t God care? Isn’t there a covenant to “protect” the Jews? “He hears me, does nothing about it. He’s a bigger bastard than I thought …” says the accuser.

The concentrationaire is accused of blasphemy for this opening. But that is quickly argued down.

The community agrees to try God for breach of contract (one of but a few plot twists).

Oddly, given that the initial plaintiff is secular, the entire trial actually is argued within Torah. Torah is adduced in both prosecution and defense.

“What defense could there be?” We failed; we sinned, we broke the contract.

This argument, though better argued here than I have heard it in person, rings just as hollow. But it is taken seriously and defeated seriously.

The arguments that the victims are sacrifices or martyrs or that the Shoah is a precursor to a better world are forcefully presented.

These, too, are defeated. They are defeated with the argument that, if so, Hilter is God’s instrument. Furthermore, if Hitler is God’s instrument, opposing him is wrong and those who fight against Hitler, fight against God!

It is not argued that this is an absurd result.

The verdict is a foregone conclusion, of course. But this film must be seen. The arguments must be considered, especially the surprise plea by the av beit din towards the end....

Uprising

Made for TV (2001) retelling of the Warsaw Ghetto, starting from the very beginning.

Almost immediately raises the question of the nazi era: How can a moral man maintain his moral code in an immoral world?

The film does not gloss over the Judenrat or Jewish police and is based on historical characters. Their real names are used.

We all know the history. This film visualizes that story in all ... the detail one would expect. The tormenting in the streets, the betrayals, paying for our own destruction, the beard cuttings, all of these things we see. The deterioration, the intentional deterioration, of conditions in the Ghetto, we see. The self-delusion, we see.

"Can we afford to take [in] another child?" "No, we cannot." "No; we cannot; but what choice do we have?" -- this we see.

The beginning of armed resistance, we see. As well as the end.

Smuggling documentation to Churchill. This we see.

The response of the Allies, this we do not see. Of course, there wasn't any to show, was there?

The invention of the mines, laid in the street's cobbles -- an idea eventually developed by the U.S. into the Claymore anti-personnel mine -- we see. We see its use in assisting nazis to fly.

The denial of assistance by the Polish resistance. This too, we see.

Everything we know about these events, we see

See it.

  The Hidden Children

Ostensibly a documentary of Holland's "Hidden Children," a program of the Dutch resistance -- mostly devout Christians -- to hide Jews, mostly children, the film actually concentrates on Maud Dahme (nee Paper), one of the Hidden Children. This film actually uses her story to explore the psychology of the children, then and now. And, this is the film's strength.

Mrs. Dahme was hidden, in what the Dutch later characterized as a foster program, first in a small farm town and, later, in a small fishing village. The Papers came to Holland from Germany in response to Kristallnacht, like so many others. Unlike another German family seeking refuge in Holland, the Franks, the Papers all survived. In fact, the film points out that 75% of Holland's Jews were murdered, the highest percentage in western Europe.

Mrs. Dahme relates how the families who "fostered" her were devout Christians and took pains to explain to her and her sister why they had to lie about who they were and how they had to behave. Unlike "foster parents" in other countries, the Dutch Jewish children were not baptized or converted. Though, to maintain appearances, they had to attend church, with the predictable effects.

Unfortunately, while Dutch "fosters" did not forcibly convert Jewish children, the Dutch government went out of its way, after the war, to make reuniting families very difficult. The Papers' did, however, overcome the roadblocks erected by the Dutch government only to run into the psychological effects of having had to separate from their girls when they were very young.

It is these psychological after-effects that comprise the real meat of this documentary.

She traces the slow, the gradual implementation of anti-Jewish edicts and restrictions. She, and other interviewees, show how this disarmed the community. Of course, we now know that this is precisely how the nazis planned it.

Notable is Pietr Mierbert who dropped out of university in 1942 to join the resistance. He states unequivocally "we had read Mein Kampf, we knew what Hilter intended." So much for "we didn't know...."

Interestingly, Mrs. Dahme and her sister were educated, in their first foster home, by their Jewish kindergarten teacher from home. The teacher and her husband were betrayed and murdered in 1943.

Sampson & Delilah: A&E Biography

Shimshon has always intrigued me. He's not very bright, he is easily manipulated, easily tricked, has a violent temper and absolutely no impulse control whatsoever. Yet he is appointed judge in Israel. Even if his appointment is because of his military prowess, he spends rather a substantial portion of his life living with the enemy....

Is he an immensely strong ADHD child? Rabbi David Wolpe (of JTS and an A&E regular) compares Shimshon to today's sports heroes. Apt. Quite apt.

This is one of the more interesting shows in the A&E Biblical series. It actually discusses the characters in some depth, trying to understand them. It leaves me with lots to consider.

The first commentator tell us: This is one of the oldest stories known to man. It is the story of a wild man being domesticated, civilized by the love of a woman. It is "Beauty and the Beast." But, in the end, Delilah doesn't love him; Shimshon does love her.

This is followed immediately by Rabbi Wolpe characterizing Shimshon, when questions like mine inevitably come up, as not having a lot of sense to begin with, "reading the rest of the story, it doesn't look like he had a lot of judgment to start off with."

So, the characters are framed much to my way of thinking.

The story is placed in 11th century BCE, a "brutal and savage time for the Israelites." Philistines (they have iron weapons, Israel still uses bronze) dominate the land, there are massive internal disputes, the nation is not a nation (and won't be for another century or so).

An angel appears to Shimshon's unnamed mother to announce his coming birth. There is interesting observation on the repeated theme of the barren woman bearing a child throughout Torah, such children are inevitably special. This annunciation is not compared to the annunciation to Sarai. But it is compared to Jesus' (also a nazir; interesting coincidence).

Manoah, the father, chuzpahdik that he is, insists on hearing the news directly from the messenger. The angel tells the parents-to-be that the child will be a nazirite (dedicated to God -- in my opinion, the word is probably mistranslated as "Nazareth" 1100 years later). Nazirites are described as an elite band of warriors who do not cut their hair in the belief that this imbues them with super-human strength. If this was so, at that time, the term certainly changes meaning, radically, over the centuries. But this does seem to be an oversight of the commentator since Torah is clear that the nazarite abstains from

א  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
ב  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם:  אִישׁ אוֹ-אִשָּׁה, כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר נָזִיר--לְהַזִּיר, לַיהוָה. 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to consecrate himself unto the LORD,
ג  מִיַּיִן וְשֵׁכָר יַזִּיר, חֹמֶץ יַיִן וְחֹמֶץ שֵׁכָר לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה; וְכָל-מִשְׁרַת עֲנָבִים לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה, וַעֲנָבִים לַחִים וִיבֵשִׁים לֹא יֹאכֵל. 3 he shall abstain from wine and strong drink: he shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or dried.
ד  כֹּל, יְמֵי נִזְרוֹ:  מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר יֵעָשֶׂה מִגֶּפֶן הַיַּיִן, מֵחַרְצַנִּים וְעַד-זָג--לֹא יֹאכֵל. 4 All the days of his Naziriteship shall he eat nothing that is made of the grape-vine, from the pressed grapes even to the grapestone.
ה  כָּל-יְמֵי נֶדֶר נִזְרוֹ, תַּעַר לֹא-יַעֲבֹר עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ:  עַד-מְלֹאת הַיָּמִם אֲשֶׁר-יַזִּיר לַיהוָה, קָדֹשׁ יִהְיֶה--גַּדֵּל פֶּרַע, שְׂעַר רֹאשׁוֹ. 5 All the days of his vow of Naziriteship there shall no razor come upon his head; until the days be fulfilled, in which he consecrateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.
B'midbar 6
(abstinence from meat and sexual relations are not in this text but were included by my teachers)

The last, not cutting the hair, is the only outward sign of the nazarite vow and, therefore, the first thing the nazir does at the end of the vow period is publicly cut her/his hair. (After getting a haircut, the nazir offers a sin offering. Why a sin offering? The nazir is considered a sinner -- One who forgoes a permitted pleasure is a sinner in Jewish thinking.) 

See The Jewish Encyclopedia on "Nazerite."

The text of Judges is used as jumping off point for interesting droshot about Shimshon and his paramour. For example, there is a lot of interesting speculation about the psychological effects of the nazarite rules, all the things he can't do, as he is raised. As the text of Judges is completely silent on his childhood, like Joshua/Jesus (another coincidence?), there is nothing but to speculate.

Shimshon's first visit to Philistine territory is depicted as a farm boy hitting the big city. Well, we all know "How you gonna keep down on the farm, after they seen Paree ...." And, sure enough, he falls in love with the first girl he meets, a Philistine girl. (Yes, not cutting the hair appears to be the only nazirite restriction Shimson actually observes.)

More interesting discussion follows about Shimshon's developmental psychology, the rube in the midst of the sophisticates. But this rube has the strength of an ox. This helps us explain the incidents at Shimson's wedding.

On to Delilah: one commentator denies she's a femme fatal, as usually portrayed, but an independent woman, thus she is a rarity in those days, trying to carve out a niche for herself in a male dominated society. Because she has a loom in her home, inferred from two passing references in Judges 16:13 and 14), the implication is that she may not be of independent means, having mastered the expected "womanly arts" of her day, perhaps in order to support herself. This might explain why she takes the payoff to betray Shimshon (a woman alone and marginalized in the society, in need of an income, her behavior is explicable ... and she is never heard from again afterwards, like Judah (latinized as "Judas"), 1100 years later; another interesting coincidence).

Why was he attracted to her? He's an outsider. So is she, on this way of looking at her (as is Miriam of Magdala -- Mary Magdalene -- 1100 years later; am I seeing a number of parallels to the Joshua/Jesus stories?). The two marginalized Gazaites .... And, the text of Judges never makes an explicit evaluation of her; condemnatory language is never used about her by our narrator.

Shimshon's "grinding" (16:21) could mean he was put out to stud. Midrash is cited to show that "to grind" is often a euphemism for sexual intercourse (the term "sport," used a few verses later, is also used to indicate intercourse). The commentator notes that just a few stories later in Judges, "you get Philistine giants." (You know what Artie Johnson would say here.)

Yes, this DVD is worth renting.

Abraham: One Man, One God (A&E: Mysteries of the Bible series)

This DVD starts with Akedah and the negotiation over Sodom and Gomorrah to frame the question "Who was he?"

We see the dig at Ur, Abram's home town. The narration reminds us that Ur was a major cosmopolitan center, a major city. (This would imply that Abram was a sophisticated fellow, not pastoral at all.)

The Midrash is invoked, specifically that Terah was an idol maker and the story of Abram's destruction of those idols. (This Midrash plays into Kaufman's assertion that Bible doesn't understand paganism at all.)

Next: Was Abram a true monotheist? The ensuing discussion of monotheism is thought provoking.  (All other really interesting issues are skirted -- e.g., why does he go right down to Egypt immediately on arriving in Canaan, Abram's giving of Sarai to Paro, etc.)

There is a good, but way too brief, discussion of Abram's rescue of Lot (the war with the five kings). Archaeological evidence about the five cities is adduced by the renown scholar William Dever (who along with several Mysteries of the Bible regulars is featured here). Note: Sodom and Gemorrah are two of the five cities of the plain.

Importance of Sarai, even more than Abram, in perpetuating and expanding Abraham's theology is brought up several times. The commentators want us to see Sarai's central role in moving Abram's agenda forward (without ever mentioning the utter uniqueness of ascribing any role whatsoever to a woman in ancient times).

The import of Abram's negotiation with God over Sodom notes that they're pagans, not even of the same faith or tribe as Abram. Quite remarkable this, negotiating for strangers, therefore obviously based purely on principle. Interestingly, the film then draws a connection between this destruction of life with birth of Yitzhak because of the stories' juxtaposition (and, note, this is an ancient rabbinic technique).

Role of Sarah is again shown in expulsion of Hagar and the why's and wherefore's thereof. It isn't as simple as our Midrashim might lead us to think.

The film spends lots of time on the Akedah but there's not much satisfying in that discussion.

In short, entirely based on the texts and traditions but with mostly worthwhile commentary by modern scholars and thinkers. Therefore, gives a nice tam of the period like Cahill's The Gifts of the Jews and a starting point for your own reconsideration of the patriarchal tales. A good rent.

 

A&E: The Hidden City of Petra


Built by the Nabatu (Nabateans) circa 5th century BCE, Petra is located just north of the Gulf of Aqaba (a/k/a Yam Soph in Schlomo ha'Melech's times) and just about on the Israel/Jordan border.

In Bedu folklore, Petra is the site where Moshe struck the rock and brought forth water (Merabah).

Folklore also ties Petra to Egyptian Pharaohs (particularly the Pharaoh of the exodus -- though how he shows up in Petra after drowning in the sea is not explained) but almost a millennium (give or take a couple of centuries) before the city was build. The valley and its entrance are architecturally quite interesting and the valley may be an ancient holy place (placing such powerhouses as Moshe and Paro at the site would tend to confirm this).

Some argue that the canyon leading into the city and the mountain top meet the criteria for Mt. Sinai.

Steven Spielberg used it in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (So! You have seen pictures of Petra.)

The critical issue of water is explored to explain how the Nabateans managed to survive in the desert.

Petra's written language is the source of the Arabic aleph-bet.

A good watch.

 

Solomon & Sheba: A&E Biography

This film is less about the two of them than it is about Shlomo. 

A typical A&E Biography show, it is fairly shallow. But there are worthwhile moments, provided you start out with some background in the texts and in the history of those texts and stories. Much of the detail appears to come from the Kebra Nagast. The Kebra Nagast, the Book of the Glory of Kings, is an Ethiopian account of the origins of the Solomonic line of the Emperors of Ethiopia

The single greatest deficiency of the film is that there is no analysis of the court language in which the Biblical texts are composed but which can tell us so much. Similarly, the Church's impact on the Kebra Nagast are also skirted. The scholars are there to be interviewed but they are not, at least not on this subject.

The film claims it draws on Bible, midrash and Ethiopian lore. The film does discuss Sheba's color and the utter lack of importance of it. However, it gives only passing mention of political meaning of liaisons at this level.

The film starts with Solomon's genealogy, the story of David and Bathseba, but without critical analysis. How, after all, does Shlomo, the child of a later (minor) concubine gain ascendancy? And, how does he gain ascendancy so very rapidly? Much recent literature suggests that the Biblical text (especially Kings and the books connected to it, the "J" source) is actually intended to justify Shlomo's coup d'etat. The film then dances around Shlomo's elimination of all competitors (i.e., he killed his half brothers and anyone else with a claim on the throne, much as David did before him -- S.O.P. in that world in those days -- and Herod did later), though the movie does acknowledge he did not get much attention or nurturing from David as a child. In other words, right up until the moment he is appointed David's successor (he is never formally appointed; his only appointment as successor is in Bathsheba's bed, pillow talk), Shlomo was, essentially, nobody. Again comes the issue of how did he get to the head of the line?

Christian art is used throughout to illustrate the story. Sheba is white and the women's dresses are remarkably medieval. Oh well.

The tradition of Shlomo as "king of the corvée" plays an important role in the film (though, again, having nothing to do with the film's title). Shlomo's endless construction projects are discussed, as are their probable role in the splitting of the kingdom. The burden placed on the people, especially in the northern kingdom, are mentioned and examined to some degree (is the tower of babel story an oblique, satirical reference to Shlomo's building projects?-trying to bring himself close to God?). These few moments, 20 minutes into the 44 minutes of the film, are worthwhile.

Also, this is the point (20 some odd minutes in) when we finally met Sheba.

The power of the united kingdom is mentioned repeatedly and prominently but the power vacuum that allowed it to develop is not discussed. With Egypt on the decline and Sumer defunct, the buffer region that is Israel/Judea was no longer within the hegemony of either empire until Assyria rose a few centuries later (could David really have taken on either?).

Obvious women's issues are mentioned but not discussed in any detail.

 

Cast a Giant Shadow

I really loved this movie when I saw it first run in 1966. Granted the production values were sub-par, even for 1966. But I loved this movie. Okay, the script is often stilted and the performances sometimes wooden, not the best work of any of the principles. But I still love this movie.

Based on Ted Berkman’s 1962 book, the movie successfully conveys the sense of desperation surrounding the invasions of five Arab armies on Israel’s declaration of statehood, the relief of the siege of Jerusalem and David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus’ death just hours before the U.N. imposed cease-fire takes effect (the cease fire essentially ratifying Jordan ’s occupation of Jerusalem and saving the Arab armies from certain defeat).

Chaim Topol provides some comic relief as a Bedu sheik who repeatedly offers to assist Colonel Marcus by making eunuchs of back-talking subordinates, starting with Yul Bryner (playing Moshe Dayan?), and rearranging his terrain maps. The Jerusalem area Palmach commander, Ram Oren (in reality, Ariel Sharron was the Jerusalem sector Palmach commander), seems to have wet the sheik’s lap years earlier -- multiple times.

Frank Sinatra’s cameo, exiting an airplane marked “Areolineas de Panama” actually happened (okay, it wasn't Frank Sinatra but an ex-Army Air Corps pilot probably from Brooklyn). Aerolineas de Panama was the national carrier of Panama and a Hagannah front (created by Yehuda Arazi, if I recall correctly; Arazi is the force behind the “La Spacia” affair -- stealing Jews from an Italian British DP camp  -- he is played by Paul Newman in “Exodus” in which the incident is moved to Cyprus). You owe it to yourself to read Leonard Slater's The Pledge (ISBN 978059509292, recently reissued) where Aerolineas de Panama and a number of other operations are documented (e.g., Arazi come within hours of smuggling a baby aircraft carrier out of the U.S.). The Pledge will tell you what was in that first Aerolineas flight (it was important).

However, it is important to understand that the portrayal of Marcus is seriously flawed (as is the portrayal of Ben Gurion, who is played as a well-meaning but not entirely effective, almost bumbling, zayde). Mickey Marcus was not a second choice. He was in Ben Gurion’s original top five, "people we must have," list.

Marcus enrolled at West Point in 1920, a time when Jews were hardly welcome there (to put it mildly). He defended his right, with his fists, to be Jewish a number of times at the Point. In fact, he got his nickname helping his bother defend elderly Jews from local anti-semites.

Marcus was the first commandant of the Army Ranger school after having served as one of Fiorello LaGuardia’s prime reformers. He still considered a hero by the New York City Department of Corrections (where he was Commissioner after having served as a Federal Attorney). He was Chief of the War Crimes Division, planning the legal and security procedures for the Nuremberg Trials (remember, he became an attorney after completing his initial military service in the 20s; he was originally commissioned as an artillery officer). 

Colonel Marcus was not only an experienced combat officer, he was an experienced staff officer. It is this later skill that Ben Gurion particularly needed. A little known but rather important fact is that Colonel Marcus asked for and was granted permission by the U.S.  Army to serve in Palestine provided he use an alias (hence "Mickey Stone"). He is buried at West Point and is the only American buried there who died fighting beneath the flag of another country.

In short, David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus was one smart, tough cookie and a hero in two countries. One tough gaz'able, as my zaydes would say.

There is a general bio at wikipedia and some additional tidbits here.

Also see The Road to Jerusalem. Some clips from the movie are also available. (BTW, the John Wayne character is probably General Maxwell Taylor for whom Marcus worked at the time of the Normandy invasion.)

 

  Holy Land Hardball

"I thought this was manageable. I was wrong" says Larry Baras, the Massachusetts bagel millionaire (cream cheese baked into the bagel) as the tale of bringing professional baseball to Israel begins.

We see the organizational meeting and hear the decisions to be made.

Tryouts in the U.S., then in Israel. The Israeli ball field?-Provided by the Baptist Village. Here we begin to see the IBL (Israel Baseball League) starting to deal with the cultural differences. One interviewee actually compares the complexity of baseball's rules to learning Talmud. More tryouts in the Dominican Republic and the U.S.

At the Miami tryouts, a Rabbi (cutting school to come try out no less) and a 75 year old Shoah survivor take the field (neither makes the cut but they both seem to have a good time even though the Rabbi leaves early).

Finally, the player draft takes place in New York. By the time they get to Israel, customs holds their uniforms, bats and other equipment hostage. The uniforms get liberated just hours before the first game (3000 attended).

Unfortunately, while the league finished its first season, it did not return for a second.

Well worth seeing.

 

Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land: Nova


The DVD version of the program detailing R. Dr. Richard Freund's excavation of the Cave of Letters in the Judean wilderness. It offers much better quality on Netflix "instant watch" than the link from the Nova site site.

The cave was originally discovered by Yigal Yadin in 1960. Freund completes the excavation, using his ground penetrating radar and endoscopy. He argues that the incense pans are second Temple relics. This leads the narration to insights into the second temple and Rome's understanding of the national, not simply religious, significance of the temple.

We see the excavation from the point of view of the workers. We get the history of Yadin's discovery. We see artifacts as they're found or, at least, in place.

Babatha's correspondence is extensively discussed. Her letters give us important insights into life 1900 years ago and how these indicate that Jews and Romans were getting along fairly well. In other words, in the early second century C.E., there may not have been a problem between Romans and Jews until Bar Kochba.

The film fills in important details about Bar Kochba's history. As one scholar observes, "He was not a nice guy." Indeed, he may have had less stature in his day (or until Akiva endorsed hime) than his enjoys now.

We see how the cave may have been a last stand site, like Masada. And, in fact, Freund argues that this cave was a known refuge (else how do people know to come here?). Freund attempts to show a relation between the cave and the first rebellion (yes, there's a "smoking gun" showing occupation in first century).

Ultimately, Freund contradicts the general belief that Rome carted everything away. Some items (per the Copper Scroll, one of the Dead Sea scrolls.) seem to have been saved by Jews before the destruction of the second Temple.

Pagan images on these finds are discussed. The issue of use of Roman images is tied to Fruend's Bethsaida excavation. Finally, we get a glimpse into the politics of archaeology.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

One of the first "openly Jewish" big league ball players, Hank Greenberg was the first serious challenger to Ruth's home run record. He also turns out to be a regular mensch. Actually, a charming and modest mensch as you listen to him in this film (some of the footage looks like it could be home movies).

According to my father, a real sports maven (he had a signed contract with the Yankees, he was a knuckleballer, before a serious car accident and the war ended his playing days), Hank Greenberg was one of the finest ever to play the game. And, throughout his career, he was fully conscious of what he meant to baseball fans, of all religions, but especially Jewish children, in the face of the vicious anti-semitism of the 30's and 40's. (Greenberg played for Detroit at the time Ford was pushing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)

Included are accounts and his recollections of the Rabbinic dispute about playing a playoff game on Rosh Hashanah (and you thought that problem originated with Sandy Koufax; indeed). Ironically, his last session in baseball was Jackie Robinson's first. Since he'd been traded to the National League Pirates, he got to play with Robinson on a number of occasions and was, not surprisingly, one of the few to encourage and support him.

In the end, this is less a documentary about baseball than it is about both a decent man and American society. Well reviewed by both critics and viewers, you gotta see this.

I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life & Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal

There is only one mitzvah in the Torah that we are commanded to actively pursue. And that is justice ("Justice, justice you will pursue" -- Deut. 16:20).  

This, Simon Wiesenthal certainly did. For Jew and non-Jew alike, he did. Among other things, he is the inspiration for Frederick Forsythe’s Odessa File (not only is he depicted in the film, he provided the camp commandant from reality), the person who made Raoul Wallenberg a household name, he got the person who arrested Anne Frank just to spite those who denied her diary was real, and on and on.  

This biography of this remarkable man begins with his liberation at Matthausen (Matthausen was, actually, the last of several camps in which he had been interned) and the epiphany shortly thereafter which began his calling as the nazi hunter: "I saw that this was justice."  

The film points out the irony of his living, while working for the war crimes office in Linz, just a few doors from Eichmann's family’s flat.

"If a Jew don't believe in miracles, he's not a realist." Thus he responds in an interview about his work.  

"The only alternative is tolerance." So he drew attention to the non-Jews murdered, especially the Romany and the homosexuals. Here, as in his collaboration with Forsythe, he makes clear that non-Jews also have a stake in the Holocaust.

And, his sense of humor shows when he insists on celebrating his 90th birthday at Hitler’s favorite hotel. The hotel Hitler loved hosts a kosher dinner, with Yiddische music (“even the chandeliers are shaking”).

Paper Clips 

Have a box of tissues handy. A junior high school in rural Tennessee (Whitwell, TN) creates an extraordinary experiment in Shoa education. To try to visualize the 6 million, students decide to collect six million paper clips. The project snowballs, gaining international coverage. Holocaust survivors visit the school to met and talk with the students. The community becomes involved and the town ends up with and restores one of the actual rail cars, now something of a tourist attraction. Very, very well done (students and the film).

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America

This film brought me to tears, not once, not twice but repeatedly. Is it because, an Army brat, I grew up in post-war Germany and, to a degree probably not available to the average American, understand something about the state of Europe in the late 40s/early 50s? Or is it the heroism of those whose destruction was "ordained" to reclaim and reassert their way of life? Either. Both. So very, very moving.

Constantine's Sword

I remember when Vatican II pronounced "the Jews didn't do it" (actually, the pronouncement was "you can't teach that they did" -- this is referenced in the film). We had small "celebrations" (tongue firmly in cheek) over our "exoneration." Since then, I've learned more ("The only history that's important is the history you don't know" said President Truman, so accurately), much more (I had already been called a "christ killer," to my face twice by that point and I was barely an adolescent). Anti-Jewish feeling begins with the Romans (Cicero, if I recall correctly, perhaps it was Tacitus) mocking worshipping an invisible God.

James Carroll, however, correctly picks up on how the church resurrected this theme, transmuted it and gave us "modern" anti-semitism. And, from that so many others have learned that hatred is "godly." He traces its impact, persuasively, to our current conflicts. Yes, the film rambles some. But it never fails to hold your attention. At every turn, there is something which you simply have no choice but to consider. This film is well worth not simply seeing but seeing in a group.

The Scarlet and the Black

Riveting. A remarkable man, a remarkable story, a remarkable film. The few small flaws of the film, a bit of over-acting and a score that is sometimes intrusive, are forgivable. This is a superb tale of just how one person really can make a difference. I was a bit put off by the attempts to paint Pius in a more favorable light than he deserves, especially in the opening scenes (and I am aware of the recent Vatican convocation in which many of Pius' behind the scenes activities were revealed -- an acquaintance of mine was one of the 100 invitees); the silence of the Vatican remains, to this day, one of the great moral failures of all time. With the on-going priest sex abuse scandal here in the U.S., it should be so clear that a cleric cannot be moral only in private. All the more so, a pope. And, in this story, we have a simple priest, a model of what it means to live the good life. Open and notorious morality -- and, thankfully, he was not alone (and not just in this story). After watching the film, google Hugh O’Flaherty and read whatever you find.

The Counterfeiters

Dramatized, yes. True, yes. The counterfeiting in Sachenhausen is well documented and this film is well worth seeing, grim as it is and, of necessity, must be. Operation Bernhard was real. What is left out is that marking of the notes went on almost from the beginning, at least as I read about it years ago; the nazis used to airdrop pound notes over England but everyone knew exactly what they were (they were easily identified by the Brits but not the nazis -- though this may be urban legend, on further research). One can imagine the uses the counterfeits were put to (I have heard stories of cottages in the north of England where the bills were used to chink walls -- again, this may be legendary, more than fact). Also not covered is the fact that the nazis used lower quality counterfeits to pay their collaborators, Quisling (Norway), for example. A bit of irony, that.

The Exodus Decoded

The first half of this show is stronger than the second half. In the second half, I find speculation and conjecture asserted as fact rather more often than I am comfortable with.

There are, indeed, a few outright mistakes; for instance asserting that a certain view could only have been seen by Moses when that view would have been in the finished temple, centuries after Moses' death.

That said, if the viewer takes care to view this show critically, it is enormously entertaining and informative. It serves the best purpose, making one think. I was aware of conjecture connecting the Santorini eruption and the plagues. The connection attempted to Greece is both new to me and not as strongly established as the producers would have us believe. I am impressed that, among the videos on this subject I have watched, this is the first to remind us that water dictates the available routes and grazing for the flocks. (Though it doesn't mention the other necessity of the journey: fire wood for cooking.) The proffered explanation of the pillar of fire/smoke is unconvincing, speculative. For myself (and I do not remember where I first read this), a brazier, carried at the head of the column and which is a known tradition, is more likely (and also provides a central location for the people to come, when they encamped, to get fire for their cook fires). Nevertheless, this video, like others (none of which agree on much) does answer the central question: Does the Biblical account preserve a memory of a factual event? The answer is: quite likely.

Exodus Revealed

Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. I was unaware of the explorations in the Gulf of Aqaba (known in Solomon's day as "Yam suph") and these are seriously persuasive (despite, as further research demonstrated, the bogus "golden wheel"). They cannot, by the nature of things (as made clear in the interviews), be conclusive but very, very compelling confirmatory evidence. The fact is that coral does not grow in circular shapes or on sand bottoms as shown in this film. 

I do wish that Anati's proposed site for the mountain in Sinai had been discussed. I understand that not only does his site have the requisite cleft but a number of alters (70 was the number mentioned to me by an archeologist Anati invited there) which would explain the covered in smoke references. Highly recommended.

Mysteries of the Bible: Archenemy

Interesting enough, I suppose. But scholarship, available well before the date of this film, about David is ignored. Specifically, I am thinking of Halpern's seminal work (David's Secret Demons : Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King) on David which demonstrates that David is most likely to have been a Philistine vassal (to the king of Gath). As elsewhere noted, speculation is often passed off as fact. That said, there were still some interesting moments. So, this film is not a waste of time.

Shanghai Ghetto

Fascinating account of the Shanghai ghetto where several thousand European Jews found refuge during War 2. Lead by two of the former residents.

One Night with the King

Visually stunning re-enactment of the traditional Purim story. Jonathan Rhys-Davies as Mordechai and Omar Sharif as a courtier who defends the Jews.

Great People of the Bible: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob & Joseph  

112 minutes, a Readers Digest version of Bereishit. Really, this film was produced by Readers Digest!

Is that Chaim Topol as Abram?  

The film adheres closely to the text. So, it text-accurate but not historically illuminating. For example, while there are donkeys, not camels on Abram's journey out of Haran, when Eliezer goes in search of a wife for Yitzak, there are camels. Yet camels were not domesticated for another millennium. 

There is minor speculation (by way of filling some gaps in the story) about how Abram made the trip (bartering for food as he didn't know the language -- though the film's characters speak Hebrew, and a smattering of Coptic, but no Sumerian or Canaanite) from Haran to Canaan. (Okay, I don't suppose there are many actors who can talk Sumerian.) The film does not avoid Abram's giving of Sarai to Paro. However, it does not mention the second time he pulls this stunt (in the movie, this ends up being Isaac abandoning Rebeka to Abimelech, not Abraham).  

That said, like Cahill's The Gifts of the Jews, the film gives a sense of what life was like and is valuable for that. And, in the one historical (non-textual) comment, it correctly notes that Joseph indentured all of Egypt to Paro during the seven years of famine.

Defiance

Defiance got disappointing reviews from the critics (see, for example, Roger Ebert's review). It faired much better with viewers at Netflix, earning a four star rating. 

As a movie, it's good but not quite great. Production values are sometimes uneven, as are the performances. Character development, particularly Tuvia's, is sometimes confusing. For example, Tuvia's strong moral stance on acting like menchen and his sudden indifference to the beating to death of a captured nazi collaborator. Yet, given that we are dealing with complex people and several years of their lives and doing so in just a relatively few minutes, there is perhaps nothing for this.

That said, it is a riveting story (though, on further research, hardly the whole story). The people's warts are not glossed over ("forest wives" -- who'd'a thought Jews did things like that?) neither are they portrayed as saints. Their message, however, comes through clearly: "Not this time; not these Jews."

However, the best thing is seeing this on DVD, not in the theater. On the DVD are "Special Features" which are truly wonderful. On the DVD, we meet the Bielskis' children and grandchildren. We get pieces of the back story, important pieces, and the thinking of the production company. Watch the special features, they're as good as the film itself. Then google the Bielski Partisans.

Here are some links:

U.S. Holocaust Museum
Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team
Riverdale Press story on one of the original women
Jewish Partisans Education Foundation (plus some video links; you must watch "
A Partisan Returns")