The Jews, we well know, run Hollywood. But even the most unreconstructed anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist probably would never had anticipated a year like this at Sunday’s Academy Awards: three Jewish-themed films (“Inglorious Basterds,” “A Serious Man” and “An Education”) vying for the Best Picture nod and an Israeli contender (“Ajami”) up for Best Foreign Language Film.
Topping the Jewish favorites list is Quentin Tarantino’s brutal counterfactual fantasy in which the Jews get all sadistic and the Nazis get scalped.
No less a Jewish authority than the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnold Eisen, has sung the movie’s praises following a December screening at the Conservative movement flagship institution. And the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, has said the film is deserving of the Oscar nod.
“Employing drama, comedy and romance with the quintessential Quentin Tarrantino touch, the film is entertaining, yet thought-provoking,” Foxman wrote in the Huffington Post last month.
The ADL also has proffered its thoughts on “An Education,” which features an older, somewhat lecherous Jewish man salivating over the sexual charms of a much younger gentile woman. Some commentators have questioned whether it crosses the line into anti-Semitism, but the ADL is seeking to assure audiences that the film is clean.
“There is nothing in the film to suggest that the main character represents Jews as a whole or even some Jews,” the league said in a statement.
Similar quibbles could be raised about “A Serious Man,” the latest work from the consummate Jewish filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. The story of the hapless Larry Gopnik, a long-suffering physics professor who tries to do right and finds himself thwarted at every turn, it may well be the most deeply Jewish mainstream film ever made. Its cultural references are so parochial, so frequent — and in some cases, so obscure — that all but the most Jewishly literate viewers missed more than a few of them.
Eulogizing the departed Sy Ableman, the overweight shmuck who steals Larry’s wife in the film, the rabbi exclaims, “Where does such a man go? A ‘tzaddik’ — who knows, maybe even a ‘lamed vavnik’ — a man beloved by all.”
The Jewish state may finally claim its first Academy Award with Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s “Ajami.”
Following the nomination of “Beaufort” in 2008 and “Waltz With Bashir” last year the nomination of “Ajami” is further evidence that Israeli cinema has arrived.
It may also show that Copti and Shani are continuing to push Israeli films away from the political drama that has been the local film community’s bread-and-butter topic for decades.
“Copti and Shani are preoccupied with human dynamics far more than political or social ones; if issues like military policy and economic inequality are present at all, it’s simply as part of the cinematic furniture,” Steven Zeitchik wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Which may be just as well, for if there’s anything that the Best Picture nominees illustrate, it’s that hand wringing about “what it all means” and whether it’s “good for the Jews” is seemingly destined to remain an indelible feature of Jewish movie-going.